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How the Party of Reagan Became the Party of Trump

Conservative and Republican elites mocked the populist revolt in their midst right up until the moment they embraced and enabled it
July 16, 2021
How the Party of Reagan Became the Party of Trump
In 1964, Reagan gave a televised speech on the eve of an election. He campaigned unofficially throughout 1965 for the California Governership, announcing his candidacy at the end of the year. Here, his supporters reach for a handshake with the future President.

Picture this: In a clash and clang of antagonism toward the Republican establishment, a sizable portion of the base of the party congeals around a vociferous, divisive figure. He has little use for the American conservative creed, with its prudent devotion to preserving liberty by keeping government limited and by giving order and virtue their due. This rambunctious tribune repudiates both the substance and style of the Republican party—for decades the vessel for the conservative program—including its vigorous support for free trade and a decent international order. He professes indifference to the national debt, refusing even to contemplate any cuts in the generosity of big middle-class spending programs like Medicare and Social Security. The party’s inclusive attitude toward ethnic and religious minorities and its palpable respect for immigrants has no claim on him. His speeches infuriate both the Democrats and the GOP establishment, which only cements his bond with the base.

Not Donald Trump in 2016 but Pat Buchanan in 1992. A former White House aide to two Republican presidents, Buchanan had grown alienated from the party of Lincoln on account of its core philosophical premises and policy commitments. A quarter of a century before Trump declared his candidacy for the nation’s highest office on a platform of “America First,” Pat Buchanan beat the New York real estate mogul to the punch: “We will put America first,” Buchanan said in 1991. The previous year, he penned an essay for the National Interest titled “America First—and Second, and Third.” It reads less like the rhetoric of Ronald Reagan than that of populist Democrats from William Jennings Bryan onward.

“In retrospect, if anyone represented a warning sign of the populist tsunami that would hit the Republican Party two decades later, it was Buchanan,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib in We Should Have Seen it Coming, his book on the post-Reagan GOP, published last year and out soon in paperback. The early waves of what would become known as Trumpism were surging below the surface for years before they ultimately broke onto the shore—first of the Republican party and later upon the republic itself.

Buchanan’s candidacy repays study not only for the light it sheds on the movement that eventually brought Trump into the White House, but to help discern the contours of the next populist insurgency to come. Buchanan’s platform was at once a deep howl of rage against the American system at home and the liberal order abroad. He represented a kind of fusion between Henry Wallace in foreign policy and George Wallace in domestic affairs. His populist nationalism was heretical in the American establishment as a whole, but—and this must be stressed—especially so in the Republican party.

Buchanan fingered the GOP’s preference for free-market economics and global trade as the cause of factories being shuttered in the industrial heartland, and he favored protectionism and a robust industrial policy to insulate American manufacturers and factory workers from the stiff winds of foreign competition. Convinced that liberal immigration policies were driving down working-class wages and dissolving social bonds, Buchanan also favored a more restrictionist policy, with a distinct bias against nonwhite, non-Christian foreigners. In this new Kulturkampf—literally: Buchanan invoked the term “cultural war” in his speech at the 1992 Republican convention—Buchanan sided with “forgotten Americans” and “conservatives of the heart.”

But it was in foreign policy where Buchanan most consciously and adamantly broke ranks with the Republican elite. Buchanan assailed the principles of military strength and international activism that had guided the party since the dawn of the Cold War when Senator Arthur Vandenberg rallied Republican support for the Truman doctrine. With barely concealed hostility, Buchanan echoed Democrats’ criticisms of President George H.W. Bush’s measured stewardship of American power. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Bush lent vital aid to the cause of German reunification that avoided embarrassing Gorbachev after the Soviet Union lost the crown jewel of its empire. He then led an international coalition to liberate Kuwait, the tiny Persian Gulf state groaning under brutish Iraqi domination.

Furious at this open assertion, however modest, of American hegemony after the decline and fall of Soviet communism, Buchanan decided to mount a primary challenge against the sitting president of his own party. This was not unprecedented; Reagan had challenged President Ford for the Republican nomination in 1976, but that effort had been stirred by resistance to a feeble American position in the world, not a muscular one. Reagan’s team had introduced for inclusion in the 1976 party platform a plank on the subject of “Morality in Foreign Policy” that amounted to a frontal attack on Ford and Kissinger’s policy of détente toward the Soviet Union. Buchanan’s challenge was founded on something closer to the opposite principle, seeking to remove ethical considerations from foreign policy and restore what he envisioned to be the republican character of the country against its modern imperial pretensions. In Buchanan’s mind, as Seib puts it, “Bush’s interventions in Europe and the Middle East amounted to global overreach that distracted the government from helping working-class Americans.”

