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Republicans Are Now the ‘America First’ Party - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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For most of my career, the Republican Party was pretty easy to define. It stood for small government, an internationalist foreign policy, free trade, and moral and religious conservatism. Ronald Reagan was the party’s North Star. Of course, there have always been Republicans who veered from that line — but everyone understood what the party meant.

Of all the people still trying to process Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, perhaps none are more confused than my generation of conservatives, who came of age under Mr. Reagan and drank deeply of that old orthodoxy. We are, by now, the establishment — the senators, governors, think-tank presidents and columnists who, until Mr. Trump came along, got to define what “Republican” and “conservative” meant. My cohort simply cannot accept that Mr. Trump has taken away that coveted role and revolutionized not just our party, but also the very terms of the American political divide.

But we need to. Because as Mr. Trump recognized, the new schism in American life is not about big versus small government, or more or less regulation. It is about immigration, free trade and the broad and deep impacts of globalization on America’s economy and culture. “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he told the Republican National Convention.

It is obvious to all but the most blinkered Republicans that with or without Mr. Trump, the Reagan era is over. The conservative-donor and think-tank consensus has been exploded. The next smart, ambitious young Republican politician with national aspirations will not adopt Ted Cruz’s strategy of trying to revive the rotting flesh of Reaganism. He will read out of Mr. Trump’s playbook, attacking globalism rather than big government. And he’ll win, because he’ll be talking about what worries voters.

When William F. Buckley founded National Review in 1955, he argued that individual freedom needed to be protected from liberalism’s drift toward collectivism. Mr. Reagan’s vigorous anti-Communism put this into practice, as did his support of deregulation and tax cuts to promote economic freedom. My generation of conservatives inherited this framework.

Over time, however, that iteration of Republican conservatism became less salient, in large part because it won. In 1989 we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall. Soon after, Bill Clinton declared that the era of big government was over. Barack Obama bailed out Wall Street, promoted the further extension of free trade and was a cheerleader for Silicon Valley billionaires. By 2016, only a thoroughly catechized conservative believed Democrats were strangling economic freedom. Democrats have also assumed a large piece of the libertarian mantle, especially when it comes to sexuality and drugs.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party stood still. True, the positions Mr. Buckley outlined over the years were supple enough, but their advocates were not: Their unthinking and increasingly ritualized loyalty to that phase of conservatism led the Republican establishment into political irrelevance, as Mr. Trump’s takeover of the party so brutally revealed. Given a clear, brash alternative, the Republican base tossed aside the orthodoxies of Reaganism.

Most commentators struggle to explain Mr. Trump’s electoral success, because they assume he has no coherent political philosophy. This is myopic. As a public figure, Mr. Trump has articulated a consistent message that speaks to a fundamental political challenge facing the 21st-century West: We must affirm nationalism and fight globalism.

This basic political message is dramatized by his populist rhetoric. At his campaign rallies he did not get cheers for denouncing government waste or championing tax cuts. His applause lines spoke of building a wall, deporting illegal immigrants, renegotiating trade deals and bringing back jobs. The America First, antiglobalist themes won him the election, not freedom-oriented, anti-government ones.

I’m not surprised. Both parties — but not the average American voter — have been moving in a globalist direction for years. In his 2013 Inaugural Address, President Obama championed the qualities of innovation and mobility that will allow our nation to thrive in “this world without boundaries.” He was not proposing to eliminate passports, but he was expressing a sentiment that regards borders, limits and boundaries as necessary but regrettable, while openness and diversity are inherent goods.

This way of thinking is everywhere, which makes it seem like common sense, rather than a political choice. Woodrow Wilson formulated Princeton’s informal motto: “Princeton in the nation’s service.” In 1996 it was extended to include “and in the service of all nations,” and then recently revised to read “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” Undoubtedly, administrators thought they were adapting to new global realities, rather than taking a controversial stance.

The same goes for Stanford’s president, John Hennessy, who raised $750 million to fund a new program to gather “the world’s brightest minds” who can work “toward solving global challenges.” Isn’t this an admirable, sensible and responsible adaptation to the direction things are going?

