Two-Party System Leaves Anti-Trump Republicans in the Lurch

As the Republican Party becomes statist, small-government conservatives have nowhere to go.

Donald Trump Giuseppe Conte
American president Donald Trump and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte arrive to a NATO summit in Brussels, July 12 (NATO)

Janan Ganesh argues in the Financial Times that, after Donald Trump, America’s Republicans must become more like the European center-right: shed their small-government, low-tax, free-trade ideology in favor of a pragmatism statism. The state can be an instrument of national togetherness.

Perhaps. But what of the Republicans who still believe in small government, low taxes and free trade?

Racial code

Ganesh is right that the small-government ideology of the American right is only skin deep. Trump’s protectionism and his promise to “take care of everybody” have made that much clear.

What he misses, though — and it’s useful to read Ezra Klein’s latest in Vox in this context — is that “small government” has often been a racial code.

Few white voters objected to big spending so long as it benefited them. The anti-welfare politics of the 1980s and the tough-on-crime politics of the 1990s were as much about keeping minorities in their place as they were about cutting spending and cleaning up America’s streets.

True believers

Of course, there are true believers. I used to be one of them: libertarian-leaning Republicans who sincerely believe in free markets and a night-watchman state. But that’s not conservatism.

Conservatism, as Ganesh as points out, is accepting the state in its current scope, if not all its details. It means recognizing how many Americans count on it.

But that’s not Republicanism.

The Republican Party is no longer a conservative party that tries to make the best of the status quo. It has become an unworkable marriage between nativist reactionaries, who reject diversity and want to shut out the rest of the world, and small-government ideologues, who are overrepresented among the party’s donor class.

This hasn’t come out of nowhere. The nationalist-populist and pragmatic, pro-business wings of the Republican Party have long been at odds. What has changed is that, for the first time, the former is in charge.

What now?

What is a small-government, pro-business Republican to do?

Ideally, America would shift to multiparty democracy and give both these factions their own party.

That is unlikely. So is a merger of the center-right with the pro-corporate, socially liberal left. Republicans hate the Democrats more — and vice versa — than they like their own party.

Moreover, the Democrats are being pulled to the left by their own radicals. Bernie Sanders and his followers share some of Trump’s instincts (critical of trade and America’s engagements around the world), but they are so appalled by his politics (on health care, immigration and taxes) that a convergence of the anti-establishment left and right seems equally impossible.

That leaves anti-Trump Republicans in the lurch.