The Republican party is meeting this week to solidify its hostile takeover by Donald Trump. One would think that fact would encourage some soul-searching from the activists and party elites sent to the convention as delegates—a careful look at why voters abandoned the establishment candidates in droves for someone who mocks party orthodoxy, and at how the party can better serve those voters without sacrificing its core convictions.
This is not what happened. The text of the platform is not available as I write this, but the media reported extensively upon the discussions the delegates had last week, offering a broad picture of the changes made to the platform and the time devoted to debating them. That picture isn’t pretty.
Sure, nodding to Trump, the delegates adopted “America first” language on trade and punched up the platform’s immigration provisions. But otherwise they proceeded as if nothing had happened. If anything, they “created a firewall between what the party stands for and what Trump stands for,” as The Atlantic put it.
No doubt you’ve already seen the greatest hits—the outlandish statements the delegates adopted seemingly for no other reason than to annoy the left. Probably my favorite is the use of the word “clean,” without qualification, to refer to coal, our dirtiest source of energy. There’s also the vague endorsement of a parent’s right to send a child to gay conversion therapy and the ludicrous declaration that porn is a “public health crisis.”
More important to the future of the GOP, though, is what the process revealed about the party’s actual priorities. Social conservatives, understandably given the events of the past several years, participated aggressively and saw their concerns addressed. The platform decries the recent Supreme Court decision declaring gay marriage to be a constitutional right, endorses efforts to protect the conscience rights of those who object to homosexuality on religious grounds, and criticizes an Obama-administration directive requiring public schools to allow transgender students to use whichever bathroom they want.
Foreign-policy hawks were also reassured that the party wouldn’t be drifting in Trump’s direction. “Delegates say the defense planks of the platform differ little from past documents,” the Daily Signal reported.
But the breakdown of the working class was neglected. There seems to have been little discussion of the economic anxieties of working families, the safety net, or the drug epidemic sweeping rural America.
There is some debate about exactly how poor Trump voters themselves are, but it is hard to deny that he did best in downtrodden communities, especially at the beginning of his campaign. His message that the system is rigged and elites don’t care about the working class resonated.
Spurred to action by the analogous Bernie Sanders movement, Democrats extensively haggled over how to address these issues when they put their platform draft together. Despite the fact that their party is nominating Donald Trump—and despite the fact that the 2012 platform they inherited did not speak to these insurgents’ complaints—Republicans did not.
What should such a discussion look like on the right? For my money, the “reform conservatives” (aka “reformocons”) provide the best starting point. For nearly a decade, starting with the 2008 publication of Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam’s Grand New Party, these folks have been saying that the GOP is failing to address working-class worries. The rise of Trump decisively proves them correct on that score. The reformocons also offer a set of policy prescriptions that may appeal to Trump voters, including tax relief targeted at the working and middle classes (especially parents) rather than the rich, and improved work supports for the poor.
Last week, Republican elites could have at least talked about that agenda, especially given that it was put together by people who saw Trump coming when they did not. Did voters reject it when they rejected Marco Rubio, who has some reformocon tendencies? Did Rubio not really make these ideas the center of his campaign? Was he just not a good enough politician to make a case for this platform? If the reformocon agenda isn’t the right approach to the problem, what is?
Instead, their focus on the bottom half of the economic spectrum seems to have been limited to a debate about the purchase of unhealthy snacks with food stamps. Of course, party platforms are not binding, and some dismiss their importance entirely. But for those hoping to see a productive response from the GOP to the rise of Trump, the events of last week do not bode well.
Robert VerBruggen is managing editor of The American Conservative.