The end of Reaganism
In the course of a few days, President Donald Trump showed how thoroughly he has conquered conservative activists and the Republican Party.
At the Conservative Political Action Conference, the attendees would have carried him in on a litter if they had been afforded the opportunity, and Republicans applauded everything he said in his address to the joint session of Congress.
The GOP reaction to Trump’s speech was one of the night’s fascinating subplots: Would Republicans applaud protectionism? Of course. Would they give a standing ovation to an infrastructure program that would have had them scowling in disapproval if President Barack Obama proposed it? Yeah, why not? Would they enthusiastically greet talk of paid family leave and investments in women’s health? By all means, sign them up.
Trump’s ecstatic reception from the right over the past week is testament to the sheer gratitude of the GOP rank and file that Trump, against all expectations, vanquished the House of Clinton.
Something more fundamental is going on, though. We are witnessing the end of Reaganism, and among the very people who were supposed to be most supportive of it. This doesn’t mean that Trump and Congress won’t pursue conservative policies — tax cuts, a defense buildup and deregulation all have a distinctly Reaganite ring — but the defining commitment of Reaganism to cutting the size of government is clearly fading.
If this commitment was always easier to enunciate than to effect, the aspiration was nonetheless important. Neither Ronald Reagan nor Newt Gingrich succeeded in paring back government, but they slowed its growth. And limited government was an organizing principle for the right.
This year at CPAC, Steve Bannon offered a different principle. He posited that nationalism unites the right, and that limited-government conservatives are just one element of the broader coalition. This view encapsulates the change wrought by Trump — in part because Reaganism had become so stale.
The conventional Republicans in the 2016 primary race hewed to Reaganism as a creed frozen in amber circa 1981. It didn’t need significant updating; it just needed reassertion — with feeling. They were too rigid, too insular and too nostalgic. They were beaten by someone who was none of those things (actually, Trump was nostalgic, but not for the Reaganism of the 1980s).
Whereas they mistook all of America for a CPAC ballroom, Trump existed outside the ideological consensus of the GOP and picked up on issues that didn’t enter the worldview of politicians obsessed with the glories of the 1980s, like wage stagnation.
Trump took his heterodox mix of policies, won the election and then could show up at CPAC and in Congress — venues where he was largely disdained 12 months ago — and bask in the adulation of eager Republican converts to Trumpism.
This Trumpism is still a work in progress. As expressed in his speech to the joint session, it is a jumble of populism (the dominant strand, with its emphasis on protectionism and immigration restrictionism), conventional GOP priorities (tax cuts, deregulation, etc.), and Ivanka-ism (family leave, women’s health).
The only thing that doesn’t fit is limited government. Trump wants both guns and butter, a military buildup and nation-building at home. He is not overly concerned with how to pay for this, or for his tax cut. Social Security and Medicare, an enormous swath of the budget, appear to be off-limits. The risk is that Trump may give us the rhetoric of Andrew Jackson, with the fiscal discipline of Lyndon Johnson.
Yet no one can be certain where this is headed. It is possible that the Republican majorities in Congress will impose more fiscal restraint on the president than he is inclined to impose on himself. And the staying power of Trump’s reorientation of the right will depend much on the success or failure of his administration.
Perhaps Reaganism, one way or the other, will emerge again, although for now, its former guardians and enthusiasts have fallen hard for something else.