Last week brought a new conventional wisdom to Washington: Internationalism is back. Donald Trump’s military strike in Syria, his embrace of the Export-Import bank, his acknowledgment that China isn’t actually manipulating its currency, and his public humiliation of Steve Bannon sparked a rash of articles suggesting that Trump’s presidency may not signal the rise of nativist nationalism after all. Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, H.R. McMaster, and Gary Cohn won’t permit it.
But the balance of power inside a White House doesn’t necessarily reflect the balance of power inside a party. At times during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, moderates like James Baker outmaneuvered conservatives like Edwin Meese and Pat Buchanan. In his second term, George W. Bush preferred Condoleezza Rice’s foreign-policy counsel to Dick Cheney’s.
Baker and Rice, however, represented a brand of moderate conservatism that was declining outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. They owed their influence to bureaucratic skill and personal affinity; Meese and Cheney were connected to growing movements in the country at large. And those movements kept growing inside the Republican Party even when the influence of Meese and Cheney themselves fell.
That’s the case with Steve Bannon today. He may have fallen out of Trump’s favor. But inside the GOP, the tribal nationalism he espouses is rising nonetheless.
It’s easy to forget how weak Bannon’s brand of nationalism was just a few years ago. In 2013, the Republican National Committee answered Mitt Romney’s loss with an “autopsy” that called on the party to “champion comprehensive immigration reform.” That year, 14 Republican senators voted for just that. And even those Republicans who opposed giving the undocumented a path to citizenship generally stressed their fondness for legal immigration. When Jeff Sessions offered an amendment in 2013 to reduce it, he was outvoted in committee 17 to one.
This pro-immigration spirit shaped the early stages of the Republican primary campaign. Marco Rubio announced his candidacy at Miami’s equivalent of Ellis Island. In his announcement speech, Jeb Bush quoted Ronald Reagan as saying that “we should stop thinking of our neighbors as foreigners.” He then rattled off several sentences in Spanish. Even Ted Cruz, who was determined to be the purest conservative in the race, called in his announcement speech for a “legal immigration system that welcomes and celebrates those who come to achieve the American dream.”
Trump did not. Perhaps because he was not beholden to the GOP’s pro-immigration business and political elites, he embraced the Jeff Sessions-Ann Coulter line that third-world immigration—legal as well as illegal—was a problem. And through his success, he showed how potent anti-immigration sentiment was inside the GOP. Over the course of the campaign, as Molly Ball has noted, “Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, even Jeb Bush” moved toward Trump’s position.
That trend has continued since Trump’s election. This year, when two Republican senators proposed cutting legal immigration in half, Rubio—who had celebrated legal immigration during his campaign—said he was open to the idea. As Ramesh Ponnuru has noted, “immigration is rapidly becoming a defining issue for American conservatism.” Jared Kushner can wield all the influence he wants. Bannon’s views on immigration are ascendant in the GOP.
It’s the same with trade. At the start of the 2016 presidential campaign, supporting trade deals was considered a strongly held Republican view. The year before, 49 out of 54 Republican Senators had voted to give President Obama the “fast-track” authority necessary to push the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) through Congress. In 2014, Republicans had told the Pew Research Center that free-trade deals benefited the United States by a margin of 19 points. Trump changed that. By the fall of 2016, by a whopping 44-point margin, Republicans told Pew that trade deals harmed the United States. And as on immigration, other Republicans raced to keep up. As the campaign wore on, both Rubio and Cruz grew more hostile to TPP. When Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP negotiations in his first days in office, even formerly staunch free-traders like House Majority Leader Paul Ryan cheered.
The GOP has moved in Bannon’s direction on war, too. In June 2015, according to Gallup, only 31 percent of Republicans called the Iraq War a mistake. When Trump called it one in February 2016, Rubio, Bush, Cruz, and Kasich all disagreed. Each argued that, given what George W. Bush knew at the time, he was right to topple Saddam Hussein. I suspect that far fewer Republican voters or politicians would say so today.
Even Trump’s bombing of Syria shows how the mood inside the party has changed. Yes, most Republicans supported it. Americans tend to support military action at first, especially when a president of their own party launches it. But influential conservatives—from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham to thousands of commenters on Breitbart—denounced the attack. That’s new. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq, a far riskier undertaking, conservative support was nearly unanimous. Coulter and Ingraham supported it themselves. There is now a powerful faction of Republicans willing to oppose even limited military strikes launched by a Republican president. Under George W. Bush, that simply wasn’t the case.
But if Trump has moved the GOP toward nationalism and nativism, why can’t he—or a future Republican leader—move it back? They could, but it won’t be easy because the Republican coalition has changed. Between 1992 and 2016, the percentage of whites with college degrees that identified as Republicans dropped five points. Over that same period, the percentage of whites with a high-school degree or less who identified as Republicans rose 18 points. Blue-collar Republicans are far more hostile to immigration and free trade than their white-collar counterparts. And as Walter Russell Mead has famously observed, they tend to be “Jacksonian” on foreign policy. When they feel threatened, they support ferocious military attacks. But they have little appetite for expending blood or treasure on behalf of international norms or commitments from which they perceive little personal benefit.
As Ron Brownstein correctly notes, these views are still underrepresented in Washington, where corporate interests and a hawkish foreign-policy class push the GOP toward internationalism. But over time, the shift among grassroots Republicans will reshape Washington institutions that rely on conservative eyeballs or small-donor donations.
Ten or even five years ago, The Weekly Standard was more influential than Breitbart. Now it’s the reverse. Listen to Fox News these days and you’ll hear little enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan and a lot of enthusiasm for keeping Afghans out of the United States.
Over time, nationalist conservatives will even develop an intellectual class. In January, a former student of the influential conservative Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield created a journal called American Affairs to give Bannonism intellectual heft. The job of neoconservative intellectuals, Irving Kristol once claimed, is “to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong.” As ordinary Republicans move in a nationalist and nativist direction, nationalist and nativist intellectuals will emerge to do the same thing.
My old colleague Jonathan Chait once wrote that in interpreting politics, it’s important to distinguish between the weather, which constantly fluctuates, and the climate, which defines the broad parameters within which those fluctuations occur. The weather turned bad for Steve Bannon last week. But the climate inside the Republican Party is likely to be conducive to his views for years to come.
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