In contrast, Mr. Trump does not presume that the world must become flat. His Inaugural Address contrasted sharply with Mr. Obama’s 2013 speech. He spoke of renewing borders and solidarity, and called for national reconsolidation. This does not mean putting a stop to global trade or shutting down immigration, any more than Mr. Obama meant to bargain away American sovereignty or “destroy America,” as some conservative pundits insisted during his administration. But these two speeches, only four years apart, reflect a stark difference in emphasis. What Mr. Obama presented as a happy evolution Mr. Trump frames as something to be resisted. As he said in his recent address to the joint session of Congress: “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.”

Mr. Trump’s shocking success at the polls has done our country a service. Scholars may tut-tut about the historical connotations of “America First,” but the basic sentiment needs to be endorsed. Our country has dissolved to a far greater degree than those cloistered on the coasts allow themselves to realize. The once vast and unifying middle class has eroded over the last generation. Today we are increasingly divided into winners and losers. This division involves more than divergent economic prospects and income inequality. Globalism is an ideology of winners who stand astride our society as it is being remade by dramatic economic, demographic and cultural changes.

Mitt Romney wrote off nearly half the American population as “takers.” Hillary Clinton made her notorious remarks about “deplorables.” These sentiments, widely shared by elites on the right and left, have become toxic. Caterpillar recently announced it is moving its corporate headquarters from Peoria, Ill., to Chicago. The unspoken reason? “C-suite level” talent bridles at relocating to flyover country. In today’s America, the rich, well-educated and globalized people on top, whether Republicans or Democrats, do not want to live among those who populate our country. The leaders increasingly hold them in disdain.

After World War II, Mr. Buckley adopted an exaggerated approach to postwar American liberalism (which was hardly inclined toward socialism) because he thought the stakes were high. We face different dangers. In 2017, a growing economic divide and continuing cultural fragmentation, and even animosity, are grave threats that now define our politics. The Cold War is now domestic. Easy talk about the world becoming flat or global trade lifting all boats disguises, explains away and exacerbates the damage being done to the body politic. Mr. Trump’s stark juxtaposition of globalism and Americanism is crude and hyperbolic, but necessarily so.

The generation of conservatives tutored by Mr. Buckley’s polemics against collectivism developed a healthy skepticism of big government. But they did not dismantle the modern welfare state; instead, they sought to limit its excesses and reduce long-term dependency. In the same spirit, rejecting globalism need not entail renouncing America’s role as leader of the international order or attacking global trade.

Rather, we need to become much more skeptical of post-national ways of thinking. For too long a globalist utopianism — Mr. Obama’s happy, peaceful and inclusive world without boundaries — has tempted us to neglect one of the fundamental tasks of political leadership, which is to promote the kind of national solidarity that binds a country’s leaders to its people.

Globalism poses a threat to the future of democracy because it disenfranchises the vast majority and empowers a technocratic elite. It’s a telling paradox that the most ardent supporters of a “borderless world” live in gated communities and channel their children toward a narrow set of elite educational institutions with stiff admissions standards that do the work of “border control.” The airport executive lounges are not open and inclusive.

John Q. Public is not stupid. He senses that he no longer counts. And he resents the condescension of globalist elites, which is why Mr. Trump’s regular transgressions against elite-enforced political correctness evoke glee from his supporters.

After Auschwitz, nationalism inevitably frightens many. I prefer to speak of patriotic solidarity, or a renewed national covenant. Whatever we call the antithesis to utopian globalism, it need not mean wholesale endorsement of Mr. Trump’s harshest rhetoric, which is often narrow and inarticulate. There’s a great deal more to our country than he allows, including traditions of secular and religious universalism that make the idealistic internationalism Mr. Obama sometimes articulated paradoxically very American. Nevertheless, we’ve tilted too strongly in the globalist direction. In our divided country, conservatism — and liberalism as well — needs to lean in the direction of nationalism.

For many in the conservative camp, this seems unnecessary, even irresponsible. They think Mr. Trump has betrayed the movement Mr. Buckley shaped. We need to remember, however, that the Cold War gave drama and relevance to Mr. Buckley’s way of framing our fundamental political commitments. But the Soviet Union collapsed a generation ago. Our commitments must be made against a different horizon.

(The New York Times)