Since last year’s presidential election a number of establishment Republicans have very publicly wrung their hands over what has happened to their party. George W. Bush has even lamented that he may turn out to have been the “last Republican president,” because Donald Trump represents something so alien to the party’s tradition.
But how different is Trump, really? He’s cruder, ruder and less competent than his Republican predecessors – although on that last point, we shouldn’t forget the Bush administration’s disastrous occupation of Iraq and botched response to Hurricane Katrina. But there’s a lot more continuity than his conservative critics want to admit. If Trumpism seems to be taking over the Republican Party, that’s largely because in many ways the party was already there.
What, after all, does the modern – by which I basically mean post-Reagan – Republican Party stand for? A cynic might say that it has basically served the interests of the economic elite while winning votes from the white working class with racial dog whistles. And the cynic would be right.
And if that’s what modern Republicanism is really about, how much has changed in the era of Trump? Consider two current news stories: the House Republican tax plan and the campaign that Ed Gillespie, a consummate Republican insider, has been running for governor of Virginia.
On the tax plan: It’s a good thing news analyses keep telling us that Trump is a populist, because you’d never suspect such a thing from the content of his party’s tax plan (or his health care plan, or actually any of his policies).
True, the plan contains a few initial tax breaks for middle-income families, but these erode or disappear over time. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, by the time the law would be fully phased in, there would be huge income gains for millionaires – even bigger if you take repeal of the estate tax into account – with minimal benefits for a great majority of the population. In fact, tens of millions of middle- and lower-income families would end up facing tax increases, which is pretty amazing for a bill that would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit.
But just looking at how different income groups fare is only part of the story. Even among high-income Americans, the plan seems designed to reward those who don’t work for a living – or more precisely, the less you actually do to earn your income, the bigger your tax break. Business owners would owe less in taxes than high-earning professionals; passive investors, who just sit there and collect dividends, would owe less than those who at least run their businesses. And wealthy heirs, who did nothing to earn their wealth except choose the right parents, would pay no taxes at all.
Wait, there’s more. You may have heard that the plan would end the deductions for state and local income and sales taxes – which is true, if you’re an ordinary working American. But if you’re a business owner – or can pretend to be a business owner, since the law would open huge new opportunities for tax avoidance – you would still be able to deduct those taxes as business expenses.
In short, Trumpist tax policy is as elitist if not more elitist and anti-populist than the policies of previous Republican administrations. Same old, same old.
But what about Trump’s more or less naked white nationalism? Isn’t that a departure? Well, how different is it from Ronald Reagan’s talk about welfare queens driving Cadillacs, or the elder Bush’s Willie Horton ad? And in any case, we don’t have to argue about the past: Just look at how Ed Gillespie has campaigned in Virginia over the past few months.
Gillespie is, as I said, a consummate Republican insider, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and counselor to George W. Bush. So what does it say about the Republican establishment and its values that he has run a campaign completely focused on stirring up white racial hostility? As The Washington Post put it, “His campaign’s thrust has not been just a dog whistle to the intolerant, racially resentful parts of the Republican base; it’s been a mating call.”
So has Gillespie faced strong criticism from establishment Republicans for waging such a gutter campaign? No – there has been a bit of tut-tutting from lower-level figures, but hardly anything from people whose condemnation might matter.
In particular, if “never Trump” Republicans really wanted to purge Trumpism from the party, they’d be urging voters to reject Gillespie for his vile tactics. This column was written before Virginia’s vote, but Gillespie might well win – and if he does, the party will become even more Steve Bannon’s party than it is now. So how many in the Republican establishment have spoken up to say that Gillespie must lose if the party is to save its soul? Hardly any.
Oh, and if you’re in Virginia, reading this, and haven’t yet voted, please do. This is a hugely consequential election, and it will be a shame – indeed, a tragedy – if its outcome is determined by people who couldn’t be bothered to get to the polls.