By Joel Kotkin
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of this publication.
Given the likely defeat of Donald Trump, a functionally headless Republican Party is destined for a period of reflection. Trump himself, for all his rudeness and often unnecessary, divisive rhetoric, has transformed the Republican Party from being a bastion of the establishment to a voice for America’s working and middle class.
In the aftermath of Trump’s narrow defeat, the media will likely push “respectable” anti-Trump front groups, like the Democratic funded AstroTurf Lincoln Project and others who backed Joe Biden. But given Trump’s extraordinary support among Republicans, these onetime GOP media and political operatives have a stronger affinity with today’s Democrats who, increasingly, resemble the old Republicans, with lockstep support from the upper class, notably on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, as well as law and professional service firms.
Certainly, the “party of the people” is where the money is: Overall Democratic campaign spending has more than tripled since 2008, running this year about two times that for Republicans. The upcoming cataclysmic battle to win the Georgia Senate seats already started with a big Silicon Valley fundraiser. As the Democrats have gathered in the .01%, Trump won three-quarters of the white working-class vote, down slightly from 2016, and made significant gains with racial minorities. (RELATED: The Birth Of A Multi-Ethnic, Working Class Conservatism)
American Needs a Middle- and Working-Class Party
The working class did poorly under former President Barack Obama, as well as his gentry Republican predecessors, while their incomes rose during Trump’s brief presidency before COVID-19. This may explain why even with the amiable Irishman Joe Biden atop the ticket, the Democratic brand is “not good” among working-class voters, as lamented by Rep. Tim Ryan who represents hardscrabble Youngstown in Congress. This conclusion was also drawn by the campaign experience of presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
As of today, both the middle and working classes have little reason to adhere to a mainstream political party. The reasons go beyond cultural reaction or racism, as some progressives insist. When Trump lambasts free trade and China, he may alienate much of the corporate elite, but the message appeals to people and communities that lost, according to one labor-backed group, 3.4 million jobs between 1979 and 2017 to the Middle Kingdom.
Trump has done best with those who work with their hands, in factories, the logistics industry and energy. These working-class voters, notes a recent study by CityLab, repair and operate machines, drive trucks and operate our power grid. Some progressives suggest it’s time for Democrats to abandon the working class and rely instead on educated millennials, minorities, and professionals as well as globally oriented businesses. This seems likely to push the party away from lunch-bucket issues and into the insidious realm of identity politics.
The Racial Component
In 2016, Trump’s appeal to minorities was limited by his own nativist rhetoric, and, more so, that of his sometimes truly deplorable supporters, although he did no worse than gentry candidate Mitt Romney years earlier. This year he gained a significantly larger Latino vote, particularly in Florida and Texas (but not in California), and did better, albeit less impressively, among African Americans. Overall, he won the highest percentage of minority votes of any Republican since 1960.
The reasons for this pattern seem obvious. Latinos are heavily represented in blue-collar professions, notably in the service fields, construction, logistics, and manufacturing. They have generally done better under President Trump than previous administrations and have been most hurt by lockdowns, high energy prices, and curbs on suburban housing. (RELATED: DEMINT: The Left vs. The Working Class)
The ever more radical social views that dominate the “woke” Left and increasingly corporate America also may not play well with many immigrants who, according to one recent survey, are twice as conservative in their social views as the general public. Hispanics may not be the reliable social conservatives imagined by some Republicans, but they certainly seem unlikely to share the world-view of woke faculty lounges. Adding Latinos, African Americans and, in some states, Asians to the GOP’s working and middle-class base will prove critical to building a populist majority. Today barely 58% of all working-class Americans are white. According to a 2016 Economic Policy Institute study, people of color will constitute the majority of the working class by 2032.
What Kind of Program Will Build the New Popular Party?
Conservatives will not have this field to themselves. Many young people lacking good prospects are often socialist-minded. Bernie Sanders soundly beat Biden in the California primary, carrying the Latino vote handily. Even in Texas a new group of Democrats — mostly young and Latino — overwhelmingly supported Sanders in the primaries as well. The globalist corporatist Democrats really offer little to those attracted to socialist ideas besides flirting with the salve of a universal basic income. It’s understandable, particularly after the recent election, that the radicals want the corporate liberals “out of the way.”
For their part, a Republican populist party would have to overcome the opposition of “market fundamentalists” who, as the American Prospect has demonstrated, like their “progressive” counterparts receive heavy funding from Google and other tech oligarchs and monopolies. It will take innovative Republicans like Oren Cass and his American Compass group who reject the “let the market rip” fundamentalism and openly favor of working-class interests in terms of health care, education, housing, anti-trust policy and energy.
A renewed, post-Trump Republican Party needs to combine his populist appeal while jettisoning his often needlessly divisive, chaotic, and often grimly negative view of our changing society. Our parties have always succeeded — whether under Lincoln, either Roosevelt or Reagan — when presented as the party of optimism, showing Americans that a brighter future is possible.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
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