President Donald Trump says he has come to regret the harshness of his rhetoric. In a Monday interview with Sinclair Broadcasting, a decidedly friendly outfit, he said, “I would like to have a much softer tone,” and then, by way of explanation, added, “I feel to a certain extent I have no choice, but maybe I do and maybe I could have been softer from that standpoint.” Having vilified his political opponents more or less continuously since 2015, when he first announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Trump lamented the rancorousness of our political debates, suggesting that if it were up to him, he’d happily get along with Democrats in Congress in a spirit of friendliness and mutual regard.
One reaction to Trump’s remarks is to dismiss them as transparently insincere. A cynic might suggest that he was keenly aware that Democrats were poised to secure a large majority in the House the very next day. Sensing a comeuppance, perhaps he saw advantage in presenting himself as an innocent swept along by a poisonous political climate that forced him to be harsher than he’d have otherwise preferred. To those who believe that Trump’s ferocious tone is the essence of Trumpism, the formula that brought him to power, the notion that there is something to his politics beyond his polarizing bombast might strain credulity.
But assume for the moment that Trump is telling the truth—that as much as others might see him as a chief driver of partisan enmity in American life, he sees himself as a “counter-puncher,” not as someone who is looking to pick a fight, and that he really does wish he could have set a more elevated tone during the first years of his presidency. Notwithstanding his preternatural talent for ridicule and fearmongering, Trump’s lament could indicate that he wishes, at least on some level, to transcend it. Or maybe his expressed desire to change his tone is a purely pragmatic concession in the face of incipient political defeat. Either way, to follow through, he will need to recast Trumpism as something more than the politics of rhetorical aggression. What might this mean in practice? It will mean a serious and sustained effort to secure the support of lower-middle-class voters by speaking not just to their patriotism and their traditionalist convictions but also to their material interests.
Though it will take some time to sort through the results of the midterm elections, it seems as though Republicans fared particularly poorly among college-educated voters, especially in densely populated cities and suburbs, while losing ground among blue-collar voters in the Rust Belt, a region where Trump fared notably well in 2016 relative to earlier GOP presidential candidates. Ideally, Republicans would want to win back both constituencies, whom the political analyst Henry Olsen, writing in National Review, refers to as RINOs, or Republicans in Name Only, and TIGRs, or Trump Is Great Republicans. Whereas RINOs dissent from movement conservatism in their relative social liberalism, TIGRs, according to Olsen, “strongly disagree with movement conservatism on business tax cuts, entitlement cuts, and many social issues.”
Trump wooed the TIGRs in 2016 by insisting that he was a different kind of Republican. He styled himself as almost post-ideological, reminding his GOP critics not to forget that “this is called the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party.” Indeed, he explicitly rejected a number of conservative ideological nostrums, including hostility to the safety net, while emphasizing that on the issues of immigration and trade, defending the national interest would be his lodestar. Some RINOs reconciled themselves to Trump’s 2016 synthesis, which stressed economic nationalism while deemphasizing movement conservatism’s emphasis on market freedom, while others did not, in part out of revulsion at his rhetorical excesses. But Trump won enough of them to narrowly win the presidency.
What is striking is that once he was in office, the Republican Party fully embraced the rhetorical side of Trumpism—the taunting, the scapegoating, the theatrics—while failing to come to terms with its ideological dimension, which is to say its departures from the least electorally compelling aspects of limited-government conservatism. In a sense, you could say the GOP’s ideological evolution happened by default. Having promised for years to repeal and replace Obamacare, it soon became clear that a critical mass of GOP lawmakers didn’t quite have the stomach to do so. Whether they were willing to acknowledge it or not, Republicans had accepted that the Obamacare exchanges were here to stay, and that their chief objective was to modestly curb the costs of coverage expansion while hoping that health-care policy would fade into the background. But apart from corporate tax cuts, which proved so uninspiring to the rank and file that GOP candidates barely made mention of them in the closing weeks of the campaign, Republicans offered no affirmative program to revitalize the fortunes of the Rust Belt or rural America. Though Trump’s trade initiatives and his chaotic immigration gambits certainly kept his name in the news, it is not at all clear that they were a net plus.
But then consider the Republican candidates who fared well in 2018—candidates such as Mike Braun, an Indiana business executive who’d been accused by his primary opponents of being insufficiently ideological, and who devoted much of his campaign to establishing his bona fides as an economic nationalist; and Josh Hawley, the youthful attorney general of Missouri, who presented himself as a scourge of powerful tech monopolies, and who adhered closely to Trump’s populist playbook. If there is to be a new GOP domestic policy agenda, one that moves beyond the wish list of the chamber of commerce, it will come from Republicans like them, who recognize their voters’ indifference to movement orthodoxy and their appetite for economic nationalism.
For now, the fate of the Trump-era Republican Party lies in the hands of the TIGRs. If the GOP can consolidate their support, it will be in good stead. If the party fails in this regard, well, there’s really no prospect that socially liberal RINOs residing in coastal enclaves will come back home en masse, so Trump and his allies might as well start preparing for an early retirement.