No matter where you stand on the endless debate over racism versus economic anxiety among Trump voters, there is an underlying narrative that is assumed but doesn’t get enough attention: Republicans are no longer persuaded by traditional Republican free market economic ideology.
Trump defeated all his Republican rivals through some combination of overt racism and unorthodox protectionism and anti-libertarian jobs promises that roiled free market conservatives, and it worked well enough in the general election to pull away no small number of independents and Democrats. The fact that (this week’s tariff threats notwithstanding) Trump has allowed Paul Ryan to dictate his economic policy only obscures the earth-shaking implications of his victory.
That dynamic is presenting itself again in Pennsylvania’s 18th district, a seat Trump won by 20 points that Democrats have a decent chance of winning. The big corporate tax cut isn’t having much effect in motivating Republican and Trump-leaning independent voters, so the GOP is going heavy on the racism, instead:
Here’s how tricky things have gotten for Republicans: GOP outside groups have dramatically scaled back their ads promoting the party’s tax cut, with the messaging barely moving the needle in the district’s working-class confines. The latest round of advertisements focus on law-and-order issues, like immigration and crime. A new spot from the Paul Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC slams Lamb for supporting “amnesty to illegal immigrants” because he “worked in the Obama administration.” A National Republican Congressional Committee ad portrays Lamb as soft on crime because he negotiated a plea deal with a notorious drug kingpin during his tenure as a federal prosecutor. These culture-war ads are reminiscent of those run by Ed Gillespie in his failed Virginia gubernatorial campaign, and they carry the whiff of desperation.
And there’s the rub. The old Milton Friedman snake oil isn’t working anymore as voters see that the invisible hand of the market is never going to rescue them. But the hardcore racism also hasn’t worked, either. It didn’t work in Virginia, it hasn’t worked to salvage Republicans in any of the other special elections this year, and Trump’s savage bigotries haven’t protected his approval ratings from declining.
The data from Pennsylvania is likely the biggest reason that Trump is suddenly calling for steel tariffs. But whether that’s a good idea or not (and it almost certainly isn’t) it’s too little, too late: Trump never really did embrace the internal logic of his own victory, and his ignorance and lack of interest in actual public policy meant that he had neither the knowledge nor the discipline to attempt a presidency modeled after Teddy Roosevelt. Instead, he has governed like a more infantile, less stable and more bigoted version of plutocrat Mitt Romney.
But base Republicans still aren’t buying it anymore. The GOP thought they would get a big boost from passing their big tax cut for corporations and the rich, but it the only thing it accomplished was persuading the Koch brothers and their friends to open up their purse strings. It was not persuasive to the voters, who are still expecting the economic solutions and factory jobs they were promised–and, absent that, a racist and vicious campaign to eliminate competition from black and immigrant labor. Needless to say, that also hasn’t materialized in any realistic way.
This problem isn’t going away for the Republican Party. They’re already trapped in a demographic death spiral on social issues, race and gender: they can’t seem to persuade young people and voters of color, and the more they try to lock down white men with train-whistle racism and sexism instead of dogwhistle racism and sexism, the more they doom themselves with the emerging Democratic majority coalition.
If they have no persuasive economic program to sell, what do they have left?