New York Times columnist David Brooks
Credit: Patrick Farrell/Wikimedia Commons

One of the most pressing questions that will emerge if Trump loses in November will be, “what happens to the Republican Party?” We know that Stuart Stevens has answered that one by saying that it’s time to “burn the whole thing down and start over.” But start over with what?

David Brooks took a shot at answering with a column titled, “Where Do Republicans Go From Here?” He suggests that even if the party repudiates Donald Trump, his worldview will remain the paradigm on which the future of the GOP will be built.

The basic Trump worldview — on immigration, trade, foreign policy, etc. — will shape the G.O.P. for decades, the way the basic Reagan worldview did for decades. A thousand smarter conservatives will be building a new party after 2020, but one that builds from the framework Trump established.

The thing I found most fascinating about Brooks’ take on things is that he thinks it is past time to denounce the Reagan paradigm that has been the central driving force in the Republican Party since the 1980s.

For decades conservatives were happy to live in that paradigm. But as years went by many came to see its limits. It was so comprehensively anti-government that it had no way to use government to solve common problems. It was so focused on cultivating strong individuals that it had no language to cultivate a sense of community and belonging.

It was the Reagan paradigm that came to a head during the 2012 presidential election when Obama used the words “you didn’t build that” to explain that even successful individuals have benefited from collective efforts.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people…You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.

Mitt Romney and the Republican Party went nuts—going so far as to make “You built that” the theme of their 2012 convention.

Brooks says that it was Trump and Bannon who finally overturned the Reagan paradigm.

Bannon and Trump got the emotions right. They understood that Republican voters were no longer motivated by a sense of hope and opportunity; they were motivated by a sense of menace, resentment and fear. At base, many Republicans felt they were being purged from their own country — by the educated elite, by multiculturalism, by militant secularism.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump and Bannon discarded the Republican orthodox — entitlement reform, fiscal restraint, free trade, comprehensive immigration reform. They embraced a European-style blood-and-soil conservatism. Close off immigration. Close trade. We have nothing to offer the world and should protect ourselves from its dangers.

It would have been interesting if Trump had governed as a big-government populist. But he tossed Bannon out and handed power to Jared Kushner and a bunch of old men locked in the Reagan paradigm. We got bigotry, incompetence and tax cuts for the wealthy.

The point Brooks makes is that even though Trump didn’t govern as a populist, he opened the door for other Republicans to pick up the mantle based on these core assumptions:

  1. Everything is not okay. The free market is not working well.
  2. Economic libertarianism is not the answer. Free markets alone won’t solve our problems.
  3. The working class is the heart of the Republican Party.
  4. China changes everything.
  5. The managerial class betrays America.

The first two have been core beliefs of the Democratic Party for decades—which is where some liberals find common ground with the so-called “populist right.” But with numbers three and five, Brooks telegraphs what populism contributes to the Republican need to divide and conquer. It suggests that the working class should be mobilized to fight what he refers to as the “managerial class,” who are often simply referred to as “elites.” They are the ones who, according to Brooks, are making working class folks feel “a sense of menace, resentment and fear” with all of their multiculturalism and militant secularism. Finally, the inclusion of the item about China is a continuation of the Republican strategy of always identifying a foreign enemy to rally the troops against.

In short, what Brooks is suggesting is that the Republican Party of the future should become a nicer, more competent version of Trumpism than we’ve experienced over the last four years. The answer to the sense of alienation he referred to can be found by coming together with a common sense of fear and anger at those who are identified as enemies. Perhaps it now makes sense that he is looking to politicians like Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Ben Sasse as the ones who will pick up the mantle of creating a future for the Republican Party.

Despite all that Brooks gets wrong, however, it is important to give credit where it’s due. He nailed this:

[I]f Joe Biden defeats Trump and begins legislating, as seems more and more likely, there’s also the possibility that Republicans will abandon any positive vision and revert to being a simple anti-government party — a party of opposition to whatever Biden is doing.

That one wins the prize for the most likely scenario to carry the party forward over the next four years—which is a set-up for another round of Trumpism at the top of the ticket in 2024.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.