Ever since New York real-estate executive and reality show host Donald Trump announced his run for the presidency in 2015, conservatives have claimed that Trumpism, sometimes referred to as “national conservatism,” was replacing Reaganism, the doctrine that had dominated the Republican Party and the conservative movement since Ronald Reagan left office.
Reaganism embraced free-market economic principles, an internationalist foreign policy, a strong national defense, and an open door for immigrants, as well as a commitment to American principles and traditional values.
Reaganism and its British version, Thatcherism, have also been associated with an intellectual revolution that swept the West in the 1980s, headed by the likes of Nobel Prize-winning economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and intellectual giants such as Nathan Glaser, Daniel Bell, and Irving Kristol. This revolution was driven by think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, transforming the political discourse worldwide.
As an intellectual-political movement, Reaganism formed a coalition that fused together economic libertarians, national security hawks, and traditionalists, challenging the liberal thinking about the welfare state and the Cold War that evolved after the New Deal and World War II.
In electoral terms, Reaganism built on the earlier success of President Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which helped end the Democrats’ dominance in the former states of the Confederacy, leading to Nixon’s 1972 landslide election victory.
Reagan was able to win the support of so-called “white ethnics,” mostly Catholics whose parents and grandparents immigrated to the country from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe, and who for decades regarded themselves as part of the Democratic coalition formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR).
Reagan’s landslide 1984 re-election demonstrates how Reaganism was turned into a political brand that helped create a new winning GOP coalition. It relied on the support of Reagan Democrats and Southern voters and maintained the backing of traditional Republican voters, ranging from Western ranchers to liberal white professionals to country club Republicans.
In a way, if it wasn’t for the third-party candidacy of Ross Perot in 1992 ruining Republican President George H. W. Bush’s chances of re-election, Reaganism’s electoral push may not have been halted by Clintonism, which itself was a product of an effort by centrist Democrats to embrace parts of the Reaganist political and economic agendas.
Now we are told by adherents of Trumpism and national conservatism that the unremarkable Trump presidency supposedly ushered in a new political age. Conservatives will now de-couple themselves from Reaganism, replacing it with a new intellectual brand—a mishmash of protectionism, isolationism, nativism, and, let’s not forget, populism.
Moreover, the Trumpists celebrated what they predicted would be a new winning Republican majority, consisting of blue-collar workers from the Rust Belt and rural voters who deserted the Democratic Party—imagined by Trumpists to be “Trump Democrats”—while continuing to maintain the support of Southerners, Evangelical Christians, devout Catholics, and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
This grand theory has been tested. Unfortunately for the Trumpists, their political icon—who had already lost the popular vote in 2016—failed to lead his new coalition to an electoral victory in the 2020 presidential election, while also losing the Republican majority in the House and the Senate. Add to that the results of the 2022 midterm election, which delivered a devastating blow to Trump’s long-term political aspirations, with the majority of the candidates he endorsed losing critical Senate, House, and governorship races.
While midterm elections typically see the incumbent president's party lose a substantial number of seats, the Democrats dramatically overcame this historical trend and won a net gain in the Senate, with the Republicans losing the Senate runoff in Georgia, a traditionally Republican state.
In fact, like in the 2021 Georgia runoff, opinion polls indicate that the Republicans’ 2022 losses resulted from a Trump-induced electoral reality: a large percentage of white suburban Republicans, especially women, have abandoned the GOP.
These Republicans rejected Trump and the “populist” message that he and his endorsed candidates promoted, particularly the big lie about the “stolen” 2020 presidential election, and were shaken by the January 6 assault on the Capitol that Trump helped instigate. They voted instead for the Democrats, despite the fact that the aging and unpopular President Joe Biden had presided over a weak economy. Call them the Biden Republicans?
It's true that Trump's victory in 2016 amounted to a wake-up call for Republican and Democratic leaders, who faced fierce backlash for their free trade and interventionist foreign policies and failure to control immigration. But there were no indications that the narrowness of Trump’s 2016 win amounted to the beginning of an electoral realignment, a la FDR or Reagan, that could also provide the basis for intellectual and political revolutions to change the face of the GOP and the conservative movement.
Those who voted for Trump in 2016, including this author, thought that some of his ideas—including his call to end wars for “regime change” and “democracy promotion” in the Middle East, to press NATO allies to pay more for their defense, and his emphasis on reassessing the policy of “engagement” with China and trade strategy in general—made a lot of sense.
In fact, these ideas made so much sense that even before Trump entered office, very few Republicans and Democrats in Washington were advocating for new military interventions in the Middle East or the signing of major trade deals, while a bipartisan consensus was emerging on the need to challenge the status quo in the U.S.-China relationship. Hence, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had already declared her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal that would have opened American markets for competition with emerging Asian economies.
The rising progressive wing of Clinton’s party embraced a radical protectionist agenda that would have made it impossible for any president to advance a major trade liberalizing agenda, and the consensus among lawmakers from both parties was that the Europeans should pay more for their defense. They were just too tired to repeat that for the hundredth time.
In a way, Hillary’s defeat in 2016 reflected the Democrats’ reliance on a political fad, call it Obamism, which suggested that Barack Obama’s two presidential wins marked the emergence of a new Democratic majority consisting of women, Blacks, Hispanics, gays, and educated young urban professionals. Clinton’s election campaign focused on retaining the support of these groups and diverted attention from the white blue-collar workers who were part of the Democratic coalition.
The imaginary new Republican majority promoted by adherents of Trumpism is a mirror image of the fantasy of Obamism. In both cases, one could spot real electoral trends: the evolution of multicultural coalitions driven by the election of Obama, and the resentment of economically distressed blue-collar workers attracted to Trump’s anti-elite message.
But those trends didn’t amount to the kind of intellectual revolution and electoral realignment that drove New Deal liberalism and Reaganism. Reagan’s white ethnic voters were young and, together with the South, provided the GOP with long-term electoral strength.
Was the Republican Party going to depend for its growth on the support of old and resentful white voters who were part of the declining manufacturing sector and were electorally (and literally) dying, while at the same time giving up on the votes of educated middle-class Republicans, not to mention young professionals?
Even more perplexing are the intellectual pretensions of the so-called national conservatives, promoting a nativist dogma and flirting with theocratic views at a time when Republicans hope to win the support of Hispanic and Asian-American voters and the nation is becoming not only more multi-ethnic, but also more secular.
Republicans and conservatives should welcome a debate over trade and foreign policy to help reinvigorate a more realpolitik approach that advances American geo-strategic and geo-economic interests. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to advocate isolationism when the majority of Americans support the U.S. military presence in Europe and back Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression. Moreover, the many conservative nationalists urging more active support for Taiwan against China need to explain how that approach, as well as the abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, aligns with their call for global U.S. military retrenchment.
There is something pathetic about an American intellectual movement with a motto of “America First” whose leading founder, Yoram Hazony, is an Israeli “philosopher” and Likud supporter, and whose members see European Union member Hungary and its authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, as symbols of the struggle against the “globalist elites.”
In any case, it’s doubtful that the Trumpists will be able to market their protectionist and anti-China agenda at a time when Biden and the Democratic Party are promoting and implementing those same ideas. If anything, Biden has expanded on Trump’s tariffs against China and other states. In fact, Biden’s approach towards China on many fronts is more aggressive than that of his predecessor, as he is using the Buy American Act to pursue an activist industrial policy that includes government subsidies for domestic industries.
At the end of the day, from a Republican perspective, Trump’s two major achievements as president were the nomination of three conservative Supreme Court justices and a series of tax reforms that favored not the “forgotten Americans” but American corporations and the wealthy. Reagan would have been proud.