In the aftermath of the elections and the subsequent bloody attack on Congress, a handful of Republican politicians have finally stood up to Donald Trump and the GOP’s “weird worship of one dude.” The outraged MAGAverse has subsequently vowed to cleanse Trump’s critics from the party in GOP primaries to come. Few are betting on these vocal dissidents to survive.
While the odds are against them, Trump’s critics have a route to political survival and, perhaps, even power in a post-Trump GOP. But it means a break from the strategies they’re employing at present. The road to survival is to embrace elements of Trump’s working-class populism and translate that into bold, well-thought-out legislative initiatives.
The Republican dissidents can be broken into two camps. The first camp consists of those who, like Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, professed tepid disagreement with the MAGA agenda on issues like trade and immigration while nonetheless voting with the former President 85 percent of the time. They primarily take issue with the untoward behavior of Trump. The problem here is that it’s largely Trump’s behavior, not his policies, that endear him to his base. They deeply believe that Trump is fighting evil, and that fighting evil requires doing whatever it takes. Criticizing Trump’s abandonment of the norms of fair play suggests that you don’t know how to fight, or don’t want to.
The second, often overlapping camp comprises those who carry the bones of Ronald Reagan. Trump, they charge, demolished the party of Reagan and his creed of free trade, immigration, fiscal restraint, and global engagement against axes of evil—the things that defined the GOP for the better part of 30 years. Alas, what was left of the Reagan-era coalition failed political stress test after political stress test over the past decade until being blown to smithereens in the 2016 Republican primary. Whatever its policy merits might be (and they are usually oversold), Zombie Reaganism is the perfect foil for the Trump-cult, which sees it as the dressed-up globalism they were put on this earth to bury.
Transcending Trump starts with a recognition that there’s no going back to the stale, threadbare brand of Conservative Inc. that he warred against in 2016 to great effect. “If Republican officeholders spend most of their time playing culture war, that’s because it’s more popular than their anti-governmentalism,” notes journalist Simon Kuper. At the same time, few can hope to replicate the sheer audacity of Trump’s persona, which — despite his pathological lying — conveyed a deeper form of authenticity. Those who try invariably make clowns of themselves, a la Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, or come off as Pencey Prep phonies, a la Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. Authenticity cannot be faked, so attempting to carry the Trumpian torch by aping his blustery style is, paradoxically, the exact opposite of Trump-like, and his supporters know it.
An Agenda for Transcending Trump
Republicans seeking to rebuild the party need to set aside style and double down on substance. Trump built the MAGA movement in large part by focusing on the decline and despair sweeping rural America, the challenge of earning a dignified living with only a high school degree, and the condescension and foibles of technocratic elites in Washington, D.C. These are very real problems. They help explain why the white working-class gives Trump their love, even as his plutocratic policies sold them out at every turn. The Trump-led GOP delivered nothing to these voters save for racial scapegoating, culture war theater, and red scares — a hypertrophied version of the same plutocratic grift that a vote for Trump was supposed to protest.
Trump’s Republican critics, who come largely from the governing wing of the party, should call this out and give the base a reason to stand with them instead. This means taking the problems in red America seriously and showing that they’ll fight on their behalf. A politically compelling agenda along those lines is not that hard to draft, but will require boldness on the part of lawmakers who have largely forgotten the art of making new and better laws after years of anti-government roleplaying.
While there are plenty of things that might fit in that agenda, its headlines might look like this.
Universal Child Allowances—Sen. Mitt Romney recently shocked the MAGAverse by unveiling the Family Security Act, earning praise from populist and mainline conservatives alike. The proposal would transform the Child Tax Credit into a proper child allowance, paying families $350 per month ($4,200 per year) for each child under six years old, and $250 per month ($3,000 per year) for each child aged six to 17. The cash benefit would be paid out monthly by the Social Security Administration, beginning while the child is still in-utero. The plan would be deficit neutral, paid for by consolidating technocratic welfare programs and ending the State and Local Tax deduction (effectively, a $20 billion tax hike on blue state elites). By reorienting the populist appetite for stimulus checks toward a permanent program to uplift working-class families, universal child allowances would allow Republicans to capture the pro-family high ground, all while cutting child poverty by one-third.
