David Michael Miller
Let’s just say for the sake of argument that Paul Ryan is right.
When the House Speaker said that he was cutting his losses and forsaking his party’s presidential nominee while focusing on keeping Republicans in charge of Congress, he was essentially throwing in the towel on Donald Trump.
A lot can happen in three weeks, but with Hillary Clinton’s lead widening (it’s up to seven points here in Wisconsin), it seems increasingly likely that our country will have avoided the disaster of a Trump presidency. Still, even after Nov. 8, the Republicans will have to deal with the disaster of his candidacy.
Since Richard Nixon’s southern strategy in 1968 the GOP has been an increasingly uneasy coalition of traditional country club Republicans and blue-collar conservatives. Country club Republicans tend to be college-educated suburbanites who are moderate if not liberal on social issues. They like free trade and tolerate immigration because they need immigrants in their businesses. If they’re religious they belong to a mainline Protestant sect.
By contrast, blue-collar conservatives tend to have high school educations, live in rural areas, and are very socially conservative. They oppose both trade deals and immigration because they see those things as threatening their jobs. They’re evangelicals or conservative Catholics. They distrust Wall Street.
What held these disparate groups together was a lie or rather a series of lies. These lies were told by a Republican establishment that co-opted blue-collar conservatives by telling them they cared about their issues, mostly hot-button ones like guns, gays and God. Republican strategists found that as long as their party took hard line conservative stances on things like abortion, the Second Amendment and gay marriage, they could get millions of blue-collar conservatives into their tent; this allowed the establishment to pursue the policies they really cared about: lower taxes on the wealthy and less regulation on their businesses.
Now Donald Trump has blown that to smithereens. He’s exposed the fault lines, and it’s doubtful that they can ever be patched up again. It’s clear now to Trump’s base of righteously angry blue-collar conservatives that they’ve been used. The Republican establishment never much cared about abortion, and it was actually working against blue-collar desires on trade and immigration.
To make matters worse for the GOP, the primaries pretty much wiped out their future cast of national leaders. None of the parade of establishment candidates who ran in the primaries with Trump has a chance of claiming his mantle. That crowded field ended up destroying virtually the entire Republican bench because they’ve all now been exposed as establishment drones.
Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, might have some chance of keeping the party together going into 2020. Pence earned his blue-collar credentials by running with Trump (and remaining more or less loyal to him on most days), and yet, as a career politician with a smooth style, he’s likely (unlike Trump) to keep the establishment comfortable.
But Pence’s problem is that at some point he’ll have to take his own positions on a host of issues. A dyed-in-the-wool Christian conservative, he won’t waiver on red meat social issues. But if he cozies up to Wall Street or sounds too reasonable on trade (yeah, I’m basically in the free trade camp myself), he’ll turn off the establishment. The cracks in the Republican façade are not likely to be bridged by any one man or woman.
So what do you do if you truly believe that abortion and gay marriage are wrong but you also believe that trade pacts, immigration and Wall Street are conspiring to hurt your family’s well-being? You now know that the Republicans will pander to you on social issues so that they can win your votes, only to work against your interests on economic matters. And the Democrats are hopeless from your point of view because of their social liberalism.
The answer is a third party, one that’s conservative on social issues and populist on economic concerns. An anti-abortion, pro-gun, pro-religious charter schools, anti-immigration, anti-trade, isolationist, Main Street over Wall Street, tax-the-rich-to-feed-the-poor party.
This could be a sizable group. If there are 130 million votes cast for president this year and Trump gets only 40 percent (which would be the definition of a blowout defeat) that would still mean that he gets about 52 million votes. If only half of that is made up of blue-collar conservatives as I describe them here, that’s 26 million presidential voters. And, because these folks vote religiously in more ways than one, that probably represents an even more potent force in off-year and local elections.
Close readers of this column will have discerned that I would not count myself as a blue-collar conservative. But if I were one, I’d form my own party.