The chief value of Seib’s work can be found in his insight that today’s Republican message sounds so different from the one of yesteryear because there are very different Republicans at the helm now. Buchanan began the rearrangement of political grammar on the right by making an explicit appeal to a different set of voters than the old Republican regulars. Traditional Republicans tended to defend markets and resist economic redistribution; Buchanan’s voters were skeptical of markets and defended, at least up to a point, economic redistribution. According to Seib, Buchanan had “a particular affinity for the downscale, working-class Reagan Democrats who had moved from their traditional moorings in the Democratic party and became Republicans because of Ronald Reagan.” In that ’92 convention speech, Buchanan praised the “tough, hardy men” who “don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke.” Since this working-class constituency has been the driving force behind the recent realignment of American politics, it is important to note just who the Reagan Democrats were, and what originally caused their breach with the Democratic party.

Reagan Democrats were disillusioned with Democratic elites and interest groups that indulged, when they did not extol, the campus radicalism and systematic vilification of American traditions in the decade before Reagan entered the White House. Eventually, these culturally conservative Democrats quit the party just as Reagan himself had done two decades earlier. But whereas Reagan had quit the Democratic party over its embrace of the federal leviathan and its growing disaffection with liberal anti-communism, many in the white working class felt they had been driven out by the excesses of the cultural left. Even as they joined up with the Republican party, they had no objective interest in the ideological program that animated Reagan, much less that of the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

The Reagan Democrats shared Buchanan’s nostalgic instincts and largely felt at home under his paleoconservative banner. They also scorned the Republican agenda on such issues as immigration, trade, and America’s overseas commitments. And so, when these voters entered the GOP after 1980 they brought with them a preference for particularism (especially along the lines of class and race and religion) that had long been a hallmark of Democratic politics. Reagan famously claimed that he hadn’t left the Democratic party but rather had been left by it. These new converts, despite their weariness of the doctrinaire left, remained sympathetic toward the party of FDR as it had been configured in generations past.

While these white working-class voters soon claimed a respected place in the Republican coalition, they did not immediately supplant the established cohort of upper-middle-class managers and upwardly mobile professionals that formed the conservative spine of the Republican party. In 1992, it was this old guard that ensured that in the GOP primary Bush triumphed handily over Buchanan’s “pitchfork brigade.” Yet the Jacksonian revolt that Buchanan (and, in the same year, the madcap candidacy of Ross Perot) called forth had wounded Bush politically, contributing to his defeat that November. Although the pitchfork hadn’t quite prevailed, it had been fashioned for future use.

The outsider who eventually took up the pitchfork and carried it into the White House had no love lost for either party’s establishment. It was hardly a foregone conclusion, as Seib notes, that Donald Trump, who had long been “nibbling around the edges of presidential politics,” would stand for the Republican nomination. “He was barely a Republican. When the Wall Street Journal checked into his party registration over the years, it found he was registered as a Republican in 1987, switched to the Independence Party in 1999, became a Democrat in 2001, returned to the Republican party in 2009, gave up his party affiliation in 2011, and came back to the Republicans in 2012. Since 1999, he had given more money to Democrats than to Republicans.” To his credit, if that’s the word, Trump admitted that he was running for the Republican party nomination as something other than as a conservative.

So if not a conservative, what was Trump? He called himself a nationalist. But there was always an insuperable problem with this claim: American populism has long carried a heavy dose of nationalism that is not merely at odds with traditional American conservatism but also traditional American nationalism. This was arguably Buchanan’s greatest and most dangerous innovation. For nearly a half-century, American conservatives had believed that although the nation-state has been the laboratory of liberty, American nationalism was founded on a universal creed of natural rights. Robust internationalism in service of anti-communism colored the postwar conservative movement and the Republican party. Buchanan gave voice to an older, more provincial nationalism that had long been dormant on the American right—since 1941, give or take—and that enjoyed more respectability in certain quarters of the left.

It was this more selfish and crabbed worldview that, years hence, would be repurposed and brought to prominence by Donald Trump. How effective was Trump at scrambling our political categories? Ask yourself these questions:

If you support America’s free trade regime, are you on the left or the right?