Universal Catastrophic Health Insurance—Rather than cede the political terrain to the kludgy and problematic Affordable Care Act (ACA), Republicans can trump the Democrats by forwarding a plan that would have the federal government fully cover financially ruinous medical risks. First dollar coverage would go to people below a low-income threshold, but income-based deductibles and coinsurance would be required for those who can afford to pay their fair share. Universal catastrophic health insurance wouldn’t be a substitute for more comprehensive insurance plans. Still, by addressing the 5 percent of households that drive 50 percent of U.S. health care spending, it would instantly bring down premiums for supplemental insurance purchased on the private market. By solving the core market failure in health insurance, universal catastrophic coverage would provide ample scope for market-based reforms to improve quality, transparency, and competition among private insurers, while reducing fragmentation. Universal catastrophic coverage promises more for working class families than the ACA, would help stabilize private insurers, and is politically deliverable in a way that Medicare for All is not.
Revitalize Struggling Regions—While Trump railed endlessly about the decline of manufacturing, his counterproductive and theatrical trade wars did absolutely nothing to help working-class voters. Regionally concentrated distress is fundamentally a problem of arrested economic development that rising economic tides in super-star cities do little to remedy.
Rather than try to turn back the clock, declining communities need robust public investments to spur reindustrialization and middle-skill job creation within in-demand industries. Under the status quo, the U.S. lacks any coherent economic development policy to speak of. Federal agencies rarely talk to one another, and special interests have easily captured state and local initiatives oriented towards firm-specific tax incentives.
By establishing a federal Office of Struggling Regions, these myriad programs could be coordinated around a national development strategy to promote economic growth and diversification in left-behind communities. Such an office could oversee a federally-chartered development bank to fund major projects in struggling regions through a decentralized system of mission-driven regional banks. It could also coordinate a concentrated and ambitious federal workforce development program to provide on-the-job skills training and apprenticeships. A great idea in this vein is Sen. Rubio’s proposal to unleash the Small Business Administration to fuel a robust recovery for small businesses in distressed regions, while providing an indefinite boost to capital for small and medium manufacturers. Beyond that, Republicans should go to war against intellectual property excesses and the subsidies flowing to Wall Street that created our unbalanced economic development in the first place.
Federal Revenue Sharing—Counties that voted for Joe Biden in the 2020 election accounted for 70 percent of U.S. GDP. Red America is concentrated in poor counties and states, which lack the fiscal capacity to fund necessary state and local services. A poor state like Mississippi only has a fraction of the resources to provide public goods as a rich state like Massachusetts, for example, despite having broadly similar income and sales taxes. Grants from the federal government are supposed to correct for these differences in fiscal capacity, but under the status quo tend to merely exacerbate the situation. Budget-neutral reforms to ensure a more equitable distribution of federal funding to states with low fiscal capacity would go a long way towards remedying this, including within Title I education grants, Medicaid matching grants, and the TANF block grant. A more equitable system of revenue sharing would help fix our broken fiscal union, enabling federalism to work as intended.
Rediscovering Conservative Domestic Policy
While some conservatives will look at these proposals and scream, Socialism!, this ambitious agenda takes a page from the last Republican president who took American working-class concerns seriously and tried (successfully, as it turned out) to win them over—Richard Nixon. Antecedents for robust child cash allowances can be traced back to Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan. Universal catastrophic health care coverage is a direct descendent of Nixon’s stillborn Mega Proposal. Revitalizing struggling regions can find echoes in the Appalachian Regional Commission, an initiative inherited from the Johnson administration but given time and energy by the Nixon White House. And robust federal revenue sharing was one of Richard Nixon’s signature domestic policy achievements.
There are two good reasons to believe that a working-class policy agenda from GOP dissidents might give them the necessary political oxygen to survive.
First, it has been successfully battle-tested in Canada, which faced a populist political insurgency—the Reform Movement—in the early 2000s that divided the conservative coalition in much the same way the Tea Party and the MAGA movement do so today. The Reform Movement was only tamed when Stephen Harper founded the Conservative Party of Canada and embraced domestic policy innovations such as robust, Romney-esque child allowances. Harper’s political aim was to unite the Right around a populist economic agenda that delivered for his constituents rather than around grievance-based, socio-cultural theater. One of the reasons that Canada, unlike other western democracies, does not have a potent illiberal, populist-nationalist right is because it was tamed by the battle-plan outlined above. Child allowances further helped bring Christian conservatives and immigrant communities with traditional family values under one tent.
