Analysis The Center Can Hold

Republicans Push Back Against Trump’s Pessimism

Few of the candidates dispute Donald Trump’s declinism. But other Republicans are pushing back.

Listen to their presidential candidates and you may be forgiven for thinking America’s Republicans see only doom and gloom on the horizon. But there are party leaders with a more hopeful message.

At their most recent debate, broadcast from Charleston, South Carolina by the Fox Business Network, property tycoon Donald Trump, the frontrunner, declared, “Our country is being run by incompetent people.” Health care is a “horror show,” he said. “We have no borders.”

For months, he has said, “Nothing works in our country.”

Ted Cruz, the far-right Texas senator who seems on track to win the first nominating contest in Iowa next month, has spoken in even more apocalyptic terms.

Marco Rubio, another senator, appears to have abandoned the optimism of his earlier campaign. He now maintains that “there may be no turning back for America” if it doesn’t get the 2016 election “right”.

We’re on the verge of being the first generation of Americans that leave our children worse off than ourselves.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that such fearmongering may work in a Republican primary election where voters are disproportionately pessimistic after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency.

Gallup has found that four out of five self-described social conservatives believe America is in moral decline. These are the kind of voters who are motivated to turn out.

Anxious voters

The electorate at large isn’t feeling too confident either. On the left, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders is speaking to the suspicion of many working Democrats that the economic deck is stacked against them. He is polling neck and neck with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the first voting states.

But the Republican candidates’ rhetoric of impending doom is something else.

This website believes that the defining issue of the election this year will be how to make life a little easier for those tens of millions of Americans who are neither poor nor rich but would be more comfortably off in any other Western country.

Republicans should be talking about solving the middle class’ problems, whether it is unaffordable higher education, a health care system that is similarly more expensive than it needs to be or the absence of real wage growth.

There are Republicans who recognize as much.

Rubio started his campaign by calling for policies that will revitalize the “American Dream,” including liberalizing education and overhauling a byzantine tax code that stifles business growth.

So did Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and brother of the last Republican president. He is also the only prominent candidate who seems willing to challenge Trump’s fantastical assertions of American decline.

Challenging Trump

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley took a stab at Trump’s declinism in her response to President Obama’s State of the Union address last week, warning that “during anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” she said.

The Hill reports that Haley was drafted to deliver the Republican response to Obama’s speech by the party’s leader in the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan.

He is emerging as a “counterweight” to Trump, the political news website writes.

Ryan — who was the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012 — is formally neutral in the nominating contest. But it is hard not to read his motto, “Confident America,” as a rebuke to the negativity Trump stands for.

At a party retreat in Baltimore, Maryland last week, Ryan is reported to have said that Americans are “crying out for solutions” and “a positive vision that brings us all together.”

Opportunity, upward mobility and a government that is small but effective have been winning themes for Republicans for decades. Bush, Haley and Ryan seem to believe they still can be; Cruz, Rubio and Trump are appealing to a craving for the familiar and supporting policies that are inward-looking and less about growth than about protecting what Americans already have.

Whichever vision wins out could decide what type of a party the Republicans end up with.