In a new book, Wall Street Journal Washington Bureau Chief Gerald Seib traces the conservative movement from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump and concludes nobody should be surprised Trump took over the Republican Party. Seib’s book, We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump – A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution, is invaluable to understanding the Republican Party’s change from Reagan to Trump. It is also important to anyone who wants to know where the GOP is headed next.
Donald Trump renounced Ronald Reagan’s core principles on trade, immigration and government’s role in the economy. Gerald Seib lays this out in detail.
Trade: While not 100% consistent during his time in office, Ronald Reagan, like the vast majority of conservatives and Republicans, believed in free trade as superior to government overruling the choices of companies and consumers in the free market. Trump has a different view. He has raised tariffs to such an extent that economists have dusted off arguments against tariffs not used in decades.
“Nor did Trump share conservatives’ devotion to free trade,” writes Seib. “He was utterly disdainful of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a trade pact with Canada and Mexico that was the culmination of a dream Reagan laid out when he called for a North American accord in that same 1980 campaign. Trump openly praised tariffs as a tool in trade wars – even calling himself ‘Tariff Man’ at one point – while conservatives disdained tariffs as a form of taxation paid by regular citizens.”
The Free Market: “Conservatives believed in the magic of a free market unconstrained by government interference, while Trump openly tried to pressure and coerce private companies to act as he thought they should,” writes Seib.
Seib notes some Republicans and conservative intellectuals have attempted to reconcile various populist nationalist elements to argue for an industrial policy to preserve factory jobs. “It’s interesting that you can even have a debate about industrial policy in the Republican Party now, because the very term, the very idea, was considered beyond the pale to a lot of conservatives 20 years ago,” said Seib in an interview. He noted Republicans used to be opposed to government interference with free markets. “Clearly a lot of the Republican Party has now moved beyond that.”
Immigration: “Most conservatives were scornful of Trump,” according to Seib. “He certainly didn’t share a Reaganesque belief in the virtues of immigration. When Reagan launched his general-election campaign in 1980, he did so with a speech in front of the Statue of Liberty in which he praised generations of immigrants for the work they did in building the United States: ‘They brought with them courage, ambition, and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom. We all came from different lands, but we share the same values, the same dream.’ When Trump launched his campaign, he did it a few miles away, in his eponymous Fifth Avenue skyscraper, with a speech in which he called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers.”
“Reagan carried out of office the same simple but clear definition of conservatism that he carried in,” writes Seib. “This was true, in a particularly striking way, with immigration. Reagan believed in immigration as a life force that gave new vitality to America, and he rhapsodized about that belief regularly. He held to a particular view of immigration as part of the American Dream, and immigrants as part of the American fabric.”
In contrast, by 2021, Donald Trump will have reduced legal immigration by 49% since becoming president – without any change in U.S. immigration law, according to a National Foundation for American Policy analysis. An April presidential proclamation blocked the entry of legal immigrants to the United States in almost all categories. A presidential proclamation, issued by Trump on June 22, 2020, suspended the entry of foreign nationals on H-1B, L-1 and certain other temporary visas.
How Did Trump Take Over the Republican Party?: “It was a trend that was developing slowly over time,” said Seib. “It didn’t start with Donald Trump. He didn’t come as a bolt out of the blue. There was an open door for a populist nationalist message and he just walked through the open door.”
Seib points out the Republican Party changed at the grassroots. It became over time a party that had a different demographic makeup, a lot of working-class Americans in the center of the country. “Many over time became Republicans in many cases for cultural reasons,” said Seib. “They didn’t like the Democratic Party’s drift on abortion, prayer in schools. They became the foot soldiers of the Republican Party, but realized they weren’t really satisfied with the economic message of the Republican Party, particularly on trade and immigration. I think the change was developing as far back as Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s. Trump was the one candidate in 2016 who understood that and took advantage of it.”
What Comes Next on Trade and Immigration?: “If Trump wins reelection, I think you can be assured of more of the same,” said Seib. “He has an impulse and instinct on trade and on immigration that isn’t going to change. On trade, he has walked up to the edge of a full-blown trade war with China but never quite crossed that line. I think he’ll have brinksmanship with the Chinese on trade, a continuing use of tariffs. You’ll probably have continuing crackdowns, particularly on illegal immigration, but also, and I think this is underappreciated by people, on legal immigration. I suspect there will be more pressure in a second Trump term from the business community to adopt a more nuanced view of immigration and maybe that will have some effect, but I suspect overall what you see is what you would get.”
What If Trump Loses?: “If Trump loses the election, I think you will have a period of an important internal debate in the Republican Party about what it stands for and which direction it’s going,” said Seib. He points out Republicans started that debate after the 2012 election. “Was it going to move in an establishment direction, one that said, ‘Let’s have a bigger tent, let’s be more accommodating of Hispanics, let’s broaden our appeal and have a more welcoming message on immigration and Dreamers.’ Or ‘Let’s go in a nationalist populist direction.’ Donald Trump took them down the fork of the road that said populism and nationalism. That debate would be resumed.”