Aaron Baker: Republican strategy come November

Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 5:53pm

With the midterms approaching, Republicans have an important question to ask themselves: Am I ok with President Donald Trump becoming the next Ronald Reagan? Reagan reshaped the Republican Party’s policies, strategies and style for generations to come. Trump is on course to do the same. This should be a scary thought for everyone, especially Republicans.

 Trump enjoys a 93 percent approval rating among voters who identify as strongly Republican. Yet many of Trump’s strongest critics in the Republican Party have left office, including 40 Republicans in Congress. The Republican primaries have been a success for Trump, with 35 of the 37 Republicans Trump endorsed victorious in their respective elections. The Republican National Committee is run by a former Trump campaign chief and has been shaped in Trump’s image. Once the source of ideas and policy initiatives, the RNC, in pure Trump style, now has a website called LyinComey.com, which has the sole purpose to attack James Comey, former director of the FBI. Polls of Republicans show Trump is changing minds in the party base. Once settled issues in the court of Republican opinion, tariffs and Vladimir Putin’s role in the world are now becoming increasingly positively acceptedby Republicans. The hope that Trump would be shaped more by the establishment of the party than vice-versa is dead.

You might be thinking Trump should be considered a conservative president because he’s passed some conservative policies. But he’s too inconsistent. He passes tax cuts while embarking on a quixotic protectionist mission against China. He increases military spending while undermining the alliance system that has been the hallmark of U.S. security policy since the end of World War II. He supports Israel, but also anti-Semites.  

Trump is so inconsistent because he doesn't have any normative or moral compass. His only guidance seems to come from considerations of power. The organizing principle of his trade policy is that we win and our trade partners lose. He has no problem attacking the media, institutions, individuals or even his own cabinet members if he thinks it makes him look good. For Trump, major decisions are a calculation of power rather than principle. He’s a drunk man’s Niccolò Machiavelli. Trump’s singular obsession with power is what makes him fundamentally different than past modern conservatives. Trump’s view of American exceptionalism is devoid of values.

Reagan’s brand of conservatism saw America as a beacon for freedom on the global stage and a city on a hill for anyone who sought freedom and opportunity. Domestically, the party under Reagan promoted smaller, more efficient government and a free market, which included free trade, as to avoid hindering individual ambition and innovation. But I’m not arguing the Republican Party or its values were perfect before Trump.

There’s a reason Republicans have long struggled to capture minority votes. Illiberal populism that deals in racism, sexism and homophobia has existed on the right to different degrees since the Civil Rights Act. But the Republican Party has had some grand moments. I can name a few: taking a decisive stance against the Soviet Union, granting amnesty to 3 million undocumented immigrants, rigorously upholding a liberal international order which promotes human rights and freedom and promoting free trade around the world.

Even if you strongly oppose these traditionally conservative values, it’s still beneficial for everyone that the Republican Party has values to which it can be held accountable. It's important for political parties to run on values or ideas with policies that are as consistent as possible. When they don’t, elections tend to descend from a clash of ideas to a clash of tribal and cultural loyalties. Such a clash of tribal loyalties will only make our polarized political system more fragmented.

Today, the Republican Party is being reshaped. It’s being reshaped to care only that America is strong and that its enemieswhich are an ever-growing list of countries, institutions and peopleare weak. It’s a party that terrorizes migrant children by placing them in detention centers and tries to deport even those who have known no home but America. It’s a party that is cutting the number of legal immigrants because it believes people from certain backgrounds have less to contribute. It’s a party that doesn’t believe in free trade. And who cares if dictatorships and illiberal regimes spread across the world? They want strong friends, not morally upstanding ones. To Trump’s Republican Party, defending American exceptionalism means upholding sovereignty, borders and brute strength rather than upholding freedom, global prosperity and human rights. Trump’s view of America is unexceptional. It mirrors the way strongmen around the world view their countries.

The midterms are a referendum on Trump’s politics. A defeat of Trump’s candidates could awaken the establishment and the base of the party. Republicans should thus vote Democratic or not vote at all. The fact is that Trump’s politics are not a stable foundation to base the future of the party. Millennials will outnumber baby boomers by 2019, and Trump and his policies are very unpopular among millennials. Trump relies on nativist sentiment that speaks to a white-majority nation. Before 2050, white Americans will not be a majority. Even now, despite Trump’s attack on immigrants and our immigration system, most Americans see immigration positively. Former State Secretary Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million while being a very unpopular candidate during the 2016 election. What happens when the Democrats find a charismatic candidate again?

Many Republicans likely support Trump and his views because they think he’s better than any Democrat would be. But such dialectical thinking has limits. What does Trump have to do for that not to be true? Start a trade war that will cost consumers and could actually ruin Christmas? He’s already done that. If you’re a Republican reading this, the next time people are outraged at Trump, please think about what our president has actually done. Ask yourself, “Would I be okay with Obama or Bush doing this?” Only then can the Republican Party reshape itself again, taking the best of its previous foundations and better adapting to the 21st century.

Aaron Baker can be reached at aaronbak@umich.edu.