The Rise of the Republican Class Warrior
How the GOP ditched trickle-down economics and embraced populism.
Blake Masters is a Republican Senate candidate in Arizona backed by billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Until recently, his signature issue would have been free trade or privatizing Social Security. Instead, it’s his belief that a family should be able to get by on one income.
In his most recent ad, the 35-year-old former venture capitalist, standing in a field of sudan hay, says, “We used to be able to do this. Something happened—globalization, decades of inflation. Can’t really do it anymore.” Our biggest problems, Masters says in his launch video, include corporations that “think they’re bigger than America.”
It’s an argument—Corporate America is killing the little guy! The free market is rigged!—that old-fashioned liberals, people like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis and, more recently, Bernie Sanders, used to make. Now, it’s the rallying cry of a new species of Republican.
Call them national conservatives. Or populists. Or Thielists. The Silicon Valley titan, who backed Trump in 2016, has given $10 million to super PACs supporting Masters and J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” who is running for the Senate in Ohio. He is supporting Republicans challenging GOP members who voted for Trump’s impeachment—including Harriet Hageman, who is running against Rep. Liz Cheney in Wyoming, and Joe Kent, who is trying to knock off Rep. Jaime Herrera in Washington—and he has donated to Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who’s on the short list of 2024 Republican presidential contenders.
What they really are is nationalists, and the fear that binds them together is that the nation—the American people—is falling apart, succumbing to its many economic and political fissures, splintering, losing its sense of self. To the extent that they sound like class warriors, that’s not only because they’re angry with the corporations that have outsourced jobs and replaced humans with robots. It’s because those corporations—like so many American institutions—have embraced a left-wing identity politics that, in their view, conflicts with middle- and working-class values.
“I think that class and culture sit right together,” Hawley told me Wednesday. “I think that what we’re seeing here is a pretty fundamental disagreement about culture in America—what constitutes American culture? What constitutes the middle-class culture that unites the country?”
If anyone deserves blame—or credit—for blurring the boundaries between Democrats and Republicans, and economics and culture, it’s Donald Trump, who, Masters explained to me, “broke the Republican Party.” He added: “I think the Republican Party had become unmoored from reality, and Donald Trump came along and reset that.” Which is to say he blew up the old categories—all the Reagan-era assumptions about free markets and free trade that had ossified into dogma—and asked, in his uniquely bumbling, brassy, ham-handed, maximally polarizing way: What about America?
Masters, who is able to package the angers and yearnings of Trumpism into a more palatable patois, seems to intuit that the old divide between culture and economics is just that: old. “The end goal is human flourishing,” Masters said Wednesday, shortly after leaving a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago that was attended by Trump. “You want a strong middle class in America. There’s a whole set of values and a whole lifestyle attendant to that. I think that’s a goal, and I think too many conventional, you know, business Republicans, they’re agnostic on that. They don’t care what the consequences of their policies are.”
For nearly four decades before Trump’s election, it was pretty straightforward: There was the party that hated the private sector and the party that exalted it.
The Democrats, with all their whining about filthy lucre, and the Republicans, with their sanctimonious glorification of The Almighty Entrepreneur. There was plenty of theater—neither party hewed strictly to its public persona. Both were happy to feed from the corporate trough. Both helped shape and popularize the neoliberal consensus—the idea that America and, really, the American technocracy, represented the apex of global civilization, and any lingering problems could be ironed out with the occasional tax cut, or tax hike, or maybe an app. But still. This was how each party’s base saw itself. This was what they aspired to.
This tension provided for a kind of equilibrium. Like boxers in a headlock. Or trench warfare. Change was possible, but it was stretched out over many election cycles. It was the job of those seeking office, or already in it, to pretend that much more was riding on any given race than was actually the case. It was the job of the voters to know they were always being lied to, if only a little, but sometimes quite a bit, and sometimes more than that.
All that persisted, more or less, until the night of November 8, 2016, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton and the old political calculus began to unravel. Masters, who was then the chief operating officer at Thiel’s investment fund, joined the president-elect’s transition team.
