In the ongoing battle to define the future of American conservatism, the tax-cutting, free-trading, union-busting Republicans who dominated the party before Donald Trump’s rise are eager to present themselves as the authentic choice. But GOP voters have become deeply sceptical of globalisation, big business and Wall Street. They identify more closely with workers’ interests. A corporate-friendly agenda formulated more than 40 years ago holds little appeal.
Thus the Old Right, searching for favourable ground on which to confront what it perceives as a noxiously “populist” New Right, is fervently claiming the mantle of “fiscal discipline”.
Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, former US senator John Danforth warned that, “populists are now attempting to uproot policies deeply planted in Republican conservatism. We are the party of fiscal discipline, but the national debt rose nearly 40 per cent during Mr Trump’s presidency.”
Robert Doar, president of the business-friendly American Enterprise Institute, cited approvingly Danforth’s “case for traditional conservative principles against the caterwauling of the populist New Right” and warned that “the statist policies populists embrace have far more in common with Democrats’ progressivism than limited-government conservatism.”
In his analysis of the GOP’s struggle to elect a Speaker of the House in January, former Speaker Paul Ryan declared Trump was “fading fast” and applauded “Republicans . . . reacquiring their moorings [as] the party of fiscal responsibility.”
On the campaign trail, Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley has criticised Trump on similar grounds, lamenting that he “didn’t do anything on fiscal policy and really spent a lot of money, and we’re all paying the price for it.”
Which Republican party are they thinking of? Surely not the American one, which has reliably expanded deficits at every turn for more than four decades. Danforth is correct that the national debt rose nearly 40 per cent during Trump’s presidency, but that performance was downright miserly by the standard of his predecessors.