The establishment vs. the populists: How deep is the divide?

Victor Davis Hanson persuasively makes a point I’ve raised less cogently from time to time: The ideological differences between the “establishment” and “populist” wings of the Republican party/conservative movement are overstated:

Hanson writes, “the populist-nationalist wing is said to be irreconcilable with the establishment mainstream, but it is hard to see where too many of the lasting irreconcilable differences lie — other than the same old gripe over politicians who get entrenched in Washington and the ‘mavericks’ who want to take their place and likely turn into what they once damned.” (Emphasis added)

He explains:

Both sides in the civil war favor increased investment in defense and especially missile defense. Both are mostly now foreign-policy realists in the sense that McMaster, Mattis, Kelly, Haley, Pompeo, Tillerson, and most of the cabinet could work in a Marco Rubio administration.

Both factions are strong on the Second Amendment. Both favor bans on most forms of abortion. Both like Trump’s judicial appointments. Both oppose identity politics.

On illegal immigration, the establishment opposes a wall and likely strict enforcement, but in any national election (see Romney’s 2012 positions), their view sounds no different from Trump’s. On Obamacare, the mainstream is a bit more reluctant to repeal rather than reform, but both sides may end up supporting either.

The first paragraph glosses over the fact that many in the populists are furious with McMaster, Tillerson, and in some cases even Mattis. But I agree with much of what Hanson says here.

Hanson continues:

On security issues, there is not much Republican infighting over Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord or UNESCO, or referring DACA and the Iran deal back to Congress. Interventionists and even neocons are not damning Trump for not landing troops in Syria or not sending enough reinforcements to Afghanistan.

Trump’s views on deregulation, tax reform, and energy production are not controversial among Republicans and conservatives. Trump says he opposes optional wars, but he bombed Syria, empowered U.S. forces to emasculate ISIS, sent a few more troops to Afghanistan, and is not shy about confronting North Korea and Iran.

Hanson acknowledges that immigration and trade represent a genuine divide. He suggests the gap is bridgeable.

I’m not so sure when it comes to immigration. I also think there’s a significant emerging divide on the issue of criminal sentencing, though this issue may not split neatly along “establishment” vs. “populist” lines.

Nonetheless, I think Hanson’s main point is valid as a matter of ideological analysis. The question is whether the establishment-populist gap can be bridged as a matter of psychology.

Hanson is optimistic:

If a Senate populist such as Tom Cotton had run on Trump’s identical platform, but without Trump’s tweets and bombast, most of the Never Trumpers would have sighed but voted for him. And if an earthy working-class sort had run — a man who felt at ease with the masses but, like a Romney or Reagan, held many orthodox GOP positions, the Trump base would probably have reluctantly supported him, too.

I think he’s probably right. It’s also worth pointing out, as Hanson does, that Trump himself did just fine with Republican voters. The Never Trumpers are an intellectual force, but not an electoral one.

Hanson is also cautiously optimistic about the elections of 2018 and 2020:

[T]he economy and the avoidance of war will determine Trump’s popularity, as they have for most other presidents. If we achieve a 3 percent GDP growth rate over the next six months and a principled pushback to Iran and North Korea that does not result in war, then Trump will do well in the midterms and probably be reelected. But if the economy or stock market tanks, or we enter into an existential and messy war, then Trump will fail, regardless of what either his supporters or detractors say.

I’m not so sure that economic growth and the absence of war would be sufficient to see Trump and his party through in 2018, but I think Hanson is spot-on when it comes to 2020.


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