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Ideas | David Scharfenberg

How Donald Trump just might save the Republican Party — and the country


FOX NEWS HOST Tucker Carlson was saying nice things about Elizabeth Warren again.

Well, not entirely nice things.

Speaking at a conference of conservative journalists and intellectuals this summer, he took a moment to label the liberal Massachusetts senator and top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination a “joke” and a “living tragedy.”

But he also spoke, in admiring tones and at substantial length, about “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents Are Going Broke,” the book Warren wrote with her daughter in 2004.

“Elizabeth Warren wrote one of the best books I’ve ever read on economics,” he said.

By that point, he’d already warned his audience about the perils of “monopoly power” and declared that income inequality, which the right had long been trained to believe is “just a pure invention of some diabolical French intellectual to destroy America,” is actually “completely real” and “totally bad.”


His Bolshevist pronouncements were probably not a surprise to anyone who’d watched Carlson’s show closely in the months leading up to his speech. But Fox, despite its outsize influence, has a relatively small audience.

And it’s not just Carlson’s evolution that’s escaped notice. It’s hard to keep track of what most of the key players on the right are saying these days, with President Trump soaking up so much attention.

But while the commander-in-chief thrashes about, something important is taking shape in his shadow — the outlines of a new conservatism inspired, or at least elevated, by his rise to power.

It’s a conservatism that tries to wrestle with the post-Cold War, post-industrial angst that fired his election — dropping a reflexive fealty to big business that dates back to the Reagan era and focusing more intently on the struggles of everyday Americans.

“There are many downsides, I will say, to Trump,” Carlson said, in his speech this summer. “But one of the upsides is, the Trump election was so shocking, so unlikely . . . that it did cause some significant percentage of people to say, ‘wait a second, if that can happen, what else is true?’ ”


The reimagining is playing out not just on Carlson’s show or in conservative journals, but among a small batch of young, ambitious Republicans in Congress led by senators Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida.

Their populist — or “nationalist” or “post-liberal” — prescriptions sometimes smack of opportunism. And it’s still not clear how far they’re willing to stray from their party. But it looks like there are places where the new nationalists could find common cause with an energized left.

Whether the two sides can actually forge a meaningful alliance in the glare of our hyperpartisan politics is an open question. But a compact — even a provisional one — may offer the country its best shot at building a meaningful, post-Trump politics.

. . .

CARLSON DELIVERED HIS speech at the National Conservatism Conference — the first major gathering aimed at forging a new, right-of-center approach in the age of Trump.

“This is our independence day,” said Yoram Hazony, an Israeli political theorist and chief organizer of the event, in his spirited opening remarks. “We declare independence from neoconservatism, from libertarianism, from what they call classical liberalism.”

“We are national conservatives,” he said.

Any effort to build a right-of-center nationalism circa 2019 inevitably runs into questions about whether it will traffic in bigotry.


And one of the speakers, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax, seemed to do just that — suggesting that “cultural compatibility” should play a role in deciding which migrants are allowed into the country.

“In effect,” she said, this “means taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.”

But Wax’s speech, however discomfiting, stood out because it was so discordant.

Conference organizers took pains to prevent hate-mongers from attending — ultimately rejecting six applicants.

And they made pointed efforts, during the gathering itself, to reject racism.

“We are nationalists, not white nationalists,” said David Brog, another of the organizers, at the start of the conference. “But no screening system is perfect. So if there is anyone here tonight who believes that being an American has anything whatsoever to do with the color of someone’s skin, there is the door. Please leave.”

“Your ideas,” he said, “are not welcome here.”

Of course, even immigration restrictionism has found some favor on the left; during his last presidential run, Bernie Sanders called “open borders” a “Koch brothers proposal” designed to bring down the cost of labor.

The Vermont Democrat doesn’t talk like that anymore. But many of the other arguments on offer at the National Conservatism Conference wouldn’t sound out of place at a Bernie 2020 rally — warnings about the dangers of military adventurism, the crushing weight of student debt, and the corrosive effects of corporate greed.


J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” lamented that conservatives had “outsourced” their domestic policy to libertarians — too readily embracing the idea that we should accept whatever outcomes the market produces.

Conservatives, he suggested, shouldn’t put up with outcomes that pull families apart and harm children. And they should “be willing to use politics and political power” to get better results — shedding their traditional aversion to government intervention in the economy.

Vance told the story of an 8-year-old boy from Ohio who’d become addicted to opioids — rewarded with Percosets after completing successful drug runs for his addicted parents. “There’s a tendency in our politics, on the right,” he said, “to look at this kid and say, ‘you know, it’s a tragedy what’s happened to him, but it’s fundamentally a tragedy that political power can’t touch.’” The boy’s parents, a traditional conservative might say, need to make better choices.

But that ignores “the way in which human beings actually live their lives,” Vance said, “the cultural, and economic, and environmental context.” America chose to underinvest in the boy’s community, he said. We allowed pharmaceutical companies to flood it with opioids. And we unleashed forces of globalization that have shipped good jobs out of that boy’s town and to other countries — making it difficult for him to live a productive life when he grows older.

“We wanted that kid to be able to buy cheaper consumer goods at Walmart instead of have access to a good job,” he said. “And maybe that was a defensible choice — I don’t think it was — but it was a choice, and we have to stop pretending that it wasn’t.”


