A Republican Workers' Party?

Democratic incompetence has made the previously unthinkable possible: Republicans are reimagining themselves as a labor party

The 'New York Times' recently published a piece in which conservatives discussed how Donald Trump could make the GOP a party for American workers. Credit: Mark Wallheiser/Getty

A horrifying article appeared in The New York Times last week, entitled "They Want Trump to Make the G.O.P. a Workers' Party."

In it, conservative intellectuals say they disavow Donald Trump, but also see in his rise a reason to shift their party's focus. 

The new Republicans would no longer be the party of "business and the privileged," but the protector of a disenfranchised working class.

This was unplanned. If it happens, it'll be a change that takes place not because conservative leaders ever wanted it, but because voters demanded it.

Basically, large numbers of working-class voters, particularly white working-class voters, long ago abandoned the Democratic Party in favor of the Republicans.

A few conservatives saw this coming. Chin-stroking New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, whom Esquire's Charles Pierce once described as a "god-bothering newsboy on his best day," along with National Review editor Reihan Salam, claim they saw the writing on the wall.

In their 2008 book, Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam argued that the Republicans needed to reshape themselves, and admitted "the policy elite of the Republican Party" is "out of touch with the majority of Republican voters."

They also noted, in a recent Times editorial, "A Cure for Trumpism," that the Republican Party has "increasingly depended on mostly white working-class support, even as its policy agenda was increasingly unresponsive to working-class voters' problems."

All of this soul-searching is happening now because the maniac Trump has hijacked a portion of the Republican base and is driving it off an electoral cliff. (He will clutch his own hand all the way down in the inevitable Thelma & Louise crash ending.)

Republican propaganda for decades pushed magical-thinking concepts like "trickle-down economics" that asked lower-income voters to accept present sacrifices for theoretical bigger payoffs down the road.

Until this year, Republican voters mostly bought it. But Trump was their way of telling their leaders they're done waiting. They want their piece of the pie now, even if it means unleashing the Trumpinator to get it.

People have been conscious of the defection of working-class voters to the Republican Party for years, but this has always been dismissed as the consequence of skillfull propaganda. It's the What's the Matter With Kansas? creation story, i.e., that the white working class has been hoodwinked into going against its own economic interests thanks to cynical/backward appeals to race, religion and culture.

But that isn't the whole story, as some leading Democrats are beginning to realize. Joe Biden went on Morning Joe a few weeks ago and admitted that "the Democratic Party over all hasn't spoken enough to [working-class voters]," the "ordinary people busting their necks."

"Trump was [Republican voters'] way of telling their leaders they're done waiting. They want their piece of the pie now, even if it means unleashing the Trumpinator to get it."

Biden's admission is a massive understatement. If we're going to be honest about what's happened in the last 30 or 40 years, the new iteration of the Democratic Party has embraced hocus-pocus neoliberal theory that is not much different from trickle-down economics.

The Democratic Party leaders have been fervent believers in the globalization religion since the late Eighties, when the braintrust at the Democratic Leadership Council made a calculated decision to transform the party from one that depended largely on unions for financial and logistical support to one that embraced corporate objectives, in particular free trade.

When he signed NAFTA into law in 1993, Bill Clinton laid out a utopian vision of how free trade would work. "We have the opportunity to remake the world," he said, boldly.

More trade agreements, he said, would create a world that would not only be more prosperous all over, but freer and more able to serve as a market for our exports.

"We will press for workers in all countries to secure rights that we now take for granted, to organize and earn a decent living," he said.

Critically, Clinton promised that free-trade agreements would emphasize new environmental standards, would expand the rights of workers in signatory countries, that we would not trade with countries that employed subsidies or tariffs against us, and that displaced domestic workers would eventually see gains after being retrained and redeployed for new jobs that would eventually appear to replace the lost ones.

"To the men and women of our country who were afraid of these changes," Clinton said, "the gains from this agreement will be your gains, too."

It was never articulated this way, exactly, but the basic promise of free trade was that the American middle class would experience temporary losses that over time would be balanced out by increased growth worldwide.

It was trickle-down economics, only repackaged with an international spin: After a long trip around the world, the wealth eventually gets back to you.

Twenty-three years later, we see how all of this has turned out. There have been some improvements in the economic condition of foreign workers.

But we never excluded politically oppressive regimes from free-trade deals, never made sure that trade partners weren't also massive human rights violators, never seriously worried about environmental enforcement. Mostly, we just made cheap, un-free foreign labor available to Western manufacturers.

Even a onetime die-hard NAFTA cheerleader like staunch Clinton supporter Paul Krugman, who once compared free trade's critics to the anti-evolutionist followers of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial, now admits that the case for "ever-freer" trade is a "scam":

"The elite defense of globalization is basically dishonest: false claims of inevitability, scare tactics (protectionism causes depressions!), vastly exaggerated claims for the benefits of trade liberalization and the costs of protection, hand-waving away the large distributional effects that are what standard models actually predict."

Like Marxism, globalization is a borderless utopian religion. Its adherents almost by definition have to reject advocacy for the citizens of one country over another. Just as "Socialism in One Country" was an anathema to classic Marxists, "prosperity in one country" is an anathema to globalists, no matter what their politicians might say during election seasons.

If you bring up the destruction of the American middle class, pro-globalization adherents will point to facts like the rising fortunes of those hundreds of millions of Chinese workers who are now supposedly above the World Bank definition of poverty, making more than $1.90 a day.

That those same workers still have virtually no rights or benefits and on occasion have to be housed in factories with safety nets to keep them from killing themselves at an astronomical rate is immaterial to True Believers.

They want even American voters to focus on the good news of incrementally increased wages abroad, forgetting that American workers never signed up for a plan to disenfranchise themselves so that workers in China or India could earn a few quarters more per day. Moreover, they certainly didn't elect leaders to push such policies.

The problem with all of this is that the Democrats went so far in the direction of advocacy for the global religion that they made something as idiotic as the rise of unabashed nativist Donald Trump possible.

Worse, Trump's rise will give the Globalist Faith Militant an automatic argument for more time. They will decry any criticism of free trade or globalization as racist Trumpism, and Trump is such a galactic jackass that this will work, his vast inventory of offensive bleatings discrediting even the legitimate economic concerns of his voters.

But expecting American politicians to advocate first and foremost for their own constituents isn't isolationism. It's just rational self-interest, which neoliberals only seem to disbelieve in when it pertains to labor. Moreover we didn't call movements to disinvest from South Africa or the Soviet Union "nativism." We called that idealism.

We haven't shown much of that in the last decades, as huge majorities of Westerners buy cell phones, clothes and other products increasingly likely to have been made by abused sweatshop workers or even children (like the Indonesian eight-year-olds recently found harvesting tobacco sold to the West).

As Krugman explained earlier this year, the question of what to do about any of this is a very hard one. He even called the Bernie Sanders campaign "a bit of a scam itself" because it hinted that anything at all can be done about the vast inequities and injustices of globalization.

Krugman claimed the maze of trade agreements is so entrenched by now that chaos would ensue from any attempt to undo them. A Trump might try, he said, but only as part of a "reign of destruction on many fronts."

Maybe that's true, and maybe it isn't.

But to deny that something needs to be done, and to ask American voters to keep having faith in this "we'll all see gains in the end" fairytale that so far has very conspicuously only delivered gains to a tiny group of very wealthy people in this country, will do nothing but drive more workers into the Trump tent.

And maybe the next strongman those voters pick to lead them out of the wilderness won't be quite as huge an idiot, or as suicidal a campaigner, as Trump. Sooner or later, failing to deal with these questions is going to come back and bite all of us.