There have been two schools of thought about what Donald Trump's victory will do to the GOP. The "spooked" suggest that Trump's unprincipled, self-serving
populism will erode the GOP's core conservative commitments and hollow out the party's soul. The "blasé" maintain that cooler heads among party stalwarts, such as House Speaker Paul Ryan, will change and temper Trump and make him appreciate the GOP's commitments — or at least induce him to let them run the party's policy shop from Capitol Hill while Trump basks in the warm glow of the White House.
But the verdict is in, and the spooked are right. Look no further than the hundreds of Republican lawmakers who lustily applauded as Trump uttered one conservative apostasy after another during his joint address to Congress.
Already, with dizzying speed, Trump has transformed the GOP in his own image. Sure, there is some overlap between Trump's and the GOP's pet issues, such as tax cuts, school choice, regulatory reform, and ObamaCare repeal (which, if the recently released House GOP plan that Trump favors is any indication, is turning out to be a mess that is heavy on more entitlement spending and light on actual market-based reforms). But these are no longer embedded in any high-minded fidelity to limited government — just a vulgar populism.
To fully appreciate how far the GOP has drifted, consider five areas — in ascending order of importance to its own priorities — where the Republican Party has radically changed course in just a few short weeks. And this is before Trump even begins in earnest on his ominous promise to make the GOP, which has spent the last two decades fighting labor union power by passing right-to-work laws in states, a Worker's Party – a la Europe's big government nationalistic labor parties such as France's National Front.
Under Trump, the GOP has become the party of unrepentant restrictionism, even when this clashes with the free market and competition — things the party allegedly believes in.
Pre-Trump, even the most extreme anti-immigration wing of the Republican Party (represented by Rush Limbaugh and his listeners) made a distinction between legal and illegal immigration, claiming that they were only against the second. Indeed, Mitt Romney, who took this distinction at face value, wanted to make life so miserable for the undocumented that they'd "self deport," but also wanted to staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign techies graduating from American universities.
Thanks to Trump, the GOP now sees all immigrants as a potential threat to American jobs and wages, even legal immigrants, or those working in the tech industry. There are now three Republican bills in Congress to clamp down on the H-1B visa program foreign techies have typically used to live and work in the country.
For the last several decades, free trade has been the veritable sine qua non of the capitalistic right — whereas "fair trade" has defined the anti-capitalistic left. Indeed, when America was negotiating its entry into the World Trade Organization in 1995 to promote global free trade, the anti-globalization movement consisting of labor unions, greens, campus radicals, and other sundry lefty groups was holding mass demonstrations demanding fair trade. These folks argued that free trade with countries that lacked the West's tough labor and environmental regulations would trigger a race to the bottom, decimating workers and the environment. They demanded an equalization of these standards — or fair trade — before any reductions in trade barriers. The right (correctly!) argued that a free movement of goods would generate wealth, lifting billions out of poverty, while boosting living standards and the environment. Indeed, if the right hadn't gone to bat for free trade, President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, would never have succeeded in signing either the WTO or NAFTA.
Yet Trump has now embraced the mantra of fair trade — just with a different twist. To Trump, fair trade means good deals for America. He rejects the conservative claim that trade is a win-win for both sides. He's already killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership and wants to back out of the WTO and renegotiate NAFTA. He quoted Abraham Lincoln (who, despite all his other virtues, did not understand trade, bless his heart) and declared: "The abandonment of the protective policy by American government will produce want and ruin among our people."
And what is the Republican response? Hearty applause. Worse, the former free trade champion, Paul Ryan, whom everyone was hoping would stand athwart Trump's protectionist march yelling stop, is actually pushing a border-adjustment tax bill to tax imports by 20 percent. (Senate Republicans are resisting but it remains to be seen for how long.
Russia and American foreign policy
Remember when Republicans were up in arms against President Obama's overseas "apology tour"? His assurances to the Muslim world that America would return to the time when its conduct wasn't "colonial" caused conniptions among conservatives. They were enraged that Obama would even hint — hint — that U.S. foreign policy might have been less than perfect. "The Obama administration's strategy of unconditional engagement with America's enemies combined with a relentless penchant for apology-making is a dangerous recipe for failure," harrumphed The Heritage Foundation, the right's go-to think tank.
