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  • Max Stearns

Donald Trump’s un-Grand Old Party

In his retweeted, doctored, video, Donald Trump hits a golf ball that eventually strikes Hillary Clinton in the back. See here. I don’t believe that Trump intends to convey an intent to physically harm his former opponent. Rather, despite some recent legislative triangulation and his newfound dinner companions, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, see here, Trump views Hillary Clinton, and his predecessor, Barack Obama, as the true symbols of the Democratic party. And it is the Democratic party that Trump wishes to see destroyed. But destroying the opposition will not be Trump’s legacy; rather it will be rendering own party, the once Grand Old Party, un-Grand.

Separate from left-right ideological intuitions, there has long been a fundamental distinction between the world views of the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democratic party is largely defined by a loose, and shifting, assemblage of policy positions benefiting particular groups, with a focus on those that have been historically disadvantaged. But the assemblage itself was rarely united by a fundamental commitment to a core set of defining principles that provide conceptual unity for the resulting coalition. By contrast, the Republican party has long been held together by a commitment to a set of core principles, ones that leaders adjust and redefine at the margins as needed to embrace a larger, sometimes successful, political coalition. In many respects, “Stronger Together” better characterizes traditional Democratic politics than “Make America Great Again” does the politics of the GOP.

In recent decades, the Republican party coalesced around two sets of largely complementary ideologies, the traditional one, the small “l” liberal emphasis on the individual, on resilience, on hard work, and on commitment to self, family, and country. Liberalism helps to explain the counter-intuitive history of the moniker “dismal science” to explain economics: Scottish economist Thomas Carlyle, writing in the mid-Nineteenth Century, lamented that the laws of supply and demand counseled abandoning slavery in the West Indies. Carlyle deemed “dismal” the intuition that everyone is naturally entitled to sink or swim in a market economy, entirely on his own, unbenefited, but also unburdened, by notions of racial caste. See here. This tradition also explains Frederick Douglas’s famous statement, delivered thirteen years later, about what to do with potentially emancipated slaves. Douglas offered a kind of racial Hippocratic Oath: “Do nothing with them.” See here. Let them sink or swim on their own. Today, this tradition is perhaps expressed most clearly in the race jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.

Reagan broadened the Republican coalition to pull in not only Southern Democrats, but also conservative intellectuals associated with the early Law and Economics movement. Although I never joined in that conservative movement, I happily caught the L&E wave after having studied economics and political science as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and having encountered several thoughtful and enthusiastic scholars playing with these ideas in the mid-1980s at the University of Virginia School of Law. My several years on the George Mason Law School faculty solidified my commitment to the L&E methodology without shifting my political ideology. More importantly, it also never caused me to waver from what I always viewed as L&E’s central tenet. In law school, we were repeatedly told that economic analysis is positive, designed to explain. And we were constantly reminded that economics, properly understood, does not, indeed cannot, dictate policy outcomes.

In the mid-1980s, the conservative base/L&E marriage well served the purposes of the growing GOP coalition. The L&E movement added intellectual heft to a set of policies that rested on what, to many, were critically important counter intuitions, ones that Ronald Reagan had a particular gift in conveying to his base. Growing the nuclear arsenal would inhibit the risk of nuclear war; reducing taxes on the wealthy would trickle down to benefit the working class, and a wide range of regulatory policies—raising minimum wages, affirmative action, and mandated equal pay—although intended to benefit the poor and the marginalized would instead cause them greater harm. In this conceptually driven conservative framing, the goal remained to serve those most in need; the disagreement was about the means of achieving the goal.

Although my skepticism about these narratives disallowed me to join that movement, my point here is separate. When disagreement is about the means, not the ends, the Old Party remained Grand; after all, even if we disagree on the analysis, we agree that the goal of public policy is to help those most in need. Donald Trump eviscerated this GOP framing, and the tragic result is to render his party un-Grand. The causes, like Hamlet’s depression, are overdetermined, but the contributing factors include (1) Trump’s fundamental failure to understand economics or public policy well enough to embrace, let alone convey, a coherent vision; (2) his never-ending antipathy toward anyone who opposes him, causing him to insult and degrade members of the groups that, until his candidacy, were the claimed beneficiaries of policies arguably embraced to help them; and (3) of course his constant and base crudeness of discourse and conduct.

To the extent Trump has a coherent world view it is that the United States, like Trump-the-Real-Estate-Developer, operates in a zero-sum-game world, and this implies the need to always cut the better deal, never considering the possibility that a truly well-cut deal enhances the positions of all parties to it. Trumpism rejects outright the central tenet of economics: enlarging the sphere in which production and exchange takes place grows the pie in ways that ultimately hold the best prospect of making us all better off. The consequence of Trump’s zero-sum-game world view, conveyed repeatedly through his signaling about deportation, closing off trade, repealing the ACA, undoing past international commitments, all signal something visceral to his base. If politics is all about ends, not means, and if the end game implies that my win is your loss, and vice versa, it is not only acceptable to pick winners and losers; it is vital to political survival. Forget counter-intuition; be bold and be blunt. If some groups are in the other side’s coalition, then opposing those groups for just that reason is perfectly fine. Just say that in the Charlottesville march, there were "very fine people on both sides," and to hell with those who think no good people march with white supremacists and Nazis! See here. Instead of signaling strength to abate the North Korean threat, more bluntly threaten “fire and fury,” and then tweet about the real enemy, the political one, those kneeling at the National Anthem in protest of the unfair treatment of blacks through systemic racism. See here and here. If the other side embraces marginalized communities, policies that benefit women, policies that expand trade, policies that expand health insurance coverage, then success means taking the opposite view, and for that reason alone. It doesn't matter if the repeatedly unsuccessful attempts at repeal involved bills that really would make those depending on the ACA worse off. It's zero sum, so we no longer need to bother with the pretense that we are simply disagreeing as to how to make everyone better off. In Trump’s world view, the goal is not finding a better way to serve the same goals and to benefit the same harmed groups; it is thwarting the interests of those on the other side. After all, if they lose, we win.

Despite the fact that I am not, and never was, a Republican, I personally view the consequence of gutting the conceptual core of the GOP as tragic. Unlike Trump’s figurative golf swing, I do not think that destroying the opposition, or its personified symbols, serves the best interests of the Democratic party. As long as the debate remained how best to serve those most in need, there was always the basis for a common set of understandings, a bridge, if you will, between the Democrats and the Republicans. This meant that it was perfectly fine for each side to prevail some of the time and to hold each other in mutual respect, even when coupled with strong disagreement. It was also acceptable to be in the middle, as I so often was until Election 2016, based on the simple intuition that reality turns out to be really complicated a lot of the time. Sometimes counter-intuitions deserve to become actual, core, intuitions. But not always. Our goal should be to expand the pie, not to let it shrink as we grab the largest slice. At the same time, we must recognize the need to help those who struggle despite the growing pie, offering healthy slices simply because it’s the right thing to do. In the end, what is really shrinking is Trump’s GOP, and perhaps more than anything, that will be his tragic legacy.

Your comments are most welcome.

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