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Far From the MAGA’ing Crowd
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Far From the MAGA’ing Crowd

Talk of the GOP as a workers’ party ignores that the big appeal of Trumpism was Trump, not his policies.


I feel a little like Tom Hanks in Big, when all the geniuses are explaining how a new line of toy buildings that turn into robots will be a huge seller.

I don’t get it.

Sen. Tom Cotton tells the Wall Street Journal today, “If Republican politicians think we can just go back five years in time and go back to the agenda we had then that was not popular, that resulted in two consecutive and bad presidential defeats, that did not address the concerns of the broad working class of America, then that is a recipe for continuing to lose elections,” he said.

Seriously, I don’t really know what he’s talking about.

But in fairness to him, he’s not alone. Since the election, I keep hearing or seeing stuff about how Trump has turned the GOP into a “workers’ party.” He said so himself on Election Night. “Democrats are the party of the big donors, the big media, the big tech, it seems. And Republicans have become the party of the American worker, and that’s what’s happened. And we’re also, I believe, the party of inclusion.”

This seems to have been the cue for a lot of this renewed “workers’ party” stuff (I say “renewed” because there was a lot of it in 2016 as well). Marco Rubio tells the Journal that, in the wake of Trump, “America needs a real, multi-ethnic working class party that understands that what may be good for Wall Street and Silicon Valley may not be good for our nation’s workers, communities, and families.” 

And here’s Rubio over at Axios complaining about how there are too many “market fundamentalists” in the GOP: “We still have a very strong base in the party of donors and think tanks and intelligentsia from the right who are market fundamentalists, who accuse anyone who’s not a market fundamentalist of being a socialist to some degree.” I don’t think Rubio’s a socialist. But I could swear the GOP spent the last year or so claiming that the Democrats were socialists for not being market fundamentalists or something. Where exactly is Rubio’s limiting principle?

And here’s Conrad Black asserting, “Whatever happens, Trump has reoriented the Republican Party from country-club altruists, to which it reverted after the Reagan era, to a political organization soundly based in the lower-middle and working classes and among the principal minorities.”

Now as an empirical matter, I’m open to the idea that the election results show this transformation of the GOP. But, while the data are spotty right now, I’m really not seeing it. Even if you credit the most generous interpretation of the exit polls—which you shouldn’t, unless you want to make Sarah Isgur mad—Democrats still did much, much, much better with low-income and working class people—not to mention among minorities—while Trump improved his numbers with rich people.

Still, without getting into a data quagmire, I’m willing to concede for argument’s sake that Trump improved his standing with blacks (mostly men), Hispanics (most notably but not exclusively Cubans), and blue collar voters. It certainly “feels” like this is true. I just don’t get the confidence people have in declaring this feeling to be a fact. And I really don’t get the irrational exuberance for a total makeover of the GOP in Trump’s image, given that Trump lost the popular vote—twice. Some of this stuff sounds like the salesman who says, “Sure, we’re losing money on every sale, but we’ll make it up on volume.”

Even if you buy the idea he’s enlarged the party in solely beneficial ways, the idea that he did this by governing as a “workers’ president” strikes me as bizarre.

Think about it this way: What did he brag about at his rallies?

Judicial appointments: These were all basically handpicked by the Federalist Society and fit the profile of what conservatives were fighting for back when Trump was giving money to Chuck Schumer. 

Tax cuts: These were designed and passed by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

Cutting red tape: I seem to recall that this is the kind of thing long pushed by those evil libertarians whom people like Josh Hawley and Tucker Carlson say destroyed America.

Killing terrorists: Clearly a sharp break with the pre-Trump GOP that Tom Cotton wants to bury.

More oil drilling: Does nobody remember “Drill, baby, drill”?

Stock market highs: Yes, Republicans never cared about the stock market before Trump.

Getting rid of Obamacare; Does anybody actually think Trump invented this issue?

Immigration: Now this is a trickier one. In 2016, restricting immigration was central to Trump’s appeal. And he harped on it for his first couple years in office. But by 2020, he’d stopped talking about it except to say a bunch of untrue stuff about the wall being almost done. I suspect that this was because of his improved numbers with Hispanics. Even so, the GOP of five years ago was pretty restrictionist on immigration. Certainly National Review—which many of these new populists think is an emblem of the old “dead consensus”—was very much at the forefront of serious limits on immigration.

