Mr. Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” released in 2008, at the time of the catastrophic collapse of the American economy, set out a plan for the radical retrenchment of the American welfare state. It made a splash. Mr. Ryan became the party’s de facto wonk in chief and played a critical role giving the Tea Party’s otherwise inchoate politics of grievance a definitive shape. As he rose to the commanding heights of the Republican Party, first as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and then as speaker of the House in 2015, Mr. Ryan’s libertarian-leaning technocratic tactics for the piecemeal dismantling of the safety net became party orthodoxy.
Mr. Ryan’s ideas have always resonated with the corporate Republican donor class. But they are indifferent, at best, to the challenges faced by the mass of ordinary Republican voters. For decades, American innovation and growth has been largely concentrating in a handful of big liberal cities. When the recovery finally came, it came to the Democratic metropolis. Most of the sparse Republican outlands never bounced back.
Jobs were scarce, opioid addiction was rife, and life felt insecure. Indeed, life expectancy for many rural whites fell. A few red states graced with booming metro areas, like Texas, flourished under Republican regimes of low taxes and light regulation. But in more rural Republican states, like Kansas under Mr. Ryan’s mentor and former boss, Gov. Sam Brownback, taxes had been cut to the bone, and the promised boom never materialized to make up for the loss and degradation of public services.
Meanwhile, many tens of millions of loyal Republicans in struggling regions came to rely on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance and disability benefits just to scrape by. By 2016, the last thing grass-roots Republicans wanted was yet another bloodless, ideologically rigid iteration of the stale Reagan formula. But thanks to the intellectual leadership of dogmatically small-government conservatives like Paul Ryan, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, that’s mostly what they got. Except from Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump spotted opportunity in the injured dignity of the Republican base and the feckless irrelevance of the establishment’s agenda. He told Republicans shaken by the reality and risk of downward mobility that they were the only Americans who counted, and that they had been cheated and betrayed.
He promised never to cut their Social Security or Medicare, and expressed admiration for single-payer health care. He took their side against immigrant rapists, murderous jihadis, plundering trade deals, dangerous city people and disloyal, condescending elites of all parties and persuasions. He promised to use his billionaire superpowers to rig the economy to their advantage. It didn’t matter that he is a transparently corrupt, bigoted, sexually abusive, compulsive liar. He offered the dignity of recognition, promised to fight, and won.
Whole thing here. There’s more to it, in Wilkinson’s view, especially in how Ryan dealt with Trump (described by Wilkinson as “a Democratic turnout machine”). But that’s the gist.
I suspect Wilkinson is right in the above passage, and I don’t pity at all the Republicans who would not abandon Reaganite orthodoxies, despite conditions having changed. One analysis I would like to see — and if somebody has written it, and it’s linkable, please post it to the comments — is the Trump phenomenon as a manifestation of the steep decline of trust in American institutions over the past ten to twenty years.
The Republican Party has been the first of the two major parties to suffer from this, but the Democratic Party does not exist outside of this dynamic. After all, it nominated the embodiment of the Democratic Party institution, and she was such a bad candidate that she lost to a buffoon like Donald Trump. At some point, there will emerge a Democrat — probably not out of the party itself — who will be a Trump-like figure, someone who will run against the stale pieties of his or her own party, and win the nomination.
Thinking out loud here … if you were a senior Democratic strategist, and you were taking stock of how the GOP self-immolated, and you were looking to head off similar dynamics within your own party — what would you do? That is, what steps would you take to prevent the Democratic establishment from losing control of its own party to a populist outsider? Which policies would you recommend to keep it from being locked into ideological orthodoxies like those that captured Paul Ryan and brought down the GOP establishment?
First thing I would do is to marginalize the Social Justice Warrior faction within the party and focus almost entirely on economics (jobs, health care, economic security, etc). This will be very hard to do, because all the passion in both parties is around identity politics. If it doesn’t happen, though, the party is going to end up tearing itself up over internal orthodoxies, while alienating a lot of ordinary people, or at least failing to excite them, thus making way for an outsider.
I could be wrong. What would you tell this hypothetical Democratic strategist? That is, what are the lessons for the Democrats from the failure of Paul Ryan and the political faction he represents within the GOP?