At some point during or, maybe, soon after the presidential election, something metabolic happened: Republicans started to fall out of love with business. Entrepreneurs. Free markets. Animal spirits. There were reasons for this: globalization, the hollowing out of small-town America, the rise of the technology behemoths, the Democrats’ embrace of Corporate America, and, more recently, Corporate America’s embrace of (or capitulation to) progressive identitarianism, and the remarkable ascent of the progressive identitarians, who have forced Democrats to genuflect before the golden calves of race and gender at the expense of class.
“What I’ve noticed about my Democrat friends,” Hawley said, “is their ideas, their content, is increasingly supplied by a particular class. And that is the very highly educated, pretty well off class of voters in this country, and they tend to be the most progressive.”
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, Republican office-holders, keenly aware of the president’s enormous popularity with the party’s base, largely came around to his worldview—however amorphous or poorly articulated or contradictory that worldview may have been. “It was Trump’s policies that elected all these Republicans to state legislators and to Congress and to all these other offices,” Terry Brandstad, the former governor of Iowa and U.S. ambassador to China under Trump, told me. “What Trump has done has been to be able to identify with ordinary, working people. That’s what reformed the party. We are no longer the party of the rich. The Democrats are the party of the rich.”
In 2021, Republicans on Capitol Hill have sponsored bills that would raise the federal minimum wage, penalize companies for going woke and regulate Big Tech. The Republican governors of Texas, Florida and North Dakota are dabbling in what we might call working-class conservatism—the first glimmerings of which can be traced to Ross Perot’s and Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaigns and gained more traction, in 2011, when Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty briefly ran for president while talking up “Sam’s Club Republicans.”
This is a politics that is unconcerned with abstract debates—about markets, freedom, the relationship between the state and the individual—and focused squarely on the middle-class values that, Republicans insist, Democrats have abandoned. It’s a GOP that imagines itself, increasingly, fending off the powerful on behalf of the less powerful, doing battle with all the titanic forces conspiring against The People: cheap labor, automation, the decline of the family, fentanyl, the Chinese Communist Party, the tech lords, the streaming services, the racialization of everything.
Ronald Reagan, echoing Woodrow Wilson, called America a “shining city on a hill.” He saw, in America’s many challenges, the inevitability of American success. These new Republicans are not so confident. We are hardly assured of victory, they seem to be saying. We must try to rebuild the New Jerusalem, but we shouldn’t be so sure that our best days are still ahead of us.
“I think the stakes are higher now,” Masters told me. “The stakes are existential, and there are a lot of problems, a lot of rot, a lot of deep, deep problems, so maybe it seems more negative or intense.”
Vance has been especially adept at stoking Republican fears. On Wednesday, he tweeted a video of himself talking about the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “I just watched about 15 minutes . . . where Kyle sat on the stand and described the violence that was committed against him by the lawless thugs who were trying to destroy his community,” he says. (It’s unclear what Vance means by “his community.” Rittenhouse has said he drove up, from his home in Illinois, to defend businesses in Kenosha from looting.) “Think about what this says about our disgusting, elite leadership in this country,” added Vance.
Vance—a former venture capitalist and graduate of Yale Law School—told me: “It’s almost like Republicans have to have a counterrevolutionary mindset. While conservatism is a good description of what we want to do, it’s not a good description of how we go about our goals.” If the party keeps nominating “establishment Republicans that play constant defense,” Vance said, “I think we will lose the battle for the culture.”
I asked Masters whether he thought his wing of the party would prevail. “I am optimistic,” he told me over text. “I think the America First (Trump 2016 agenda) camp is ascendant, and trying to return to Paul Ryanism is a dead end. But it’s going to be a fight.” When I asked which Republicans were trying to return to Paul Ryanism, he texted, “Paul Ryan just being the avatar for the old center right chamber of commerce Republican establishment.”
The new Republican is trying to do something Trump could not do: translate that counterrevolutionary mindset into a workable program. “The party is not a monolith,” Michael Strain, an economist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me. Republicans, he said, are in the middle of “rethinking some of the party’s traditional commitments to limited government, to fiscal responsibility, and prioritizing the needs of the business community.”
