Donald Trump in 2016 elicited eye-rolls from K Street Republicans and chuckles from self-satisfied liberals when he promised to make the Republican Party a working-class party. Then Trump went ahead and won Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, largely by over-performing among union households.
Almost overnight, the Left’s stereotype of a Republican swung from detached country-club elite to dumb uneducated brute. Two years later, Democrats took over the House of Representatives, in part, on the strength of that country-club vote — the upper-middle-class white suburbs that had loved Mitt Romney but disliked Trump.
Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012 had spurred some of us to get a lot louder in calling for a fusion of populism and conservatism. Our calls for “free-market populism,” or “libertarian populism” got some attention in 2013. We pointed out the policy reasons to embrace populism: cronyism and corporatism were on the march in the Obama era, for instance. We also pointed out the political reasons to embrace populism: Romney had lost largely because he couldn’t motivate working-class white voters in the Midwest.
The political analysis in 2013 was focused on white working-class voters, because they were the swing voters. They were the ones winnable for a populist Republican in 2016.
Well, we got the populist Republican, just not the free-market populist we had wanted. More crucially, by skipping a more coherent policy platform, and going straight at the populist rhetoric and politics, Trump was building not a movement, as Ronald Reagan did, but merely an electoral coalition focused on the swingiest voters.
Thus, Trump made the GOP a white populist party.
Assembling an electoral coalition that can squeak by in rust-belt states against a corrupt and hated opponent is very different from assembling a lasting movement rooted in shared idea of what the good life is, and what government’s role is in that.
Simply on the question of winning in 2016, Trump’s may have been the easiest route. But his route has major downsides. Building the GOP as a white populist party has a moral downside: It excludes minorities and immigrants, and cultivates racial resentment by casting non-whites as scapegoats in the suffering of the white working class.
And politically, it’s not durable. For one thing, America’s working class is becoming less and less white.
If you count the “working class” as adults in the workforce (employed or unemployed) who do not have a college degree, then the working class is less white than the rest of America, and becoming less white every year.
In 1970, according to one analysis, America’s working class was 89% white. The white percentage of the working class has fallen steadily—and more rapidly than the white percentage of all Americans—and now the working class is less than 60% non-Hispanic white. By comparison, the adult population of the United States is 64% non-Hispanic white.
The demographics mean that a political and policy platform that legitimately sought to lift up the working class would be one that is disproportionately aimed at lifting up non-white Americans. Indeed, Trump has repeatedly touted the record low unemployment among Hispanic and black adults. It would be nice if he regularly focused on helping these populations rather than pointing to their good employment outcomes as a way of asserting some claim to their support.
There are plenty of policies that are conservative and that serve the working class of all races, but which the GOP has long ignored. On immigration, for instance, Republicans have gone straight from a Big Business agenda of importing massive amounts of cheap labor to a very restrictive Trumpian immigration policy built on overt hostility to Hispanics and other foreigners.
Both Republican immigration frameworks have included tens of thousands of visas for low-skilled guest workers. Low-skilled guest-worker visas are recipes for exploitation. They are precision-guided weapons to drive down working-class wages. Guess who suffers disproportionately from these programs? African Americans and Hispanics, including legal immigrants who are already here.
A deeper free-market populism would eliminate these guest-worker visas.
Other inclusive-populist policies would include cutting payroll taxes and rolling back occupational licensing requirements. Criminal justice reform would be central.
Today, when pundits talk about the working class, they talk about white men, and when we think of populism on the right, it’s tied up with white identity politics. That’s too bad. Conservatives should change that by cultivating a conservative populism that focuses on the working class of every color.