Simon & Schuster, 2015, 497 pp., $19.00
In 1999, Stephen Moore co-founded the Club for Growth, a conservative, pro-business advocacy organization known for its ardent opposition to taxes and regulation. Having worked for the Heritage Foundation, the Reagan Administration, and Representative Dick Armey (R–TX), Moore was almost the epitome of a hardline conservative economist. So it was quite arresting when he threw in his lot with Donald Trump during the 2016 election, and then, after Trump’s victory, instructed a group of Republican lawmakers on the new dispensation: “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.” For pulling off this repositioning, Mr. Moore has now won himself a nomination to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System.
Moore is hardly the only one espousing a new vision of the who should be the dominant force in the Republican Party’s coalition. Tucker Carlson famously began 2019 with a rant that launched a thousand think pieces, in which he denounced Republican elites as more interested in making “the world safe for banking” than tackling the very real problems of working American families. Conservative leaders, he declared, would only become capable of providing virtuous leadership if they “unlearn decades of bumper sticker-talking points and corporate propaganda” and generally reject free market orthodoxy. A number of prominent social conservatives have more recently piled on, announcing that they are “Against the Dead Consensus” that was Republican Party thinking before Trump, and especially its willingness to valorize individual autonomy. Rebuking their growth-obsessed co-partisans, they write: “Advancing the common good requires standing with, rather than abandoning, our countrymen. They are our fellow citizens, not interchangeable economic units.”
All this is jarring for those of us who have grown accustomed to Grover Norquist’s Republican Party. Indeed, it is sometimes a little hard to take the prophets of the refashioned party seriously. Republicans as the worker’s party?! It meshes uneasily with the party’s recent past, especially its record as an implacable foe of unions.
But a longer lens should remind us that this is precisely how the Republican Party sold itself in the late 19th century, when it was also locked in a tense, back-and-forth struggle with Democrats. By the election of 1896, it had made that sale with spectacular success, with William McKinley winning an outright majority of the popular vote and a strong Electoral College victory, thereby ushering in more than a decade of unified Republican control of government. And it must be said that quite a number of the themes of the newly inflected Republican Party of 2019 resonate with their forbears five generations back, especially on the central point of how Americans should view their obligations to each other.
Helpful in making these connections is a book by none other than the architect of the now-badmouthed GOP coalition of the 2000s, Karl Rove. In The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the Election of 1896 Still Matters (Simon & Schuster, 2015), Rove offers an admiring portrait of McKinley, whom he sees as a trailblazer in both strategy and tactics. In painstaking detail, Rove shows how McKinley and his associate, the strategist Mark Hanna, revolutionized the long game of presidential politics, positioning McKinley for the 1896 Republican nomination and, more importantly, deliberately fashioning an expanded coalition for his party. (As an aside, it is worth noting that Rove’s book is not some ghost-written pop history, but the deeply researched work of an obsessive driven to understand every last detail of the campaign tactics of an earlier era. I doubt there are more than a handful of people capable of evaluating its more intricate arguments.)
A large part of McKinley’s success was his appeal to laboring Americans. Some of this was quite direct. As Governor of Ohio, McKinley opposed President Grover Cleveland’s intervention to end the Pullman strike of 1893, supported mandatory arbitration that forced employers to bargain with unions (making Ohio the second state, after Massachusetts, to adopt such a law1), and supported the eight-hour workday. But more generally, McKinley’s political genius was to brand the central planks of the Republican platform as being for the benefit of working Americans. From his time as Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the House, McKinley was known as the “Napoleon of Protection,” and he wore this as a badge of honor, insisting that the tariff’s support for American industries was indispensable to the broad health of the American economy. Likewise, although he tried to straddle the fence on monetary politics, he eventually provided a spirited defense of the gold standard as the bedrock of America’s commercial prospects. In McKinley’s view, these policies were pro-business and therefore pro-labor; whereas the policies of his adversary, William Jennings Bryan, were to be dismissed as the well-meaning but fundamentally destructive ideas of parochial agricultural interests who were insensible to what urban laborers needed. Rove notes that the labor vote was instrumental in helping Republicans “carry nine of the nation’s ten most populous cities.”
The inclusivity of McKinley’s appeal came from his embrace of Americans as producers—with rising consumption seen as a happy by-product of making the maturing industrial machine hum along. Said McKinley in his first inaugural address, “Legislation helpful to producers is beneficial to all.” Today’s insurgent voices in the GOP coalition also hope to prioritize production over consumption, with a renewed emphasis on the nation’s manufacturing prowess but also an eye on the service economy. Foremost in this regard is the Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass, who offers the “working hypothesis”: that a labor market capable of supporting “strong families and communities is the central determinant of long-term prosperity and should be the central focus of public policy.”