All of which is to say the ideological fulcrum around which our politics once revolved—the market and its discontents—is dissolving in real time. Today, most everyone believes in the usefulness, if not the primacy, of the state. Or is gradually embracing that position.
Republicans prefer to say they’re updating their ideology. “After Reagan, basically until Trump, the GOP became complacent. They thought the lesson of Reagan was just repeat everything Reagan said,” Masters said. “I think Republicans just went on auto pilot. It was zombie mode.” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, one of ten Republicans to vote to impeach Trump a second time and exactly the kind of Republican Masters would accuse of supporting “Paul Ryanism,” sounded quite a different note: “We haven’t had an inspirational voice since Reagan,” he said.
The goal of conservatism, Masters told me, was not to protect the sanctity of free markets, but the family. Harmeet Dhillon, a plaintiff’s attorney in San Francisco and Republican National Committee member, said: “I’m certainly a Reagan-era conservative. I supported Jack Kemp for president in 1988. He was in favor of the gold standard. But we aren’t in that world any longer.”
The world we are in, the world against which Trump revolted and Republicans are still revolting, is shaped by a tacit and unacknowledged alliance between the Democratic Party, the universities, Hollywood, tech, legacy media outlets like The New York Times and CNN, and most publicly traded companies in the United States. This alliance is nudging millions of Americans into sharing particular opinions, posting particular memes or articles—wrapping themselves in the new all-consuming monoculture.
It is also waging war against a Republican Party that Robby Starbuck, a 32-year-old former music-video director who recently “came out” as Republican and is now running for Congress in Nashville, said no longer exists. “The party that they’re still talking about on CNN and MSNBC—that party’s been dead for a long time,” Starbuck said. “They’re fighting ghosts, while we’re building this new movement. Trump was really a gateway. He’s not going to be here forever. He ignited something that opened the door for unconventional candidates not just to run, but to win.”
The emerging GOP response to this alliance of the elites—harness the power of the state to rein in Big Tech and preempt any Chinese-style social credit system—has an undeniable, Teddy Roosevelt logic to it. Without curtailing the enormous powers of the global data merchants, can we really be sure that our elections will be free and fair, or that we’re not being orchestrated by the algorithms or the Russians or Beijing? “I find your Mitt Romney-type conservative incredibly naive and short-sighted,” Dhillon told me. She noted that she was suing Twitter for banning a Republican influencer who had tweeted that the 2020 election had been plagued with fraud. “If I were the Speaker of the House, H.R. No. 1 would be amendments to the Communications Decency Act, Section 230,” she said, referring to the section of the 1996 law that provides social-media companies with immunity when it comes to third-party content. “I think Congress needs to be clear what it means by it.”
Before Reagan, the Republicans were the party of the managerial class: the pinstripes, the Presbyterians, the Rotarians, the Daughters of the American Revolution. The party of gentlemen’s agreements and whites-only country clubs. Under Reagan and so-called movement conservatives, it became something else. It was Californian in its demeanor, the way California used to be, and it was about making possible a genuine heterogeneity of peoples and backgrounds.
The turn away from that openness, the looking inward, the fear of what comes next—all that feels like a concession.
“The country I grew up in was optimistic,” Masters says in his campaign video. “People thought all you had to do was go to school and work hard and you’d be able to buy a house, raise a family. But it hasn’t worked out that way. Today, for the first time, young people in America expect to be worse off than their parents.”
Kinzinger said that pro-Trump Republican office-seekers were peddling the fiction that it was either them or mass destruction. “When you’re plugged into The Matrix and you’re convinced that you have to decide between Trump and Biden, you’ll pick Trump,” said Kinzinger, who recently announced that he would not seek reelection. “I now believe that Trump could run again. My kind of dark possibility is that Trump runs in 2024, and it’s him against Kamala, and he wins.”
We’ve devoted a lot of ink at Common Sense to all the things that have been lost or broken. This week we are focusing entirely on what comes next.
On Monday we announced the founding of a new university in Austin, Texas. On Tuesday, Antonio García Martínez wrote about the Metaverse. Yesterday, Andrew Yang explained why he’s starting a third party. Up tomorrow: TGIF, a new, weekly report by Nellie Bowles.
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