If you tend to support America’s overseas military commitments and its national-security state, are you on the left or the right?

If you support reforms to America’s overburdened welfare state, are you on the left or the right?

These questions would have been easier to answer five years ago.

Seib avoids the tendentious (and ludicrous) presumption of some on the progressive left that Trump was cut from the same ideological cloth as previous Republican standardbearers. For them, Trump represented the latest in a long line of xenophobic and racist Republicans whose tenures had besmirched the republic. Seib appropriately takes Trump’s measure as an “alien virus” that had invaded and taken over the body that conservatives had controlled for decades. After Trump seized the Republican nomination, the conservative movement and the Republican party, which together “had been the most powerful force in American politics for the preceding forty years, “essentially parted company.” Seib’s verdict is as final as it is unarguable: “The party of Reagan had become the party of Trump.”

But Seib also pours cold water on those unreflective conservatives who once imagined that the Trump storm emerged out of the clear blue sky. Seib confesses, without elaborating, that he didn’t take seriously enough the warning signs: The doomed presidential race of Pat Buchanan. The anti-establishment vice presidential campaign of Sarah Palin. The Tea Party revolt, which accelerated the populist transformation of the GOP during the Obama years. But the conservative establishment—and, here, Seib’s Wall Street Journal opinion page was no exception—treated talk of reform as blasphemy. Thoughtful criticisms of particular policy totems were treated as wicked deviations from conservative principles instead of as necessary efforts to refine and update the conservative agenda for the twenty-first century.

This was certainly true on the question of immigration, which Trump used to destructive but powerful effect. There was little appetite in the political class to question the prudence of America inviting more immigrants than any other nation on earth—immigrants who had not, by and large, been selected for their abilities to contribute to the American economy. Instead of thinking hard about the complicated implications of America’s immigration regime, it was taken as an article of faith that a flood of low-skilled immigration was an inherent good that carried no significant social and economic costs—and, moreover, that the Republican message of tax cuts and entitlement reform would, over time, appeal to low-skilled immigrant voters. Even today, a respected and representative voice in elite Republican circles, Peggy Noonan—whose endorsement graces Seib’s back cover—makes something like that case: There’s “no reason to believe the bulk of immigrants,” she argues, “want to tax people to death or see an economic system they risked so much to enter radically altered.” Republicans can thus compete with the left’s identity politics if they present a respectful “here’s-where-we-stand politics” of their own.

This is unconvincing, for various reasons—not least the finding that support for Trump among Hispanic voters surged in 2020, when the Republican message was very different.

Tim Pawlenty had been right in 2002 when he observed that Republicans were ceasing to be the country club party and were instead becoming the “Sam’s Club party.” As the GOP has moved downscale over time, relying heavily on white voters without college degrees, the Democratic party has moved more upscale, laying claim to being the “Whole Foods party.” Seib flags some telling statistics on this “sorting out”: Between the elections of 2008 and 2018, economic output from congressional districts represented by Republicans remained essentially flat, while the economic output in districts represented by Democrats rose on average by 37 percent. Over the same period, median household income jumped nearly 17 percent in Democratic districts while falling 3 percent in Republican ones. A similar partisan disparity shows in terms of educational attainment. When congressional districts are measured in terms of concentration of residents with bachelor’s degrees, the top seventeen districts all are represented by Democrats.

This shift in the class composition of each party has had dramatic effects upon the shape of American politics, and there’s no sign of this phenomenon abating anytime soon. The new class consciousness and changing base of political support will transform the partisan character and public policy preferences of the respective parties, and may breed new ones as Americans come to grips with the ugly reality that the political systems of both parties have rotted out. The desperate search for a third party will continue to be more futile than a shrewd political entrepreneur entering one party and making it over in his or her own image. The best that can be hoped for in this event is that the candidate who emerges is a statesman and not a demagogue, with an eye to serving the national interest, and not feeding tribal resentments or a personality cult.

In the nineties, Republican party bosses rudely (and appropriately) shoved Buchanan aside while prominent conservatives scorned and reproached Buchanan and (nearly) all his works. This was not—to put it mildly—the response from the right toward Buchanan’s populist successor in 2016. After some initial skepticism toward Trump, conservative donors and intellectuals (with a few honorable exceptions) bent the knee and became complicit in his brazen corruption of American institutions.

