Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Has Donald Trump permanently transformed his party? Has the old GOP – the party of limited government, low spending, free trade and constitutional rectitude – metamorphosed into something altogether more nativist, protectionist and autocratic? Will the next Republican presidential nominee inescapably be a Trumpster – or, indeed, an actual Trump?
Hmm. As T.S. Eliot nearly wrote: “Gentile or Jew / O you who turn the wheel and look to windward, / Consider Corbyn, who was once handsome and tall as you.”
Consider Corbyn. He, too, was said definitively to have refashioned his party. His eventual successor, we kept being told, would be chosen by the same Momentum-heavy electorate that had picked him. Communism was back, baby.
Yet here we are, less than a year on from his defeat, and Labour has swung so convincingly back to the mainstream that the Absolute Boy could be suspended with barely a ripple.
Trump and Corbyn have more in common than partisans of either man admit: outsiders who seized their parties by appealing to the base, but who never overcame the suspicion of their elected representatives; agitators who were more comfortable addressing rallies than working within democratic institutions; radicals who promised to bring down the old system; economic nostalgics who wanted to bring back manufacturing; political loners who were followed on their own account.
Might the GOP dump Trump as unsentimentally as Labour dumped Corbyn? Possibly. But there is a difference between what the two men stood for. Corbynism, although it had individually popular elements, was a fringe creed. Trumpery, by contrast – and I’m defining it loosely here as a combination of patriotism and economic activism with a dash of Führerprizip – has a certain appeal. Leaning Left on economics but Right on social and cultural issues is usually a vote-winner.
Most GOP Congressmen are uneasily aware that classical liberalism and strict constitutionalism have only limited appeal among their supporters. Almost every elected Republican I have spoken since the poll believes that Donald Trump lost, that his refusal to concede is petulant, and that his behaviour threatens their hopes of winning next month’s Senate elections in Georgia and thus keeping control of the chamber. But they won’t say so.
Why not? For fear of their base. Voice even the mildest criticism of Trump and his supporters will piranha-shoal around you in a frenzy (something else he has in common with Corbyn). I decided to test the premise while writing this article. Choosing my words carefully, so as not to be unduly provocative, I experimentally tweeted the following: “my hunch is that quite a few elected Republicans believe that Trump is behaving disgracefully, but won’t say so for fear of their audience.”
As expected, I immediately attracted 500 furious comments and lost a similar number of followers. But I have no real skin in the game: I am not an American politician. Perhaps we should feel some sympathy for those with actual votes to lose.
Still, Republican Congressmen and Senators cannot keep shtum forever. In the end, it is up to them to determine whether Trump will be an aberration, Corbyn-like, or whether the party of Reagan has gone forever.
Yes, Trump did some things that mainstream conservatives liked: cutting taxes, lifting regulations, appointing judges who ruled on the basis of what the law said rather than what they felt it ought to say.
But these are precisely the areas where he took little personal interest, and was content to leave the details to those swampy establishment Republicans he was so rude about. In exchange, traditional conservatives were astonishingly forgiving about every other aspect of his presidency. Foreign policy hawks overlooked his submissiveness before Vladimir Putin. Evangelical Christians ignored his lies and adulteries. Tea partiers did not protest when, pre-Covid, the deficit went above a trillion dollars.
With each passing month, the GOP attracted Trumpier representatives – for example, Josh Hawley elected to the Senate from Missouri two years ago, who blames what he calls “market worship,” for “the collapse of community.” At the same time, established figures, such as Florida’s Marco Rubio, began to shift their positions, dropping their former optimism and raging against the offshoring of jobs. The Coronavirus will almost certainly accelerate these authoritarian and anti-market tendencies: crises of this kind always do.
Yet the fundamental premise of Trumpism, namely that globalisation is bad for ordinary people, is false. Nothing has done more to boost the living standards of people on low incomes than the reduction in the cost of living brought about by the removal of trade barriers. Reagan knew how to win that argument. Who will make it today?
Let’s not fall for the idea, often asserted but never substantiated, that Trump has a unique capacity to reach blue-collar voters. This legend was born in 2016, as shell-shocked pundits scrabbled to explain why they had been wrong.
But it is impossible to reconcile with the way Trump was outpolled by down-ballot Republican candidates. This was clearest in the Senate races, where the electorates were exactly congruent. Trump did worse than Republican Senate candidates in almost all the swing states: Georgia, Colorado, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. He was five points behind John McCain in Arizona, three points behind Marco Rubio in Florida and nine points behind Chuck Grassley in Iowa. Although we must wait for the final tally to be sure, early indications are that something similar happened last week.
The myth of Trump and his unique appeal to callused Pennsylvania steel-workers or stump-toothed Appalachian mountain-men or whatever is so widespread that it is hard to prise away. But there is a more plausible narrative. In 2016, it was the Democrats’ turn to lose, and they picked an unpopular candidate. Despite her disqualifications, she still won a plurality of the vote against a Republican who was less popular than his party. Four years on, with a mildly more appealing candidate, the Democrats scraped over the line.
If that analysis is right, it is good news for traditional small-government Republicans. But only if they man up and do something about it.