Vance’s speech, if moving, was short on specific policy proposals. And that may be the biggest knock on the new nationalism: It can all feel a bit vague. Liberal critics say the fuzziness is endemic to the project — there’s no way to impose coherence on the Trumpian chaos.

But Oren Cass, a former Mitt Romney aide and fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, points out that he and other reformers were working to shape a new conservatism before the 2016 election.

“It’s really misleading to think of it as an effort to sort of rationalize Trumpism or intellectualize Trumpism,” he said. “It’s what a whole bunch of people already believed and are now getting more purchase for in this context.”

The conservative reformers have, in fact, come up with a handful of intriguing ideas.

In his book, “The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America,” Cass makes the case for pulling money out of the safety net and putting it directly into the paychecks of low-wage workers.

This wage subsidy aims to nudge less skilled laborers back into the workforce and encourage businesses to hire them.

We have a version of this subsidy now — the earned income tax credit. But as Cass points out, it’s flawed. Most of the benefits go to families with children, leaving out much of the working poor. And it’s usually paid out once a year — meaning it’s divorced from the day-to-day routines of buying groceries and paying bills, and less likely to encourage regular saving.

The advantage of his wage subsidy proposal, Cass argues, is that it builds on the American system, rather than imagining the sort of grand reconfiguration of society the Democratic presidential candidates are offering: free college, free health care, largescale redistributions of wealth.

Sure, a handful of people could make huge sums on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley and cut checks to the rest of us, but shouldn’t we want people of all skill levels and geographies to lead productive lives? Shouldn’t everyone be afforded the dignity of work?

Of course, Cass caricatures the progressive platform a bit, here. No one on the left wants to hollow out Middle America. And more financial aid for low-income students will not destroy capitalism. Even farther-reaching proposals like “baby bonds” — government-funded savings accounts for every child in the country — will leave the American way of life intact.

Moreover, when incomes for the bottom 50 percent haven’t budged since 1980 even as the top 1 percent have grown obscenely wealthy, it seems clear that a bit of economic reconfiguration is in order.

A Democratic president and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate remain the best path to renewal. But that sort of sweeping victory seems unlikely.

If neither party can build a commanding majority in the Senate, the emerging nationalism — and the opening it provides for left-right collaboration — looks like our best hope for progress.

But first, we’ll have to set aside some of our partisan suspicions.

. . .

JOSH HAWLEY, SOMETIMES called the future of the Republican Party, is a devout evangelical Presbyterian.

The 39-year-old Missouri senator rails against the “cosmopolitan” elite and bemoans a culture that grants “the right to choose your own meaning, define your own values, emancipate yourself from God by creating your own self.”

Hawley is a culture warrior, and sometimes he can take the war too far.

Earlier this year, he torpedoed a Trump judicial nominee who had the temerity to represent a Michigan city seeking to enforce its LGBT antidiscrimination ordinance against a Catholic business.

All of this has raised concern on the left, much of it understandable. But the criticism — one liberal web site called him “the one man most likely to turn the US into a theocracy” — is often overwrought.

Hawley is not going to transform America into Gilead. And much of what he says about our atomized culture, our lopsided economy — and the role of the Silicon Valley behemoths in both — should be welcome on the left.

“They’ve given us an economy, the Silicon Valley economy, where you have a narrow slice of people who make a lot of money, become billionaires,” he told Wired magazine. “And then what about everybody else?”

Hawley trades in right-wing hooey about Facebook and Google’s supposed bias against conservatives. But there is ample room for compromise elsewhere.

In March, he joined with Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, to introduce legislation augmenting children’s online privacy. Two months later, he teamed up with Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein of California and Mark Warner of Virginia on the Do Not Track Act, which would allow users to block data mining. He’s also filed a “social media addiction bill” that would curb practices like autoplay video and infinite scroll that keep people hooked for hours at a time.

That legislation may prove unworkable in the end; and we still have a lot to learn about so-called “Internet addiction.”

But when nine in 10 teenagers report they are online “almost constantly” or ”several times a day,” as the Pew Research Center found, Hawley is clearly onto something. And he’s someone Democrats should be talking to.

Marco Rubio, of Florida, has also proven an intriguing figure since his flameout in the 2016 presidential election.

He voted for the Trump tax cut in 2017, but only after he won a small increase in the corporate tax rate his Republicans colleagues wanted — allowing for the funding of a more generous child tax credit.

Since then, he’s criticized the overall bill for tilting too heavily to corporate America — and failing to generate the predicted investment in the economy.

“There is still a lot of thinking on the right that if big corporations are happy, they’re going to take the money they’re saving and reinvest it in American workers,” he told The Economist this spring. “In fact, they bought back shares, a few gave out bonuses; there’s no evidence whatsoever that the money’s been massively poured back into the American worker.”

Rubio released a plan meant to discourage share buybacks, which tend to drive up stock prices and benefit investors, and encourage more investment in the research and development that can create new jobs.

He also published an 80-page report warning about China’s efforts to dominate 21st century industries such as robotics and artificial intelligence, and suggesting that the United States pursue an aggressive industrial policy of its own — an eyebrow-raising break from the free-market orthodoxy that still grips much of the Republican Party.

Some have accused the senator, who has a reputation as a shapeshifter, of opportunism — of glomming onto the populism unleashed by Trump. And there may be something to that.

But if ambitious, young Republicans are paying more attention to the working people the president riled up in 2016 — and thinking about policies that could actually improve their lives — things may be looking up for the country.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.