For years I’ve been preaching that Republicans should “modernize, not moderate.” But with Donald Trump’s victory, both suggestions were soundly rejected. Rather than “modernize,” Trump’s protectionist trade policies are a throwback to a pre-Reagan “Old Right” form of Republicanism, while other policies — from infrastructure spending to mostly ignoring social issues — are more moderate than we are used to.
Trump might well go down in history as a disaster of a president, but he has surprised us before. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that, by employing entirely counterintuitive strategies, he could actually achieve some of the thoughtful conservative policy objectives that have eluded more intellectual conservative reformers for generations.
Let’s take, for example, his recent appointment of school choice reformer Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Other Republican presidential candidates have been more focused on education reform (“No Child Left Behind” comes to mind), but you’d be hard pressed to find a president who has nominated someone more likely to actually try to upset the apple cart. “I don’t think we’ve had a secretary of education with a more ‘boots on the ground’ approach to school choice — to opportunities for all children,” said Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, which represents tens of thousands of students who attend Jewish day schools.
Why does his choice for education secretary matter? If you’re a conservative policy wonk or intellectual, what issue is more important, defensible, or unifying than using conservative ideas to give poor kids a chance to improve their lot in life? This is an issue that might have been championed by a President Jeb Bush or a President Bobby Jindal. The irony is that it could be (could be!) Donald Trump who ends up reaching the political promised land.
Aside from potentially being good policy, this is also good politics. Giving poor kids a chance to get out of failing schools and to pursue educational opportunities is also a possible inroad for outreach to minority communities. (It is ironic that both of these goals were priorities of conservative reformers who generally opposed Trump, and they did not appear to be top priorities for candidate Trump).
That’s not to say there weren’t hints of Trump’s interest in these goals during the campaign; we just never took them seriously. Back in September, Trump visited a prominently African-American urban charter school, where The New York Times reported that he implored the audience: “You give me the chance — I’ll get all your votes in four years.” “Everybody’s going to be voting for me, by the way: African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, just everybody.”
Some saw this as a laughable, or even offensive, olive branch. But Trump’s radical idea seems to be that, by governing in a way that actually improves people’s lives (not merely pandering to them rhetorically), he might actually earn their future votes. As such, school choice is merely one example of how Trump might use government to push back against the establishment (in this case, teacher’s unions and bureaucrats). But the point here isn’t about education, it’s about Trump being on the side of all average American against the ruling class.
A couple of highly respected political analysts think Trump has a shot at this, and that Trumpism might ironically be the smartest way for Republicans to attempt to make inroads in minority communities. At RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende writes, “I’ve long believed that the GOP’s best bet with non-whites was not to try and out-identity-politic the Democrats, but rather to come at them from the side, via a class-based appeal.” (I never thought conservatives would advocate class consciousness as a way of beating back racial identity politics, but then again — desperate times call for desperate measures.)
Meanwhile, over at National Review, Henry Olsen looks at Trump’s deviation from conservative small government orthodoxy, and he sees an electoral feature, not a bug. Olsen posits that “showing Americans more broadly that Republicans are willing to use government on occasion to break down barriers to people’s advancement will send a broader message to other voters, especially Latinos. Latinos have historically liked strong government that rewards work and provides opportunity as they move up the economic ladder.”
Could economic reasons ever persuade Latinos to join the GOP coalition? Just as Ronald Reagan was able to peel away what we used to call “ethnic” voters — Irish Americans, Italian Americans, etc.—once they entered the middle class, it’s not inconceivable that economic interests could transcend collective racial identity and that Trump’s color-blind approach might just work.
Trump could be uniquely positioned to make the tough calls. His disinclination to political correctness seems sincere, in the sense that he basically treats everyone equally (often equally bad), regardless of race or gender. What is more, he’s not terribly concerned about advancing any “esoteric” political agendas, be that limited government conservatism on the Right or the environmentalist agenda on the Left; any of these things could be a distraction from achieving the larger goal of getting Americans back to work.
Of course, in addition to doing outreach, Trump’s success will largely hinge on actually helping the working class whites in the rust belt. In the process of winning new voters (should this vision materialize), he can’t forget about his base; however, these things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. In a recent Internet video release, Trump promised to target regulations on shale and coal. Then he added, “I will formulate a rule which says that for every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.”
To latte-sipping liberal elites, this promise might not resonate. But bringing back energy and manufacturing jobs and providing educational opportunities in an inner city both share a similar goal: restoring hope and dignity for forgotten Americans. “I’m hopeful that we will be spending much more time facilitating the withdrawal of harmful, illegal regulations than we will filing lawsuits against the executive branch in 2017,” said Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general of West Virginia.
Whether you’re a working-class white guy in a town where your factory was shut down or a struggling black kid in Cleveland, what you really want is a chance. For years, Democrats and Republicans have pandered to these groups, but they have mostly failed. Wouldn’t it be ironic if a vulgarian casino magnate with absolutely no political experience actually got the job done?
Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor at The Daily Caller and author of “Too Dumb to Fail.” Follow him on Twitter @mattklewis