Opinion | The Great Tension Inside the Trump G.O.P.

This week the populist think tank American Compass released polling showing that larger shares of Republican voters said they believed that the federal government should be doing more, rather than less, to provide “support for the poor, disabled, needy” and “medical care for those who need help affording insurance” and to sustain Social Security and Medicare.

How might these commitments be paid for if these pro-government Republicans had their way? A different poll, from Bloomberg and Morning Consult, suggested one possible answer: Surveying voters in seven swing states, it found that 58 percent of self-described conservative Republicans strongly or somewhat supported raising taxes on Americans making $400,000 or more a year.

These populist perspectives — tax the upper class and spend on health care and income support — aren’t especially surprising, given the Republican Party’s slow transformation into a more downscale coalition, a process in which it has gained blue-collar and non-college-educated supporters and lost affluent suburbanites to the Democratic Party.

But good luck finding evidence of this populist transformation in the party’s current policy proposals. Consider, for instance, the latest budget proposal from the Republican Study Committee, the conservative House caucus that claims about 80 percent of Republican representatives as members. The document makes the same general pledges that the party’s conservatives have made for decades, from the era of Newt Gingrich to the years of Paul Ryan: It wants to make the Trump-era tax cuts permanent, it calls for “extending and improving” tax cuts for corporations and abolishing the estate tax, and it wants to pay for its tax cuts by reducing what the government spends on Medicaid, Obamacare and old-age entitlements.

Whatever you think of these ideas, they don’t seem to match especially well onto either the American Compass polling or the general transformation of the Republican coalition.

This mismatch existed already in the Gingrich era and in the Ryan years, but the gap has clearly widened. And across years of analysis and disputation — to which I’ve contributed too many words to contemplate — there’s often been an assumption that at some point, the basic commitments of the median G.O.P. politician will have to shift to match the increasing populism of constituents.

Instead, every time a Republican leader tried to forge a less libertarian agenda — as George W. Bush did with “compassionate conservatism” and the “ownership society” and as Donald Trump did by running directly against the party’s small-government wing in 2016 — the pendulum swung back again as soon as the G.O.P. was out of power.

In the case of the current congressional G.O.P., you could argue that the pendulum swing has been less dramatic than it was in the Tea Party era; there’s more of a sense that groups like the Republican Study Committee are going through the motions, that there’s less apocalyptic urgency in demanding spending cuts and more room for Republicans to make policy deals with the Biden administration than there was under Barack Obama.

Still, the pattern is enduring enough that one can imagine a future in which the Republican base of 2050 responds to every economic polling question with “Workers of the world, unite!” — and yet House Republicans are still putting out budget blueprints that cut health care and retirement spending to fund upper-bracket tax cuts.

What sustains this contradictory-seeming arrangement? Here are a few explanations:

The modified Thomas Frank thesis. This argument comes from “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” the Bush-era best seller in which Frank argued that Republican politicians and the conservative media complex were essentially tricking middle-American voters into voting against their own economic interests — whipping up moral panics and culture-war excitement on television while in their legislation they were building a plutocracy.

In a simplified form, this argument has always had an obvious attraction for liberals, since it suggests that the rival coalition consists of bigoted rubes led by greedy knaves. But one might update it more sympathetically for the Trump era — when the Republican coalition includes more infrequent and disaffected voters — and say that the G.O.P. now also has more constituents who aren’t paying close attention to politics, which would presumably make it easier for party elites to take policy positions that are out of step with voters. (It might also make issue polling more unreliable, since the infrequent and alienated voter is probably less likely to have especially coherent policy preferences.)

The postmaterialism argument. This explanation gives more credit to conservative voters: They aren’t being tricked or deceived into supporting libertarian politicians; they just don’t care enough about economic policy to force some big change in the G.O.P. Throw them back into the Depression era, and they probably wouldn’t vote Republican. But in a rich society with a long-established welfare state and a lot of expert control over the economy, in which plenty of working-class voters are doing just fine by any reasonable standard, it can be perfectly rational to prioritize cultural issues over economic ones, values over crude materialism.

This prioritization clearly happens on the left: Some responses to Frank’s book noted that a similar book could have been written with the title “What’s the Matter With the Upper West Side?” since there are plenty of liberal millionaires and upper-middle-class professionals who stand to lose from tax increases but still reliably vote Democratic because they’re social liberals.

Then, too, it makes a difference that the current Republican Party is pretty obviously held together by negative polarization, a shared desire not to be governed by contemporary progressivism, but for a variety of different reasons. If that’s what binds your coalition, if there isn’t a coherent right in America so much as a fractious anti-left, it’s not surprising that Republican economic policy would often be handed over to the faction that most objects to progressive economics — the limited government types — while other right-of-center factions focus on other issues, threats and grievances.

The “small-government conservatism is fake” theory. This explanation supplements the previous one by suggesting that it’s especially easy for the other factions on the right to let the libertarians write the budget proposals because those proposals never go anywhere. Working-class voters may not love limited-government conservatism, but neither do they fear it, because years of experience have taught them that it never succeeds in making the kind of big spending cuts that it claims to want.