Seib concludes his account with the 2019 “National Conservatism” conference that gathered Trump-friendly intellectuals and politicians pursuing an impossible formula for “squaring the conservative movement” with Trump’s vision of America First. The conference’s principal organizer, Yoram Hazony, claimed that after the Cold War the conservative movement became drunk with the feeling of power as a result of the victory over communism. In Hazony’s mind, this complacency incubated a widespread belief in a “new world order” in which an unrivaled America “could thrive as a kind of borderless state in the middle of a global economy in which national identity didn’t matter.” Hazony called for a new conservative dispensation that disposed of these illusions. It amounted to a rejection of the old conservative catechism, including Reagan’s belief (as Seib puts it) “in free trade, the virtues of immigration, and a strong American leadership role beyond America’s borders.” Modern conservatism, Hazony insisted, needed to repair to older customs, tradition, and religion. His is a vision unmoved by the necessity or justice of America’s world leadership; it has little use for the postwar conception of global responsibilities.

The brash insouciance of the conservative old guard, in refusing to take seriously the claims and concerns raised by Buchanan and his successors, allowed the causes of populist discontent to fester—with economic mobility stalling and class divisions widening until Trump volunteered himself as the only remedy.

It will vex historians that the vast majority of conservative and Republican elites subjected the populist revolt in their midst to mockery and contempt until the moment they unabashedly embraced and enabled it. This flight from reason and responsibility has had terrible consequences in American public life. The left became enraged and energized by Trump, veering into an extremist “woke” direction of its own, while the right simply caved to Trump and laid waste to the conservative sensibility that once animated and ennobled the Republican party.

It is impossible to read Seib’s account of the transformation of the GOP without wondering about alternate histories and possible futures. Might a more public-spirited conservative movement have disenthralled itself from the dogmas of the quiet past to think anew? The conservatism that could have forestalled Trump’s rise, and that could perhaps forestall the rise of the next demagogue, would intelligently confront the genuine public concerns that Trump exploited but failed to redress: the effects of mass immigration, global trade, downward social mobility, and diminished opportunity.

What would this alternate vision of conservative politics look like in practice?

The guiding lights of the modern conservative movement have been a muscular anti-totalitarian foreign policy, at once nationalist and internationalist; free markets and limited government at home; and moral traditionalism. Any conservatism worthy of the name must continue to uphold these themes, while being agile about their application in new circumstances.

Some of Trump’s stalwarts deride “zombie Reaganism” on the sensible grounds that the problems of today are markedly different than the problems of a half-century ago, and call for a different set of remedies. There can be no return to the pre-Trump consensus on policy. But not all reforms are equally creditable. Some traditional conservative priorities—especially an emphasis on economic growth and national strength—remain vital to any such forward-looking politics. But that can only be a start. Beyond ensuring a dynamic economy and the material basis of international leadership, a modernized conservative policy agenda would seek to arrest the fragmentation of twenty-first-century America that is causing widespread dislocation, isolation, and alienation from the American dream. It must speak respectfully but firmly to the new Trump stalwarts, in hopes of winning over disaffected Americans of all stripes. Revisiting the “reform conservatism” policy ideas of a decade ago, all but forgotten during the Trump years, could be a one place to start.

Alas, none of this will be possible so long as American conservatism and the Republican party remain in thrall to Donald Trump. No decent political program can be built on the foundation of personal and political corruption that Trump evinced every day of his term in office.

And for the GOP to return to being an enlightened political organ, it must cease to be a vehicle for what the late sociologist Pierre van den Berghe called “Herrenvolk democracy,” the identification of “the people” with the numerically largest racial or religious community in a nation-state. It will need to offer an approach more benign than Trump’s vulgar and abusive demagoguery, and more constructive than the kneejerk adversarialism of today’s right toward the votaries of managerial liberalism. It must be committed to what Benjamin Disraeli called “one-nation conservatism.”

Republicans who hold fast to that older conservative tradition, and have the imagination and fortitude to implement it, should make clear that they are the proper stewards of the national interest that Trump—and Buchanan before him—occasionally lauded but never actually comprehended, much less advanced. For that noble tradition to be revived the right will need not more vapid appeals to “unity” after Trump, but considerably more heat. With any luck, it will bring some illumination to this party enduring a very long night.

Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart is a New York-based political writer. Follow him on Twitter @bstewart1776.