Over the last two plus years, the prevailing assumption has been that the Trump phenomenon is part of a greater populist backlash against the corrosive effects of cosmopolitan globalism. Trump’s alleged populism is linked to nationalist movements in Europe, where natives are rebelling against the migrant invasions. Despite the superficial similarities, what’s happening in America may not be analogous to what’s happening in Europe. Instead, the Trump phenomena may be the last echo of old stock America.
If you look at what Trump has actually done in office, versus what he has said, his presidency has been rather conventional. He has cut a lot of regulations, which is pretty standard Republican stuff. He got a tax overhaul passed, which is also standard issue Republicanism. His judges are all right out of the Federalist society. Otherwise, the Trump administration has been what we would have got from Jeb bush, except the marketing of it has been much more entertaining than what you get from standard issue conservatives.
What Trump’s presidency looks like is an echo of the Reagan presidency. Reagan ran on a platform to roll back the cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. He did not explicitly say it, but that’s what everyone assumed. He talked about shrinking government, reforming taxes, rolling back the cultural excesses like abortion and affirmative action. He also talked about economics and foreign policy, but the people who voted for him were looking at the domestic items. People really believed the Reagan revolution was a rollback.
That last bit has been understandably forgotten by the current ruling class. They don’t even talk about the Reagan Democrat phenomenon. That was the great re-alignment in the 1980’s that carried into the 1990’s. Working class whites, who had always voted Democrat, changed parties over the culture issues. Things like taxes and regulation were nice, but what got them to change parties was the culture war. They voted for Reagan because they believed he would fix everything broken in the 60’s and 70’s.
Instead, Reagan delivered a huge military buildup, massive deficits, bigger government and a debt fueled economic boom. All the talk of entitlement reform ended, for example, when it threatened the military buildup. Despite the enormous support from social conservatives, Reagan delivered nothing on that front. Of course, the currency reforms in the Reagan years made today’s debt boom possible. Then there was immigration reform, which is turning out to be the Gipper’s most important policy achievement.
Reagan was the Baby Boomer’s ideal president, in that he delivered to middle-class boomers exactly what they wanted. They were in their prime work years, so they got low taxes, a roaring economy and booming investment climate. Their parents were getting old, so they got assurance the government would pay for all the entitlements. Of course, the boomer kids were in school, so we got a boom in education spending. Boomers have always been socially liberal, so nothing was ever done to address the cultural stuff.
The way to look at the 1980’s is as an echo of Eisenhower’s America. Watch movies from the period, like Star Wars or Indiana Jones, and what you see are remakes of the wholesome action films middle-class boomers grew up on as kids. Even the foreign policy stuff had a whiff of Eisenhower’s era. Instead of kids hiding under their desks at school, kids watched movies like Red Dawn or The Day After to get good and scared about the the Soviets. The 1980’s were a Spielberg remake of the 1950’s.
Trump won election as a remake of the Reagan election. It’s not a perfect analogy, but people forget that the Gipper talked pretty tough on the campaign trail. The tone police followed him around too. As much as Trump gets cast as the white nationalist’s president, he’s pretty much just standard middle American white guy, in terms of his politics and delivery. Like Reagan, the white working class voted for him thinking he would roll back the last three decades of excess. Just as with Reagan, none of that is going to happen.
Instead, he is delivering what the middle-class boomers want. They are heading into retirement, so keeping the stock market humming and making sure inflation is in check is their top priority. Of course, entitlements cannot be touched. As for immigration, nothing is going to change, because this is not important to them. They live in nice safe suburbs and rely on the little brown guys to mow the lawn. Maybe the visiting nurse is from Trinidad or perhaps the grand kids nanny is a nice Guatemalan woman who is teaching them Mam.
The trouble, of course, is that middle-class boomers are a shrinking block. The invasion plus the actuarial tables are making them less of a factor. The remnants of the old Reagan coalition came out of mothballs to shock the pollsters and the political elite in 2016, but they are not making that mistake again. As we saw in the midterms, they can manufacture all the foreign votes they need to win the 2020 election. This echo of old heritage America, is going to be weaker and shorter than the Reagan echo. It will be the last.