Cass’s pitch is framed in economic terms, as it is with economic thinkers he aims to cross swords. But his frame of mind is moral as much as economic, concerned with the basic dignity of each citizen’s effort to find a meaningful role in our fast-changing modern world. To those who believe the best strategy is to maximize GDP and then redistribute the proceeds, Cass insists that the condition of dignifying, productive employment cannot be redistributed. Likewise, genuinely respecting fellow citizens as equals, as commanding duties superior to those of aliens, is not a commitment that can be met through mere application of wealth. Cass asks: “In the past, our society was much less affluent, and yet the typical worker could support a family. How could it be that, as we have grown wealthier as a society, we have lost the ability to make that kind of arrangement work? Or do we just not really want to?”
In other words, the question is not just who is to be cut in on the nation’s prosperity, but how—with elites presuming to dispense favors to various groups, as their magnanimity allows, or by giving working people a real seat at the table.
In surveying the political triumph of William McKinley in his Education, Henry Adams offered a typically jaded take: “Mr. McKinley brought to the problem of American government a solution which lay very far outside of Henry Adams’s education, but which seemed to be at least practical and American. He undertook to pool interests in a general trust into which every interest should be taken, more or less at its own valuation, and whose mass should, under his management, create efficiency. He achieved very remarkable results.” Adams, who was a staunch (if incorrigibly ironic) Democrat, threw the word “syndicate” around as he described this Republican bargain, indicating a kind of new, nation-sized machine. The old bossism was left behind, but the Federal government would broker a new sort of transactional politics, in which all parties would be treated as a serious political force, deserving of their share.
Well, not everyone, of course. As with today’s worker-courting Republicans, McKinley’s party was eager to delineate who were authentic Americans, and who were interlopers capable of destroying the equilibrium in which fellow citizens would prosper. Former slaves were nominally included—Rove has fascinating material demonstrating how important McKinley’s courting of southern black delegates was to securing his nomination—although the party had long since ceased to exert itself on behalf of their rights when faced with southern intransigence. But in general, it was Americans of Anglo-Saxon stock who were understood as parties to the bargain, and their health and prosperity that it was meant to safeguard.
One might think racist pride would have made the champions of Anglo-Saxon might anxious to take on the whole world, but in fact the idea that laboring Americans should be subjected to all manner of foreign competition was rejected out of hand. The laboring masses of Europe were often spoken of as debased, let alone the “hordes” of immigrant Chinese. Josiah Strong, a leader of the Social Gospel movement, catalogued the threats to the healthful, steadily progressing Anglo-Saxon people in his influential book, Our Country (1885). He identified Catholicism, liquor, divorce, socialism, and the “American barons and lords of labor” who reign despotically over regular laborers. In general, Republicans sought to connect the moneyed interests and the threatening hordes as fundamentally united, politically, against the good middle classes striving for decent, wholesome American lives. Immigration was acknowledged to have brought benefits, but further dilution of the country’s racial stock was feared. As Strong put it, Americans did not want to be overwhelmed by the “European peasant, whose horizon has been narrow, whose moral and religious training has been meager or false, and whose ideas of life are low.”
The general message was one of selective solidarity: if solid Americans would only stick together, the great American experiment would flourish. Conversely, if Americans could be induced to sell each other out for immediate gain, “Americanness” would lose its distinctive meaning—and those left out of the nation’s prosperity, including unassimilable arrivals, would justifiably turn to foreign-inspired radicalism.
Two of today’s leading conservative voices against unlimited immigration, Reihan Salam and George Borjas, can hardly be accused of Anglo-Saxon chauvinism; their names and personal histories relieve them of that charge. Nor are their views driven by any other kind of xenophobia. But they nevertheless echo many of the themes of the Gilded Age opponents of immigration, especially the idea that allowing millions upon millions of new unskilled workers into the country represents a fundamental betrayal of their fellow citizens and the nation’s foundational commitment to social equality.