Clearly the limited-government tendency isn’t entirely impotent: If you elect a conservative governor, your state will be less likely to accept a Medicaid expansion, and if you elect a conservative president, you will get deregulation in some form. But when it comes to the big picture of federal spending, a vote for Republican governance has never really been a vote for austerity or big entitlement cuts; it’s just a vote for the free lunch of deficit-financed tax cuts. So why would populist voters worry overmuch about the proposals that a bunch of House Republicans put forward when they’re safely out of power?

And because, again, the G.O.P. coalition is organized primarily around fear of progressive governance, the seemingly unprincipled way that Republicans turn libertarian when they’re out of power but freely spend when they control the government is, in its way, fealty to their coalition’s organizing principle: Conservatives don’t trust progressives to spend money, but they do trust themselves.

The “Trump holds it together” theory. This final explanation notes that whatever House Republicans propose, they aren’t in charge of the G.O.P. these days; Trump is. And he didn’t run a primary campaign promising to cut entitlements, nor has he come out guns blazing in favor of budgetary austerity. Instead, his most recent policy intervention was a disavowal of his prior calls to repeal and replace Obamacare and a pledge to “MAKE THE ACA, or OBAMACARE, AS IT IS KNOWN, MUCH BETTER, STRONGER, AND FAR LESS EXPENSIVE.”

If you’re a Trump-friendly or Trump-curious downscale voter, this is the Republican Party you’re voting for — one in which the budget nerds might want to bring back the old Ryan agenda but the big man keeps them in their place.

True, Trump didn’t fully transform the G.O.P. agenda while he was president; he deferred to Ryan and Mitch McConnell in the design of his tax cuts and never delivered on some of his “worker’s party” promises. But he abandoned the right’s zeal for entitlement reform and hard money, he ran a hot prepandemic economy that was good for working-class wages, and he never really tried to carry out the budget proposals that his administration’s nerds produced. So a lot of Republican or Republican-leaning voters, remembering that record, trust him not to be a libertarian, whatever the rest of his party’s leaders might prefer.

But this theory also implies that without a Trump figure as its leader, the contradictions within the G.O.P., the tensions between populist voters and libertarian elites, could come more sharply to the fore.

Even with Trump, those tensions may matter more in a potential second term than in his first one. If elected, he’ll face a very different fiscal and economic landscape than in 2017, in which the shadow of inflation will make a stronger policy case for austerity than eight years ago, with a party whose elites still hate tax increases and whose voters may be more hostile than ever to serious spending cuts.

Those pressures could force a second Trump administration to resolve the libertarian-populist tension. Or more likely, they could just undermine its policymaking and unravel its coalition.

Emma Green on the rise of classical education.

Sohrab Ahmari on the ethnic cleansing of Armenians.

Michael Ledger-Lomas on the fairy tales of Andrew Lang.

Tanner Greer on America from China’s vantage.

The Lancet looks into the low-fertility future.

The case against the lab-leak hypothesis.

— Aaron Timms “The Age of Cultural Stagnation,” The New Republic (March 19)

[Kyle] Chayka has spent much of the past decade devising labels for various aspects of algorithmic culture. In 2016, he introduced “AirSpace” as a term for the stripped-down, generic interior design aesthetic advanced by lifestyle platforms like Airbnb and Instagram; more recently, he’s written about “ambient TV,” the intellectually untaxing, Muzak-like programming of the streaming platforms (symbolized most potently by the Netflix series “Emily in Paris”), and has claimed that the widespread use of moisturizer is proof that we live in a “culture of negation.” “Filterworld” is the latest addition to the lexical roster, and it’s not entirely clear why he chose it, since algorithmic recommendations, rather than filters, are the real object of the book’s ire.

“Filterworld,” Chayka explains, “is my word for the vast, interlocking and yet diffuse network of algorithms that influence our lives today” — and it’s the reason for our cultural immobility, for “the perception that culture is stuck and plagued by sameness.” Since they’re designed to feed the user new cultural products similar to those already consumed, Chayka’s argument goes, algos are engines for the perpetuation of homogeneity. And since most of us are addicted to our phones and the big platforms that control the social internet (Google, Amazon, Facebook, TikTok, Spotify, Airbnb, Twitter; sorry, I refuse to call it X), the version of culture we encounter daily is one that’s accessible, replicable, unobtrusive and unchallenging.

Culture today is uninteresting because that’s what the algos are optimized to produce. The brilliant and restless civilization that rampaged through the second half of the 20th century, the culture whose genius spanned the wrestling guitars of “I Saw Her Standing There” to the shoulder pads of Yves Saint Laurent, has come to a standstill. At some point over the past 30 years, we passed from a world in which Ezra Pound’s old command to “make it new” held real currency to one that makes it moo: Culture today is an endless repackaging of tested tropes into the technological equivalent of chaff, mere filler to keep the grazing consumer content.

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