There have been three GOP revolutions since World War II. No telling what’s next.
The minute-to-minute coverage of the 2016 presidential primaries threatens to obscure the larger story: While Sen. Bernie Sanders is pressing former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to move further and faster down the progressive road, Donald Trump is waging and winning the third major revolution in the Republican Party since World War II.
In 1952, the factions favoring Dwight Eisenhower clashed with the fervent supporters of Ohio Sen. Robert Taft. With the victory of Gen. Eisenhower’s “modern Republicanism,” the GOP made its peace with the essentials of the New Deal and with anticommunist internationalism, setting the stage for more than two decades of consensus politics.
Speaking at Yale University’s commencement in 1962, President Kennedy declared that “the central issues of our time relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals.” The issues between the two parties had become “matters of degree,” he said—the debate concerned the “technical questions” needed to keep a “great economic machinery moving forward.” After taking the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971, President Nixon famously announced: “I am now a Keynesian in economics.”
We know what happened next. The Vietnam War destroyed the Cold War foreign-policy consensus. Stagflation did the same for the Keynesian economic consensus. The rise of the counterculture, the civil-rights movement, feminism and a bevy of social issues broke the duopoly of silence that had largely kept these divisive issues off the public agenda.
With these new concerns, the stage was set for the Reagan Revolution—the remarkable fusion of supply-side economics, anti-Soviet internationalism and social conservatism that framed American politics until Barack Obama’s election. Those ideas dominated the Republican Party until the beginning of the contest for its presidential nomination last year.
Underlying the success of the Reagan fusion was the shift of the white working class—the heart of the New Deal coalition—to the Republican side. Racial, cultural and foreign-policy concerns largely drove this realignment. Economic issues were secondary, which permitted business-oriented Republican elites to dominate their party’s economic agenda with free trade, a welcoming immigration policy and efforts to “reform”—that is, cut—major entitlement programs. As late as George W. Bush’s second term, these concerns remained paramount.
With the onset of the Great Recession, however, the alliance between the white working class and business elites began to fray. Workers blamed trade for the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs, and blamed immigrants for declining wages as well as for rising welfare expenditures and social disorder. Amid rising economic uncertainty, these voters were in no mood to put their remaining sources of economic reassurance—Social Security and Medicare—on the chopping block. “Limited government” meant cutting programs for the undeserving poor, not for working- and middle-class households.
Enter Donald Trump, who proposes to turn Reaganism on its head. Sen. Ted Cruz is right: Mr. Trump is no social conservative. He does indeed espouse “New York values,” especially the Big Apple’s relaxed attitudes on gay and transgender issues. His pro-life sentiments are a day old and an inch deep, and his religious commitments are hard to discern.
Nor is Mr. Trump an internationalist. He rejects U.S. alliances and commitments as unaffordable burdens, and he regards Russia’s Vladimir Putin as a kindred spirit. He espouses the spirit if not (yet) the letter of Charles Lindbergh’s motto: America First.
In economics, Mr. Trump rejects current trade treaties as bad bargains struck by inept U.S. negotiators and paints immigration as an assault on American workers and society itself. He doesn’t appear to care about the budget deficit and rejects cuts to Social Security and Medicare. In a rare bow to Republican orthodoxy, he has proposed a deep tax cut, but it is hardly at the center of his agenda. Few take it seriously.
In President Reagan’s first inaugural address, he declared that “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That isn’t Mr. Trump’s view; he opposes not big government, but rather “stupid” government, presenting himself as the cure for stupidity.
Nor is he what the conservative movement dubs a “constitutionalist.” How could he be, when he seems to believe that the U.S. government has at most one branch, whose powers he views even more expansively than does President Obama?
Mr. Trump’s candidacy has showed that the cadre of genuine social conservatives is smaller than long assumed, that grass-roots Republican support for large military commitments in the Middle East has withered, and that the business community is politically homeless.
So it has come to this: A mercantilist isolationist is the odds-on favorite to win the Republican presidential nomination. Whether or not he goes on to win the general election, the Republican Party cannot return to what it once was. The Reagan era has ended, and what comes next is anyone’s guess.