Ron Radosh

Will Donald Trump Really 'Save the G.O.P.' From Itself?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Fountain Hills, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Sam Tanenhaus is once again giving conservatives advice.  In an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, revealingly titled “How Trump Can Save the G.O.P.,” the same Sam Tanenhaus who regularly writes columns condemning conservatives and conservatism is now telling the many liberal readers of the NYT that it would not be so bad if Trump became their president!

The former editor of The New York Times Book Review previously told conservatives what they should do in his 2010 book, The Death of Conservatism.  It its pages he contrasted today’s “decadent movement-conservatism,” which he disdains, with the supposed pragmatic and non-ideological conservatism of Eisenhower and Reagan. The latter, according to him, understood the need for “the politics of stability” and successfully engaged in a serious dialogue with the advocates of liberalism Tanenhaus sees Donald Trump returning the Republican Party to this tradition. Today, as he writes in the op-ed, he is pleased that Trump rebuked conservatives during the primaries, and approvingly quotes Trump telling them “this is called the Republican Party. It’s not called the Conservative Party.”

Tanenhaus advises those principled conservatives — ranging from Christopher Buckley, who supports Ted Cruz, to Bill Kristol, who is still hoping that a serious alternative to Trump will emerge at the convention — to give up their efforts and get with the majority of primary voters who gave the nomination to Trump. “Their insurrection,” he argues, “is likely to fizzle.” Indeed, Tanenhaus echoes Trump arguing that he should be supported because he “obliterated 16 rivals…on the way to winning 37 states and building a coalition broad enough to include secular moderates…as well as evangelicals.” Somehow, Tanenhaus omits that national polls show a majority of Republicans would actually prefer another candidate. Tanenhaus is clearly on the Trump bandwagon and at times sounds like part of the Trump machine. Maybe he’ll be offered a job in his administration. Press secretary, perhaps? Look out for many tweets to the op-ed from The Donald himself.

Tanenhaus has no use for conservatives who he believes have pushed the Republican Party to the Right, are stuck in the past, and have failed to come up with solutions to meet today’s challenges. He eschews the efforts of Republican policy experts to develop conservative social policy alternatives. Not surprisingly, those proposed by Paul Ryan’s agenda, “A Better Way,” have been overshadowed by Mr. Trump.

Nor does Tanenhaus ever mention the work of the “Reformicons,” such as Yuval Levin, whose new book, Our Fractured Republic, is making waves. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Levin argued for a “a decentralizing conservatism of bottom-up solutions for our increasingly fragmented society.” He understands well that Trump has tapped into legitimate concerns about trade, “downward social mobility and diminished opportunity,” but he wants conservatives to offer “an approach far more constructive than Mr. Trump’s vulgar and abusive demagoguery.” To ignore the efforts of Republicans to rethink outdated GOP policies from people like Levin allows Tanenhaus to knock down a straw man.

A truly serious response would have demanded that Tanenhaus comment on the Reformicons’ agenda, which as Michael Gerson writes, is the advocacy of policies like wage subsidies through an expanded earned income tax credit, payroll tax cuts, apprenticeship programs, a large increase in the child tax credit and a reform of the welfare system that requires that recipients work in exchange for receiving benefits.

Tanenhaus has apparently been conned by Trump. While most people were critical of his comments in Scotland — where he bragged about his golf courses and praised Brexit even though the citizens of the country he was visiting voted to stay in the EU — Tanenhaus claims Trump “grasped the underlying symbolism of the referendum: its prideful call for national sovereignty and identity, heightened by the pressures of the global economy.” Of course, Tanenhaus ignores that only a few days earlier, Trump had no idea whatsoever of what Brexit was and told the press he therefore couldn’t comment on it.

Trump might be ignorant of many things, but Tanenhaus believes he should be praised for being the “global explainer of the angry populist protests sweeping through many Western democracies.” He goes on to suggest that since Trump and Bernie Sanders both oppose the effects of globalization on the working and middle classes, and comprehend that free trade policies have failed, the time is right for a “left-right fusion” of the kind that would “emancipate our stalemated government by giving both parties room for give and take” and move politics in Washington to the center. I’m sure Trump and Sanders would beg to disagree. Sanders has said he will do everything possible to prevent Trump’s ascension to the presidency, and Trump has called Sanders a nut who simply can’t seriously be paid attention to.

Tanenhaus stipulates that if Trump should win, a dynamic would emerge that would effectively move the Republican Party to the center, and the GOP would return to the party represented by Eisenhower and Nixon and their “pragmatic conservatism.” These leaders of the past, he argues, did not let ideology stand in the way of successful governance. He notes that Ike forged a partnership with the Democratic Congress and two New Dealers to get things done, while Nixon instituted programs such as an increase in Social Security and Medicare benefits, created the EPA, and introduced more economic regulation.

Others contest that analysis as wrong-headed. As two National Review writers argued some time ago, Eisenhower ran in 1952 to stop what he thought was advancing socialism, and to protect an internationalist foreign policy that was under fire from Republican Robert A. Taft, who often took positions indistinguishable from the Communist-backed third party presidential candidate in 1948, Henry A. Wallace. One of Ike’s main goals, the authors write, was to bring “government spending under control.”

As for Nixon, the historian Joan Hoff argued convincingly in her 1994 book, Nixon Reconsideredthat Nixon introduced left-wing programs such as working for a national health service program and the restructuring of welfare, which made him in fact an old-fashioned TR type progressive Republican — certainly not a conservative. Tanenhaus likes Nixon, obviously, because he was not a conservative, but was closer in his positions to mainstream New Deal/Fair Deal liberals.

Tanenhaus likes the fact that Trump favors big government programs, or at least he thinks Trump will favor them. He likes that Trump had called for an increase in the federal minimum wage, that is, until a short time later Trump took a 180 degree turn without explanation. Trump also assured voters that he would make no cuts to Social Security. There goes entitlement reform, a major necessity called for by both conservatives and centrist Democrats like William A. Galston. It’s amazing how much trust Tanenhaus puts in a man who changes his positions almost every day.

True, Tanenhaus gives a few boiler plate phrases to show he knows that Trump can be an “intemperate and blustering bully,” but evidently his moral character is to be ignored since in essence, he would move the GOP toward a big government liberal agenda. He supports this because to him, conservatives have a “fossilized ideology.” He is delighted that George F. Will has left the Republican Party, and hopes that others like him follow. This, Tanenhaus writes, is “exactly what the party needs.”

Do we really want to take the advice of one of New York’s major left/liberal intellectuals and cease to offer voters a genuine and thoughtful conservative alternative to the old liberalism?