Second, it should prove attractive to an increasingly MAGA-leery business community, a critically important and influential coalitional actor in the GOP, and thus, an important ally in the battle to come. Child allowances are revenue neutral and, by increasing family size, will add consumers (and workers) to the country. Universal catastrophic health care would take a significant financial burden off of employers, who shoulder much of the cost associated with employer-based insurance. And investments in workforce training, economic revitalization, and the rebuilding of American manufacturing capacity will require engagement with major employers from day one.
Of course, there are more issues animating the MAGAverse than any public policy can, or should, hope to address. Accordingly, there’s no guarantee that MAGA voters will be appeased by sincere and meaningful efforts to improve their lives. But given how uninterested the performance artists of Trump-land are at governing (witness their lack of interest in drafting a policy platform at the 2020 Republican National Convention, as well as their disinterest in even discussing public policy at this year’s CPAC), ambitious policy reforms and programs that deliver gains for working-class Americans is something that MAGA candidates cannot deliver.
How to Fight & Win
The history of the rise of the Right in the GOP is largely a history of savage, uncompromising struggle to wipe the party’s moderate factions out of political existence. It’s equally a story of how moderates repeatedly tried to appease those out to cancel them, find common ground, and de-escalate the conflict. While one side brought shotguns to a what they saw as a do-or-die fight for control of the party, the other brought mediators and couples therapists. It didn’t work.
Republican dissidents need to go on the attack. The performance artists who are only in politics to get a guest spot on Hannity, engage in diversionary culture wars, and hyper-fuel their Twitter following are betraying their constituents. Dissidents need to relentlessly drive that point home.
Republican dissidents should also deprive their Trumpist opponents of political oxygen. Without gerrymandering, voter suppression, and minoritarian political institutions (e.g., the electoral college and the filibuster), the MAGAverse would have far less political power than they presently have. As noted by political scientist Lee Drutman, electoral reforms such as those found in HR 1 will give more weight to the argument that “the only path forward for the [Republican] party is to broaden its appeal beyond grievance politics. Additionally, independent redistricting commissions are likely to create more competitive districts where Republicans will have to nominate moderates to win, thus increasing the number of moderates in the ranks of the congressional GOP making these arguments.”
Moderates have the bad habit of laboring to appease prospective right-wing critics by overcompensating with toxic partisan vitriol, a habit that has fed the Right’s worst instincts. Richard Nixon, one of the more moderate politicians in the GOP during the 1950s-60s, rose to power by seducing conservatives with vile, demagogic attacks on Democrats. Newt Gingrich, who came out of the Rockefeller wing of the party, won the Right over with Manichean rhetoric and brutal slash-and-burn partisan politics. Rand Paul tried to divert attention from his libertarian heresies against conservative orthodoxy with the most primal partisan tribalism. Marco Rubio, the “Reformicon” champion of the 2016 presidential race, was amongst those most nakedly arguing that Barack Obama and the Democrats knew exactly what they were doing in the course of (he claimed) trying to destroy America’s political heritage. Even Donald Trump, the most heterodox of the 2016 Republican presidential candidates, went down this road, deflecting concerns about his rejection of conservative policy orthodoxy with the most crazed attacks on Democrats as the enemies of America.
Trump’s Republican opponents who play this short-sighted game are simply injecting more of the poison that has made the party a toxic breeding ground for Trump and his allies. Feeding the idea that every election is a Flight 93 election justifies Republican conviction that no rules apply in the fight against what they see as existential political evil. The more that negative partisanship is the currency of the Republican political realm, the more staying power that Trump-world will have in the party. Republican dissidents should instead labor to detoxify the GOP and rediscover the forgotten art of civic virtue. Republican dissidents should treat all of their fellow citizens, regardless of their political views, as their civic and political equals.
What might the GOP eventually look like if Trump’s opponents go down this road? It might truly become the working-class party the base wishes it to be and a healthy alternative to today’s dangerously illiberal party. In sum, by saving the Republican Party, Republican dissidents may save American democracy in the process. Let’s hope they’re up to it.