It's been a busy month for Donald Trump, purported Republican. After winning the presidency on November 8, he has taken aim at private businesses, while his vice-president has declared that the free market is the cause of America's problems. It appears that Hillary Clinton wasn't the only loser, to use Trumpian terminology, on Election Day: Small-c fiscal conservatism came up short, too.
This economic conservatism — long thought to be the ideological backbone of the Republican Party — has always been, first and foremost, about business; nearly a century ago, former Republican president Calvin Coolidge said that "the chief business of the American people is business.” For Coolidge, and nearly every Republican leader since, a strong economy, based on industries unhindered by regulation, wasn't just ideal — it was the only way forward. Government, traditional Republicanism said, should stay out of things. As Ronald Reagan put it when talking about the 1980s economic recession in his first inaugural address, "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
Conservatives' belief in the power of business — and the ineptitude of government — has held firm through thick and thin. Even during the Great Depression, Coolidge's GOP successor, President Herbert Hoover, asserted that any attempt by the federal government to help millions of out-of-work Americans or failing businesses would be not only ineffectual but actively harmful to the moral character of the nation. "You cannot extend the mastery of government over the daily life of a people without somewhere making it master of people's souls and thoughts," he said in a campaign speech at Madison Square Garden in 1932. "Every step in that direction poisons the very roots of [liberal democracy]." More recently, in 2009, Republicans fought against President Obama's economic stimulus package, demanding that it include cuts to taxes paid by businesses (provisions that were, in fact, already in the plan). They believed that the way to make the American economy move again was to let businesses take the lead — and to force government to fall in line.
But the hands-off approach that exemplifies fiscal conservatism just doesn't fly anymore. "What 2016 demonstrated is that conservatism was an unloved belief structure, even among its self-described adherents," Noah Rothman, assistant online editor for the conservative magazine Commentary, told MTV News. Trump turned traditional conservative dogma on its head by telling his supporters that, actually, big government is good. He has even touted traditionally progressive ideas like universal health care and massive government investment in infrastructure improvements — and gotten widespread support for them.
"Progressivism of the kind Trump preaches (aggressive federal intervention into the private sector) is very much at home in the GOP," Rothman said. For example, after news broke of Trump's "deal" with a Carrier manufacturing plant in Indiana — resulting in several hundred jobs remaining in the United States — Republicans polled by Politico were more likely than Democrats to say that not only should government negotiate with private companies, but the president and vice-president should offer government contracts to individual companies to keep jobs in the U.S. And the same Republican lawmakers who yelled "government overreach" in response to Obama's stimulus package and infrastructure spending bills are suddenly just fine with Trump's very similar plans.
In short, many members of the GOP these days think business success shouldn't be determined by the "invisible hand" of the free market, but by the smaller-than-average hand of one Donald J. Trump. This is a bizarre enough phenomenon that even Sarah Palin, a Trump surrogate during the campaign, asked her fellow party members about this kind of "crony capitalism" in early December: "Republicans oppose this, remember? We support competition on a level playing field, remember?" But GOP voters — and their president — don't.
Despite the Republican Party's electoral successes in 2016, it's become clear that fiscal conservatism itself isn't very popular, said Rothman. This view tells individuals that, for better or for worse, they're on their own, and that a government that gets involved in the economy is a government that will ultimately limit individual freedom. At a time when more and more voters want the government to take action to help them and their families, that message is no longer working at the ballot box. "A philosophy that promises you nothing more than the fruits of your own labors will never be as popular as a philosophy that promises you the fruits of other people's labors," Rothman said. "Conservatism is and always will be a hard sell." He added that Trump instead borrows from the language of liberals, who believe that government intervention can be used for good, to his own benefit. He tells Americans — specifically white Americans — that their problems aren't their fault, and that only he, and his administration, can fix them.
Agency — conservatism's foundational belief that, as Rothman describes it, you and you alone are responsible for your lot — doesn't sell to GOP voters. Being told that their problems and worries could be solved by a big government run by Trump, however, did just that. As for "draining the swamp"? Trump has filled his Cabinet with the same Goldman Sachs executives he derided on the campaign trail. But, his supporters say, at least Trump's swamp could "get them something."
"Conservatism didn't lose on November 8, because conservatism wasn't on the ballot," Rothman said. "Conservatism lost on May 3, when Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee. Trumpism has nothing to do with conservatism, as I see it." And for GOP voters, they seem to like it just fine that way.