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How the Republican Party failed Donald Trump’s voters

CLEMSON, S.C. - FEBRUARY 10: A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump recites the Pledge of Allegiance during a rally for him at the T. Ed Garrison Arena on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. (Photo by Kevin D. Liles/For the Washington Post)
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A spirited debate has broken out among some conservative writers over Donald Trump, and whether his appeal to disaffected working-class voters holds any lessons for conservatives. The question is not if Trump can or should win the Republican nomination. It's if his success thus far should cause conservatives to rethink any of their policy agenda

Some prominent writers argue it does not. In the process, they deride not only Trump, but also his supporters. Trump backers are "economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency," Kevin D. Williamson wrote last week for National Review. Later, he added: "It is unlikely that such voters can ever be entirely assimilated into the mainstream of American conservatism."

Rising to defend Trump voters - and criticize conservatives who dismiss them - was Michael Brendan Dougherty, a conservative columnist for The Week. In a column responding directly to Williamson, he argued the conservative movement was full of ideas for how to help a cocaine-snorting financial professional in Connecticut (mostly by lowering his taxes) but "next to zero ideas for improving the life of the typical opioid dependent who lives in Garbutt, New York, outside of Rochester", whom he dubbed "Mike."

That column prompted a prolonged and at times barbed exchange on social media, which grew to include other writers and, eventually, more columns. (Williamson, for example, argued that what conservatives have to offer "Mike" is the same as they always have: stronger economic growth, which will boost his standard of living.)

It is an important debate, for conservatives and otherwise, and will only grow more important the longer Trump leads the polls. As Dougherty put it in an email exchange this week, "Even if the Trump phenomenon fades somehow, the underlying political problems his candidacy has highlighted will remain with us."

In that exchange, Dougherty made his case for why conservatives in particular should take those political problems very seriously.

Tankersley: Is your diagnosis that Republicans (and Democrats, for that matter) should have done something different on a policy level to protect working-class whites from the shocks of the last 15-25 years? What would those be? Tariffs? Retraining? What should conservatives have done to help Mike?

Dougherty: I don’t have any obvious policy fixes. The problems are complex.  My columns talking about the disconnect between GOP policy and the interests of Trump voters is partly an attempt to convince the smartest policy minds on the right to acknowledge this disconnect and begin thinking about it more seriously.

I do believe the rest of the World was going to catch up, I think the digital communications technology, the continued development of trade routes, and the fall of the Iron Curtain were going to bring dramatic disruption to the post- Cold War American economy no mater what. But, I think it’s safe to say that it had more costs than many on the right anticipated, and those cost were more concentrated than we imagined.

On immigration, members of both parties could have followed some of the recommendations of the Jordan Commission on Immigration in the 1990s. A limited, controlled, skills-based immigration system makes more sense economically, and socially. Tucker Carlson recently joked that the day Guatemalans become green-energy lobbyists, that’s the day his Washington DC neighbors become nativists. And George Borjas has successfully refuted the idea that mass low-skilled immigration has no effect, or a positive effect on wages.

Do you disagree with the idea that faster growth will solve all of these problems? Why?

We’ve had periods of great economic growth in the past quarter of a century. But certain groups and regions of the nation experienced a real decline anyway. Much of the growth was captured by the top-earners. There are some new challenges in the system. Some well-paying jobs for people without college educations go unfilled for long stretches. Why? The pace of internal migration for job seekers within the United States has slowed, why? Is it because employers are less loyal to individual workers, and so the value proposition for moving to find a job is lower? Is it family breakdown? It becomes harder to move from the de-industrialized Northeast for a machinist job in South Carolina if it means leaving behind children with an ex-wife or partner. Is it the rise of single men, who don’t feel the need for work as urgently? Is it the decline of other mediating institutions that could paternalistically shepherd job-seekers into employment? And if government cannot change those things, what else can it do?

Why are conservative leading having such a tough time finding policy approaches that ring true to working-class voters? Are the Mikes of the world too easily persuaded by what I might call magical thinking solutions – for example, the idea, which you hear fairly often from Trump supporters, that Trump as president would essentially “renegotiate” the terms of trade and business in order to boost the working class?

Because the burden of taxation overall falls on the highest-income earners and those in the investor-class, the advocates of a small-government philosophy naturally find themselves allied with those voters when talking about reforming government or removing the economic burdens of government. Libertarian-leaning economists love to advertise that free trade deals mean cheaper everyday consumables that are available to lower income Americans, they don’t talk as often discuss how free trade makes it easier for America’s wealthy to invest their capital in cheaper foreign workforces. I think we all know who got the better overall end of the deal and who paid the cost for it.

When conservatives think of American trade negotiators and diplomats working to lower the barriers to American capitalists investing in overseas workforces, they see it as a core function of government, not as a kind of favor to wealthy clients of the American state. But if the same negotiators had in mind the interests of American workers instead, they see it as corrupt protectionism, that coddles the undeserving. There is a huge failure of imagination on the right. And a failure of self-awareness.  It may also be that I don’t see conservatism’s primary duty as guarding the purity of certain 19th century liberal principles on economics. I see its task as reconciling and harmonizing the diverse energies and interests of a society for the common good.

I agree that Trump offers some magical thinking. But the Mikes of the world have basically an intuition that the normal candidates are offering the same kind of policies that have been in place for the past quarter of a century. Everything about Donald Trump signals a dramatic disruption of business as usual. For many of them Trump is worth a shot. Or, at the very least, he angers the right people.

Do conservatives have more than just an obligation to help Mike get ahead again, economically? Should they be looking for policies that also preserve his attachments to family, place and the values he grew up with? If so, what might those be?

I just think the Republican party can’t fulfill its role in our society and politics if it tells perhaps 1 in 5, or 1 in 3 of its supporters that their economic interests don’t fit into the party elite's 19th century Manchester liberal philosophy.  I believe any good society (and this includes the state) should aid individuals to preserve their attachments. That is a large part of what it means to be a nation. But we can’t go off half-cocked either.

I remember feeling some enthusiasm when President George W. Bush promoted his ownership society, as it seemed to touch on exactly these themes. The government was going to encourage people to be more invested in their homes, communities and towns. We would encourage wage-earners toward a more bourgeois existence. But if the reality of the ownership society meant encouraging people to over-invest in an inflated asset, their home, and that means they can’t move to find work when the crash wipes out their livelihood, then we’ve done more harm than good.

Even if the Trump phenomenon fades somehow, the underlying political problems his candidacy has highlighted will remain with us. We need to begin thinking again, not just re-iterating  the same formulas from the 1980s.