Getting Trump Wrong

For obvious reasons, given the horse-race nature of presidential campaigns, the focus on Donald Trump has surrounded his recent success on the campaign trail, and whether or not Republicans can or even wish to stop him. Even Cruz backers – Ken Cuccinelli included – are getting caught up in breathless (and according to Cuccinelli and company, largely groundless) accounts of maneuvering to stop “The Donald” (The Hill). However, much of the coverage regarding Trump (including opinions of him previously offered here) labors under one critical misconception: that Trump’s corporatist strongman act is an aberration in the party – a sign of a dramatic and unexpected shift. I humbly submit that is false. Trump’s reliance on taxing the poor and government largess are what one would expect after watching the Republican Party of the 21st Century.

While the “modern” Republican Party was largely shaped by President Ronald Reagan, the pre-Reagan party was very comfortable with corporatism (i.e., using the power of government to aid favored businesses in the expectation that the economy as a whole would benefit). It was the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 that began to establish the Republicans as the party more receptive to free markets and limited government than the Democrats. However, the corporatist mentality never really went away – and after 2000, it made its presence known dramatically.

In Washington, a Republican-controlled Congress took George W. Bush’s first set of budget requests and added billions more in new spending. Bush himself later addressed the issue of entitlement programs’ financial instability…by expanding Medicare in 2003. Five years later, of course, was TARP, a.k.a. the bank bailout. Far less attention was paid to the hideous farm bill that was also passed that year (although, in that case, over the president’s courageous veto). Congress, including Congressional Republicans, were so desperate to use government to protect wealthy rural farmers from the free market that they actually sent the president the wrong bill to veto.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, Republicans have had a hand in three separate tax increase over the last twelve years. In the first case, both Republican chambers actually backed different tax hikes, leaving Mark Warner to split the difference and establish his faux “moderate” reputation. Even now, when a Democrat in the Governor’s Mansion proposes a tax reduction (however puny), Republicans in the General Assembly rejected it. Throughout the country, from Sacramento to the South, Republican Governors and legislators have shouted to the hilltops on how “conservative” they are, while enacting tax increases and hoping no one noticed.

The only difference, in Trump’s case, is that he found a way to tax poor people while sounding like he’s punishing foreign manufacturers. Yet, even here, he may not be the exception but the rule today. Have we all forgotten Ted Cruz suddenly reversing himself on free trade last summer? Or the fact that Mitch McConnell seems more prepared to take up an Obama nominee to the Supreme Court than the Trans-Pacific Partnership?

The simple (and, for me, painful) fact of the matter is that the Republican Party of my youth – the party of free markets, limited, government, and lower taxes – is in the process of transforming into the pre-New Deal, corporatist, big government GOP of old…

…and Donald Trump had nothing to do with it. He is merely the beneficiary and symbol of those who did.

Of course, the party is still in flux. By Tuesday, it could become clear that Ted Cruz has become a regional candidate – if even that (granted, that’s just my theory – and I am a Rubio guy). Of course, by then, Trump may have a lead in delegates so large as to make the rest of the campaign an afterthought. We will see.

The more important point here is that Trump – with his love of tariffs, eminent domain, and government-directed health care – is not an anathema to the party, or a deviation from it, but – should he win – the inevitable conclusion of its recent history. A Republican Party that nominates Trump has replaced limiting government with using government to protect its own cherished interest groups. This is something that has been brewing for a while, and I guess I’ve been hoping it would cease or pass in time. If the GOP chooses someone else as its nominee, then my optimism is not misplaced, and the GOP has decided limited government, lower taxes, and free markets aren’t worth abandoning after all. However, if the first four states set the trend (and they always have before this year), then the Republican Party is no longer the one that led me to support it years ago, nor is it one of which I can remain a member.

Time will tell. Stay tuned…