The American right could use a lot fewer talk-radio shouters and a lot more policy intellectuals. But that doesn't mean intellectuals are especially good at grasping what's going on in the minds of Republican voters.
Intellectuals of all stripes have spent a lot of time since Donald Trump rose to the top of the Republican primary field during the fall of 2015 trying to figure out just what's going on in the GOP. Many conservative intellectuals, especially the so-called "reformocons" who spent the Obama years trying to persuade Republican politicians that the party should espouse a more economically populist policy agenda, have tended to assume that Trump succeeded in winning the Republican nomination and then the presidency at least in part by rudely and clumsily tapping into a latent desire among GOP voters for economically populist policies.
But is it true?
Three of America's smartest right-of-center intellectuals certainly seem to think so. In a stimulating and thoughtful conversation, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, Henry Olson of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Daniel McCarthy, the former editor of The American Conservative and the newly appointed editor of the quarterly journal Modern Age, discuss the future of the GOP and conclude that economic populism (and, in McCarthy's case, a shift toward realism and restraint in foreign policy) is where the party needs to go in trying to respond to the needs and desires of its base.
Where they disagree is mainly over the extent to which President Trump himself helps or hinders the cause of shifting the party away from zombie Reaganism (upper-income tax cuts with no direct help for the struggling working class; a reflexively hawkish foreign policy) and toward an agenda that would turn the GOP into something like the "workers party" that Stephen Bannon and Trump himself have exhorted it to become. But about the need for that shift they are very much on the same page.
A year ago — even as recently as a few months ago — I would have endorsed something like this view myself. But no more. The president's low-but-incredibly-stable approval ratings, combined with some recent in-depth opinion polls of Republican voters, show us that the GOP base is at once sharply divided about public policy and almost entirely indifferent to it. And this means that the Republican future that Douthat, Olson, and McCarthy hope to midwife is exceedingly likely to be stillborn.
How do we know this? Because the polls simply don't support the claim that Republican and Republican-leaning voters as a whole (or anything close to a whole) want their representatives to break from Reaganism and embrace an economically populist agenda. What the polls show is that the party is sharply divided, with between one-third and two-fifths of voters supporting a continuation of Reaganism (lower corporate taxes and lower taxes on household income over $250,000/year) and slightly more than half favoring the same or higher rates. The same sharp divisions show up on questions touching on immigration, free trade, and gay rights.
That's a portrait of a party lacking any consensus, across a range of policy issues, of what to do.
But how can that be, when President Trump continues to enjoy the approval of around 80 percent of Republicans? Given the deep fissures in the party over policy and Trump's decision to go along with Reagan-inspired tax cuts and efforts at stripping millions of their health insurance while breaking almost all of his more populist promises, you'd expect a much bigger chunk of the party to revolt: "Hey Orange Man, where's the massive infrastructure bill we were promised? And how about NAFTA repeal? Or that trade war with China?"
But we've seen nothing of the sort. The Republican electorate continues to like Trump — whether he's cheering for corporate tax cuts, or pushing (and failing) to dismantle ObamaCare, or trying (and failing, repeatedly) to impose a travel ban on Muslims from a continually shifting list of countries, or failing even to bring up the subject of infrastructure.
The only plausible explanation is that Republican and Republican-leaning voters don't particularly care about policy at all. What they care about is the only distinctive thing that Trump provides them — a potent and vicariously satisfying display of rhetorical animus directed against Democrats and their supposed enablers in the media, without any consistent or coherent link to a policymaking agenda.
It's all negative partisanship, all the way down.
As long as this remains true — and I see nothing that's likely to change the dynamic anytime soon — the debate about policy among conservative intellectuals will be beside the point. It will amount to intellectuals talking to each other about what should happen without anything like it actually happening. That's because doubling down on Reaganism won't unify and galvanize the party, and neither will Sens. Mike Lee and Marco Rubio co-sponsoring a big infrastructure bill.
The only thing that will unify and galvanize the party is red meat — flagrant and ever-more-rabid displays of raw partisanship in which Democrats and the media are treated like foreign invaders out to destroy all that is good and great about America.
That’s what President Trump gives them, and that’s all that Republican-style populism is ever likely to amount to.