So one would think that when President Trump vacuously declared to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that there is no moral difference between American and Russian foreign policy conduct, conservatives would be horrified … right? ("There are a lot of killers. You think our country's so innocent?" Trump blurted when O'Reilly tentatively suggested that America's palling around with a murderous autocrat like Putin wasn't a great idea.) Not even close!
No doubt, if Obama had said anything remotely this heretical, the fumes from Republican nostrils would have blotted out the sun. Trump probably didn't even think before uttering his words — which is perhaps why the GOP let it go. But this silence will come back to haunt Republicans. It undercuts the party's claim to being the "patriotic" party. And should a social justice warrior like Elizabeth Warren ever become president and launch a fuller blown mea culpa to the "victims" of American foreign policy than Obama did, Republicans will be in no position to protest.
If anything used to make GOP heads explode, it was spendthrift liberals, especially when they proposed Keynesian infrastructure spending on the pretext of creating jobs. Republicans spent most of the Obama years railing against his profligate ways, especially his $850 billion stimulus spending on bridges to nowhere. Something like a balanced-budget amendment to curb deficit spending and control America's ballooning debt — that is now 100 percent of the GDP without counting America's $85 trillion in unfunded liabilities — has been the GOP's holy grail. They pulled heroic stunts (which I applauded at the time) to shut the government down rather than raise the debt ceiling without tackling exploding entitlements. And they finally relented only after they made a sequester deal in which every time the budget exceeded a capped amount, it would trigger cuts in both defense and non-defense spending.
But all that will soon be history. President Trump is planning to ask Congress to approve $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over 10 years to create "millions of new jobs" — and this, mind you, is in addition to $54 billion in new defense spending this year. As if this was not bad enough, he has declared that "our national rebuilding … will be guided by two core principles: Buy American and hire American." Government mandates that jack up the costs of projects for taxpayers are the kind of thing that made Republicans see red when Democrats propose them.
There is resistance from some GOPers to Trump's big-spending agenda. But it is so muted as to barely be audible, even though Republicans must realize that if they want to stop Trump they'll have to start crying bloody murder now, before he cuts a deal with Democrats.
If the Grand Ideas orienting the modern-day Democratic Part are climate change and social justice, those orienting the GOP are entitlement reform and fiscal responsibility. Speaker Ryan catapulted himself from a junior congressman to a respected party leader in short order by his sheer wonkish command of the chicanery of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. He has spent years painstakingly making the case for reforming these programs before America goes the way of Greece. He's been begging America to realize that if nothing is done, as the 78 million baby boomers retire, federal spending on Social Security and health care will more than double by 2050 to about 18 percent of GDP. By 2052, these three entitlements, even without ObamaCare, would consume all federal tax revenues, leaving nothing for the government's core functions. America would have to raise federal income taxes by 81 percent to pay for all the health care and pensions it has promised seniors.
And yet, tragicomically, when the Republicans finally get their own president in the Oval Office, what does he do? He pledges not to touch these programs with a barge pole and actually proposes to grow the entitlement state by extending child-care tax credits. Trump is on record calling Ryan's carefully laid reform plans "political suicide." And Reince Preibus, former RNC chair and now Trump's chief of staff, reiterated just a few weeks ago that the president does not want to "meddle" with entitlement reform.
What is the GOP's reaction? Pure denial. Ryan has decided to just bury his head and declare that Trump does not really mean it. But if the first six weeks of Trump's presidency prove anything, it's that it is a mistake to not take him at face value. However, the bigger problem for the GOP is not only that it is losing crucial time but also the moral high ground on this issue. Indeed, if it doesn't actively resist Trump's big spending plans — and there is zero indication that it is planning to do so — it will have no leg to stand on when it calls for shrinking the entitlement state. This issue will pretty much be dead for the GOP.
Trump is radically transforming the GOP. Who would have thought that the party would have caved on its core issues without even a fight.
This column originally appeared in The Week