Trump rejected and ridiculed the dogmas of the post-Reagan Republican Party. He professed to speak for working people as Reagan had—but whereas Reagan spoke to what was good and generous in them, Trump exploited what was angry and aggrieved. In Reagan’s final public address, at the Republican convention of 1992, he requested this epitaph for himself.
And whatever else history may say about me when I'm gone, I hope it will record that I appealed to your best hopes, not your worst fears, to your confidence rather than your doubts.
Whatever else history may say of Donald Trump, it won’t say that.
Lilla provoked angry reaction by critiquing intellectually dominant—and at least politically influential—factions on the left. The factions criticized by Olsen, on the other hand, have already been disheartened and discredited by the course of events. For the time being, at least, they lack the strength or spirit to argue back.
If silenced, however, the factions criticized by Olsen have not been subdued. Trump built a white working-class coalition. He did not deliver a working-class politics. He did not deliver much of anything. Immigration laws are being enforced a little more strictly than before—but not in the workplace, where it matters most. The project of a Trans-Pacific Partnership was cancelled, at large strategic cost, but no new trade agenda has been substituted. Trade policies that, unlike TPP, were actually in place in January 2017 remain in place in September, including NAFTA, so reviled by Trump. Instead of advancing a worker-friendly healthcare policy, Trump could think of nothing better than to revert to the pre-Obamacare status quo, on a more or less gradual schedule.
Olsen recognizes this.
Imagine if Trump were to leave office, for whatever reason, tomorrow. Where would conservatism and the Republican Party be? Would voters across the broad potential Republican coalition have started to think of themselves as Republicans? Or would they view a Trump-less party as just what it was before, something that excited hard-core conservatives and business types but seemed cold and uncaring to others who would prefer not to vote for progressive Democrats?
The donor base and the congressional leadership of the GOP hope for the latter outcome: a Republican party that reverts to what it was before. Their strategy for achieving that outcome is to cooperate with Trump in the short term, counting on him to blow up and his movement to blow over. Who these days is making a public argument for Paul Ryan-style Republicanism? Not even Paul Ryan.
The result is that the people Olsen is trying to change will not join the argument he is trying to start.
Olsen and Lilla share a message: Politics must be affirmative. Opposition—whether to “big government” or “white supremacy”—is a mood, not a program.