“Loyalty” to fellow-citizens is Salam’s watchword, and “amalgamation” his aspiration. To the cosmopolitan proponents of open borders (or something close) who profess an altruistic desire to decrease global inequality, Salam cites the example of Gulf states like Qatar in which natives are allowed to benefit from the superabundant cheap labor provided by foreigners. Embracing such a permanent service (servant) underclass, Salam asserts, would forfeit the ideal of citizens with truly reciprocal duties, meeting in politics on equal terms. Borjas, a Harvard economist whose work was cited in Donald Trump’s acceptance speech, has attempted to measure exactly how much poorly educated workers lose when they are exposed to immigration influxes, and concluded that the effects are significant—on the order of a five to eight percent decrease for high-school dropouts. He has also provided empirical evidence for the proposition that America’s ability to assimilate new immigrants has slowed down, showing that the education and wage gaps between immigrants and their children and the native-born have been growing over the last half century. Much as we cherish the image of the children of immigrants taking their place among the nation’s economic elites, Borjas argues that this is no longer the typical pattern for those who arrive with little education. Instead, there is a strong likelihood that such families will be a net burden on society, in the form of social welfare spending outstripping taxes, for multiple generations.
Both Borjas and Salam see room for continuing immigration of highly skilled immigrants, who can become full partners in the 21st century American economy without the help of heroic policy interventions. For them, this is not any kind of code word for a racially exclusive policy; Salam, with his sometime coauthor Ross Douthat, has tried to make the case for a “pan-ethnic nationalism” in which American solidarity encompasses all varieties of Americans. Just as in McKinley’s time, party elites must strike a delicate balance: rejecting the most exclusionist varieties of populism, which are electorally damaging (and morally odious), without forfeiting their advantage among those voters who have been convinced they are the truly representative party for “real” Americans.
That brings us to a central question: Notwithstanding some apparent similarities, don’t McKinley’s Republican Party and the one finding itself today draw on roughly opposite bases of support? In other words, isn’t the modern GOP using the brand of McKinley, but the electoral map of his rival, William Jennings Bryan?
A friend pointed out to me that McKinley’s electoral map in 1896 looked like the opposite of today’s—or, actually, more like that of 2004, he said. And he isn’t wrong: Most McKinley states went for John Kerry. Those that went Republican in both elections? Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, and West Virginia. But George W. Bush’s party drew much of its support from the same solid south that was once a lock for Bryan’s Democrats. And, of course, the southern and western states contained a far greater proportion of the country’s population in 2004 than in 1896.
Donald Trump’s winning electoral map in 2016 kept the South in Republican hands—though not entirely solidly, with Virginia defecting. But his campaign also brought a number of McKinley states back into the GOP fold: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin. Most analysts seem to agree that it was Trump’s most McKinleyan elements—his faith in tariffs, his conviction that American companies should go out of their way to create and protect American jobs—that unexpectedly won those states for him.
Just as Stephen Moore said, those values are not “conservative” in the familiar contemporary sense of the word. Indeed, McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, provides an object lesson in how a solidaristic instinct, wielded righteously on behalf of a vision of working class flourishing, can be turned in decidedly activist and progressive directions.
It was not all that hard to imagine Donald Trump pursuing such a course back in 2016, but for the most part he has presided over a more conventionally conservative governing program even as his rhetoric has remained oriented toward (“focused on” would be saying too much) worker-centric America First themes. The Republican Party machinery that Trump ultimately chose to lean on has, not surprisingly, proven resistant to change, not least because of its reliance on donors whose hostility to activist government was not suddenly discarded as obsolete just because of Trump’s victory. The would-be McKinleyites in today’s party thus have their work cut out for them in securing a durable producerist reorientation, one capable of winning an actual majority of Americans.
That should come as little surprise. In their 2007 book, Grand New Party, Douthat and Salam offered a brief history of the modern Republican coalition in which promisingly activist impulses, pledged on workers’ behalf, were sufficient to win elections—for Nixon, Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush the younger. But once power was secured, those impulses were largely stifled by the party’s small-government acolytes or wasted on unwinnable culture war forays. They noted in passing Karl Rove’s fascination with McKinley’s 1896 grand coalition building, but judged that as a practitioner he was too distracted by the temptations of win-now base turnout politics to really heed the example.
It may be that Republicans in modern times are simply constitutionally unsuited to build a working class majority. For those who hope otherwise, the greatest hope today is probably a generational divide taking shape among GOP lawmakers. It has been younger members who have generally tried to push more policies geared more toward the working class, such as when Senators Mike Lee and Marco Rubio successfully pushed for greater refundability of the child tax credit as part of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. So far such moves have not amounted to all that much. But more generally, it is easy to understand why the verities of the Reagan years carry less weight with younger members who came of age in the Clinton or Bush 43 administrations. When the party is finally ready to look beyond Trump, whether in 2021 or 2025, Boomers will be aging out of active political life and the fight among Gen-Xers and Millennials will determine where the GOP goes next. McKinley’s name may sound too antique to be revived, and his front porch campaign is long gone, but the vision of the Republican Party he once represented may yet recur.
1Howard Wayne Morgan, William McKinley and His America (Kent State University Press, 2003), p. 122.