American conservatives are engaged in a generational struggle for the future. In the political press, with its preference for trivialization over ideas, this fight is portrayed as a mere clash of personalities jockeying for power, with Breitbart News chairman and former White House adviser Steve Bannon in one corner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in the other.
But this battle is bigger than the posturing between these two men and their aides. Its stakes are higher than who won the Alabama special election. On one side are McConnell & Co.’s tired grab bag of 1980s-era slogans — free trade, supply-side economics and American exceptionalism — that, although good ideas, seem to have lost their sense of urgency. On the other is a vibrant new conservatism that takes on the challenge posed by an ambitious, bellicose China, the moral imperative of a pro-citizen immigration policy and the necessity of trade policies that strengthen the middle class rather than undermine its economic foundations.
Under the McConnell regime, too many Beltway Republicans continue to see the base of their own party as the problem, a resource to be used in even-numbered years to fill campaign coffers and pull levers — a necessary evil, not a participant citizenry. In this context, many Republican incumbents look conservative only in the sense of being cautious and resistant to change.
If 2010 was a wake-up call for the Washington establishment, then 2016 was the start of a revolution when 63 million voters rallied to then-candidate Donald Trump’s calls to “drain the swamp.” And if Trump’s White House position requires him to cooperate at times with McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan, Bannon’s new perch outside the official White House structure allows him to use the energy of this new movement to overturn the existing Republican power structure and build something new and, ideally, more responsive to voters.
Despite a year’s worth of overwrought anti-Trump rhetoric from certain quarters on the right decrying the imminent rule of the one — the tyrant — many rank-and-file Republicans see oligarchy — the rule of the privileged few — as the real threat. In this view, too many elected Republicans are willing to see elites consolidate power at the expense of the people, so long as they can retain their offices and perquisites.
The Bannon wing of the party offers an essentially class-based critique of the nation’s economic and political woes that argues that the people have lost control, and that they have been superseded by an economic, cultural and political elite. The fulcrum in this war of ideas is President Donald Trump. From the moment he came down the escalator, Trump has instinctively sided with the base, channeling its anxieties and aspirations and becoming its tribune. Doing so won him the election but engendered some lingering antipathy from party bosses. Now as president, he is head of the party and must work with Republican leaders in Congress, who are often hostile to the ideas, and maybe the people, behind Trump’s victory.
To persuade or cajole the Republican Congress he inherited to enact his agenda, Trump must make both the intellectual and political cases for a new conservatism. He was able to win more voters than any Republican candidate in history and now must be part of the effort to convince elites if he wants to remake the Republican Party the way President Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s.
The cognitive dissonance within the Republican Party that Trump and his allies must resolve is evident in the tax bill. It’s a hash of rate reductions and elimination of deductions that does not advance any clearly articulated principle other than the belated recognition by congressional Republicans that they must accomplish something or risk voters’ wrath. It would have been better for Republicans to make sure that the working and middle classes directly experienced the benefits of tax reform. In addition to rate reductions for high-income earners, Republicans could include tax credits for hiring U.S. citizens and for tuition, and exemption of some income from the payroll tax. Each would provide more tangible benefit than some small rate reduction.
Still, elimination of the Obamacare individual mandate fulfills a promise and hands the president an important political victory. It’s about time, because the base, which overwhelmingly backed Trump, is impatient with the infuriating combination of insouciance and threadbare slogans offered by Republican elites.