On Tuesday November 3, 2020—back when votes for the presidential election were still being counted—Republican Senator Josh Hawley tweeted out, “We are a working class party now. That’s the future.” Hawley’s tweet was based on early exit polls showing that Donald Trump was outperforming expectations and had won Florida. His claim has a basis in reality: Trump’s success in 2016 and his near-victory in 2020 (Joe Biden’s narrow triumph resting on fewer than 44,000 votes in three states) was due to the former reality-show star’s strong appeal to white non-college-educated voters. To be sure, the white working class was trending toward the GOP before Trump arrived on the scene. But in 2016 he solidified and intensified this trend through a shrewd message of economic populism: Trump eschewed traditional Republican calls for cuts to Medicare and Social Security, hinted that he’d replace Obamacare with his own better version of health care, criticized globalism in the form of trade agreements that led to the loss of manufacturing jobs, and called for immigration restrictions as a way to bolster wages.
There’s evidence that Trump’s populism in 2020 helped him to gain traction not just with the white working class but also with blue-collar people of color, especially Latinos.
As president, Trump delivered on some of these promises, although with mixed results. It’s debatable whether the new trade deals he negotiated (notably reworking NAFTA as the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement) mark a significant change. But the more adversarial relationship with China that Trump initiated did have an impact, as can be seen by the fact it is now a bipartisan policy continued by the Biden White House.
Trump was less successful in changing the orientation of the GOP as a whole toward economic populism. Notably, the tax cuts his party pushed through skewed heavily toward the wealthy. Trump’s failed bid to repeal Obamacare didn’t offer any replacement. Nor has Trump ever fulfilled his promise to deliver an alternative plan.
But in the wake of Trump’s electoral strength and partial policy success, a new faction within the political right emerged that claimed to take the agenda of economic populism seriously. This group often calls themselves National Conservatives or NatCons. Hawley is a leader among the NatCons—but he’s far from alone. According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, Hawley is at “the forefront of a coterie of younger Republicans, in Congress and think tanks, who advocate policies that would mark a sharp break from the conservative, free-market gospel that has been the backbone of the GOP for more than half a century. They argue for abandoning free trade in favor of a network of tariffs to protect American goods and jobs, swearing off cuts to entitlement programs on which the working class rely, breaking up big tech firms, clamping down harder on immigration and finding common ground with union workers.”
Aside from Hawley, prominent examples of the NatCon tendency include Senators Marco Rubio and J.D. Vance, think tanks like the Edmund Burke Foundation, and journals like American Affairs and Compact. Paypal and Palantir cofounder Peter Thiel often hovers around NatCon circles, serving as a sugar daddy for the movement. Thiel’s involvement, given his long-standing defense of the most extreme form of plutocracy and inequality—going so far as support for monarchism—is perhaps the first clue that NatCons aren’t to be trusted as avatars of economic populism.
Still, the NatCons talk a good game—especially when they lambaste the traditional Republican establishment for its indifference to the working class. According to The Wall Street Journal, the war between the NatCons and traditional corporate Republicans has left the GOP “with an identity problem, if not a crisis.”
Writing in The Washington Post, Hawley blamed the GOP establishment’s failure to adopt a working-class agenda as the root cause of the disappointing 2022 midterms, where the much-heralded “red wave” failed to materialize. According to Hawley:
For decades, Republican politicians have sung a familiar tune. On economics, they have cut taxes on the big corporations and talked about changing Social Security and Medicare—George W. Bush even tried to partially privatize Social Security back in 2005. In the name of “growth,” these same Republicans have supported ruinous trade policies—such as admitting China to the World Trade Organization—that have collapsed American industry and driven down American wages.
This tax-and-trade agenda has hollowed out too many American towns by shipping jobs overseas. It has made it almost impossible to raise a family on one income and to find a good-paying job that doesn’t require a college degree.
There is very little in Hawley’s critique of the GOP that a Bernie Sanders or an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would disagree with.
The problem the NatCons have is that their stinging rebuke of GOP orthodoxy has stalled on a policy level. Trump did change the orientation of the GOP on trade and immigration (although there were important signs that even before Trump the party’s stance on those issues was shifting, notably in the 2013 internal Republican battle over immigration reform).
But beyond these issues, the GOP shows little interest in economic populism. In the debt ceiling fight, the GOP has shown that austerity rather than economic populism still guides the party’s approach to social spending. Only six Republican senators, including Hawley and Rubio, voted to force railway companies to give union workers paid sick leave. In a recent committee assignment for chair of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, Speaker Kevin McCarthy picked Thomas Massie, a standard pro-corporate Republican, over Ken Buck (described by Emily Birnbaum of Bloomberg as “one of the most fervent tech critics in the House”). As Branko Marcetic of Jacobin notes, in 2022 only seven Republican senators voted “to cap the extortionate price of insulin for Americans on private insurance to $35, a potentially transformative policy at a time when four out of five Americans are going into debt to pay for the medicine.” Marcetic further observed that in 2021 not a single Republican senator supported a motion to raise the minimum wage (Hawley said he’d support such a measure if it had a carve-out for small business that would have left nearly half the work force uncovered).
Conservative analyst Matthew Continetti, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that policies aimed at strengthening the working class have little support among congressional Republicans. Analyzing a memo from Republican Representative Jim Banks that called for embracing the working class, Continetti points out:
For all of the “working class” rhetoric in conservative discourse, few Republican politicians have adopted the economic measures put forth by Oren Cass at American Compass, Samuel Hammond at the Niskanen Center, and Julius Krein at American Affairs. Rubio and Hawley are political entrepreneurs willing to push the boundary of conventional GOP policymaking. But they are outliers.
More mainstream Republicans like Banks prefer “aggressive prosecution of the culture war” rather than populist economic policies.
Continetti’s evocation of “the culture war” should remind us that a major driver of the white working class into the GOP has been challenges to the racial hierarchy that have fueled support for backlash politics. As a result, the working class is divided on partisan lines, with a majority of white working-class voters supporting the GOP on racial and cultural grounds, while a majority of working-class people of color vote for the Democrats. Princeton political scientist Frances Lee told The New York Times that “the party system in the U.S. simply does not represent that ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots.’ Both parties represent a mix of haves and have-nots in economic terms.”
Because both parties are broad cross-class alliances, economic populism is likely to be muted for the foreseeable future. For the Republicans, stoking the culture wars remains the easiest way to keep white working-class support without alienating the wealthy. It’s hardly a surprise that the two front-runners for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination are Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis: both masters of pouring fuel into the fire of transphobia, xenophobia, and racism. Rather than Hawley’s meager gestures at pro-worker economic policy, they represent the future of the GOP.