Oct 25 2020
The New Yorker: The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump
October 23, 2020
The major political development of the past decade, all over the world, has been a series of reactions against economic insecurity and inequality powerful enough to blow apart the boundaries of conventional politics. On the right, this can be seen in the regimes of Jair Bolsonaro, in Brazil; Narendra Modi, in India; Viktor Orbán, in Hungary; and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Turkey. There are new nativist and nationalist parties across Western Europe, and movements like the ones that produced Brexit, in Britain, and the gilets jaunes, in France. An ambitious Republican can’t ignore Trumpism. Nor can an ambitious Democrat: the Democratic Party has also failed to address the deep economic discontent in this country. But is it possible to address it without opening a Pandora’s box of virulent rage and racism? Lisa McGirr, a historian at Harvard who often writes about conservatism, told me, “The component of both parties that did not grapple with the insecurity of many Americans—that created the opportunity for exclusionary politics. It’s not Trump. It’s an opportunity that Trump seized.”
Among the Republicans I spoke to, some of whom will vote for Trump and some of whom won’t, there are three competing predictions about the future of the Party over the coming years. Let’s call them the Remnant, Restoration, and Reversal scenarios.
The favored Presidential candidate for 2024 among the Reversalists is Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, one of the promising Republicans whom Trump vanquished in 2016.
Rubio has recently been making speeches that call for “common-good capitalism,” which would entail a strong government role in managing the economy and would attempt to attract religious and minority voters. Rubio has also been strongly critical of China, so much so that he has been banned from traveling there. This has the potential of alienating the business wing of the Party, which regards China as an important trading partner. Rubio gave a speech last year accusing “policy élites across the political spectrum” of ignoring the “growing threat” that China represents. Nikki Haley recently gave a speech that didn’t name Rubio but clearly had him in mind as one of a new species of Republican critics of capitalism, who “differ from the socialists only in degree.”
When I spoke with Rubio a few weeks ago, I asked him to explain what he meant by common-good capitalism. “It begins with the understanding that the market is a means to an end, not the end itself,” he said. “The purpose of the economy is to serve people. It’s possible to have an economy that’s performing well in the macro sense, but its benefits are distributed in a way that do not benefit the common good.” Rubio told me that this position came together when he was running for President, as he visited communities outside Florida which were less vibrant than they had been a generation ago, and were now hollowed out. “We thought people would be out of work when the factory leaves, but a new job would replace the old one,” he said. But, he went on, “it doesn’t work that way in real life. What ends up happening is that additional job isn’t created. And the people who are left without a job aren’t going to be able to make that transition. Interacting with that, hearing those stories—it’s something you have to grapple with.”
I asked him what could be done. “It’s tough,” he said. “We have a twenty-five-year orthodoxy in the Republican Party centered around market fundamentalism. Sometimes the most efficient outcome isn’t the best one for the country. Right now, we live in a very binary age, where you’re either one thing or you’re the other. Some people want to call it socialism—which I abhor. Or, if it isn’t socialism, the other side wants to call it market fundamentalism. America needs to take a hard look at its future.” Trump, he said, “has certainly revealed these fracture points. His election caused everybody to go back and ask, ‘Why? Why did people who were not part of the Republican Party decide to vote for him?’ ” He said that the next step was to build the intellectual base for this kind of work: “This is not a four-year project. This is a generational goal. And it could lead to a new political coalition.”
What would the new coalition be? For the past twenty years, Rubio said, the left has argued that coalitions tend to form around race, gender, and ethnicity: “I lived in a minority community. I don’t think we’d wake up in the morning and the first thing we’d realize is ‘I’m a Hispanic.’ The first thing that comes to mind for people every single day is not your ethnicity, it’s the fact that you’re a husband or a wife, a father or a mother, an employee, a volunteer or a coach—somebody who has a role to play.” He continued, “They want to have a job that allows them to have children, to raise that family in a safe neighborhood, with a house that’s safe, that the kids get to go to school, and that, when the time comes, lets them retire. You can find that identity in every community in America.”
He said he recoiled a bit at the tendency to “judge the well-being of the economy by how the stock market is performing. For the past six months, the stock market has had some really good days—and that in no way aligns with what everybody else in the country is going through. It is possible to have a roaring stock market, and you have millions of people who aren’t just unemployed, they may be permanently unemployed.” He talked about the inevitable disruptions caused by technological change: “And then it takes policy a decade, two decades, to adjust. In the interim, there’s resentment, anger, displacement—all sorts of social consequences. We are now seeing another wave of technological advancement, combined with globalization,” accelerated by the pandemic. “It’s going to produce new coalitions that don’t look like the ones we’re used to.”