Trade: This is even more complicated. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of working-class voters liked his message on trade. But there’s the rub: They liked the message. That doesn’t mean the policy actually helped them. The bulk of the evidence, as Scott Lincicome lays out, is that Trump’s actual trade policies were either ineffectual or actually harmful to the people they were supposedly designed to help. Our manufacturing sector suffered from Trump’s core policy agenda. It benefitted from the stuff he signed on to but didn’t care about.

A mirage built on a myth.

This whole workers’ party thing is premised on the idea that the way to hold onto the voters Trump brought into the party is to push more “pro-worker” policies the way Trump did and the way conservatives didn’t “five years ago.” There are problems with this.

First, it’s a straw man argument. The presumption underlying much of this is that the people who want to “go back”—whoever they might be—don’t want to help workers. Show me the conservative or libertarian think tanker or pundit who argued for screwing over workers five years ago—or 50. This is a right-wing version of a left-wing trope. From Karl Marx’s earliest writings straight through to Robert Reich’s latest tweet, the left has claimed, assumed, suggested, shouted, or implied that conservative economic policies were intentionally villainous. The idea was that conservatives, capitalists, libertarians, and the Gremlins were either cruelly indifferent or intentionally cruel to the little guy. It’s one of the oldest straw men in politics. As Cotton, Hawley, Carlson, and the rest all know—going back to Adam Smith—that’s never been the argument or the mindset of those who championed limited government and a free market. You can argue that they—we—were wrong, but that doesn’t make their alternatives right.

Which brings me to the second problem (which I discussed on the solo Remnant last Friday). I am open to any policy idea to help workers that survives a cost-benefit analysis. For example, we could cut a check to every worker for $100,000 tomorrow. That would be good for workers, but it would be bad for the economy in a whole bunch of ways—inflation, discouraging work, increasing debt, etc. I hope I don’t have to rehash the arguments against the dole for anybody.

There are good ideas to help workers out there (Michael Strain laid out a bunch six years ago). What bothers me about this newfound right-wing confidence in the expertise of politicians and bureaucrats to do economic planning for the benefit of workers is, well, my longstanding objection to left-wing confidence in economic planning for the benefit of workers. Hayek demonstrated that the problem with industrial policy and planning isn’t that it’s “left-wing” but that it doesn’t work. Suddenly proclaiming “But we’re really pro-worker, not like those socialists” doesn’t remove the law of unintended consequences, the requisite moral hazards, or the limits of top-down planning.

Finally, there’s the faulty premise that Trump’s appeal was solely, or even primarily, policy-driven. If it was, then you’d think Cotton & Co. would be criticizing Trump for carrying so much water for Paul Ryan and Leonard Leo’s pre-Trump agenda. But that’s the last thing they’ll do, because the real lesson of the Trumpification of the GOP isn’t that it’s become more “pro-worker”—whatever that is supposed to mean—but that it became simply “pro-Trump.”

The core Trump base, both new voters and old, liked Trump because he was entertaining, because he was a “fighter,” because he owned the libs, because he was Trump.

This is the dilemma for Cotton, Hawley and—perhaps most cruelly—Mike Pence. They seem to think they can grab control of the Trump base by coming up with policies that fit a fictional version of Trump as a policy maven. That guy never existed. Trump literally still doesn’t understand how tariffs (or elections) work. You think more finely crafted subsidies for dying industries or more clever tax credits is going to put asses in the seats at a Pence 2024 rally? Really?

Think about it this way: Imagine if, a month ago, Trump was scheduled to have a massive rally. But at the last minute, Air Force One had to be grounded for repairs and Mike Pence, Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, or Tom Cotton had to sub for him. You think the crowd would be psyched? You think it would stick around for very long? It’s possible. But that’s because Trump was on the ticket a month ago.

But in 2024, who will show up for the rally in the first place if those guys are at the top of the ticket? Some might. But not many from the MAGA crowd.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.