The US Republican Party will gather from July 18–21 to formally nominate Donald Trump as its presidential candidate. This may be contested — the ‘Never Trump’ movement is searching for a way to open the convention — but regardless, Trump has already altered the Grand Old Party (GOP) dramatically. He will likely lose in November. But ‘Trumpism’ — white nationalism, America First, overt hostility to Islam and the growing diversity of the United States, border control, and foreign policy disinterest — will survive. And if it feeds through into policy, it will impact America in Asia.
Trump himself is a terrible messenger for his ideas — buffoonish, undisciplined, fraudulent — but the ideas themselves clearly resonate. Appearing almost out of nowhere, Trump managed to defeat nearly 20 other rivals. Those rivals spoke the well-established Reaganite language of the modern GOP. They promised the usual mix of libertarian economics, foreign policy hawkishness, and social conservatism in a Christian idiom.
This was an exciting and relevant package in the late 1970s. The economic doldrums of that decade inspired supply-side economics, and the Reagan-era economic boom suggests that tax rates were probably too high. Détente with communism never sat as well with Americans as it did with the allies. And the social tumult of the 1960s and 70s had inspired a Christian-moralist backlash. Reagan fused these three agendas as none of his successors ever would.
In the years since though, that Reaganite package has lost much of its appeal. Decades of tax cuts have left the US with a huge debt and deficit, and most Republican voters today, downscale whites, do not wish to see the welfare state that is funded by those taxes reduced. Neoconservative belligerence shattered on the rocks of Iraq and the intractable war on terrorism. And resistance to social change simply no longer motivates Americans that much; most have come to accept a great deal more sexual and gender freedom, such as divorce and gay marriage.
With astonishing speed, Trump demonstrated just how ossified this 40-year old message is. He won the GOP primary with almost no staff, money, intellectual or organisational preparation, or campaign strategy. He clearly ‘wings it’ through most of his speeches. He alienated most of the GOP establishment. He fought with its premier media organ, Fox. And he still won handily, with more than 14 million votes and roughly 45% of the GOP primary vote.
Trump’s inevitable successors
Trump’s ‘revolution’ has been to show that Republican candidates can dispense with the Reganite superstructure and win with direct appeals to the Republican id, particularly the ‘angry white men’ who are the core of the GOP voter base. As David Frum put it: 'Trump is running not to be president of all Americans, but to be the clan leader of white Americans'. For decades, Republicans have danced around the mobilisation of white identity politics. Trump, with his characteristic bull-in-a-china-shop, win-at-all-costs approach, he has thrown out that pretense and appealed openly to white Christian racial/cultural loyalties.
That this worked so well, so fast, and for such an obviously unqualified candidate, means it will almost certainly be picked-up by a post-Trump generation that will be slicker, better organised, and disciplined enough to properly exploit the opening Trump has created. Think of Trump as the National Front’s first leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen — the frightening, undisciplined buffoon who gets the nationalist ball rolling — and his successors as Pen's daughter Marine; sharper, smarter, less overtly scary.
Trump has shown a new way to win the GOP primary. We should expect successors. In the years before the next presidential primary, a civil war will be fought in the GOP between an establishment desperate not to appear racist, clinging to a fossilised Reaganism that no one in American really wants, and an insurgent, Trumpish white resentment that would remake the GOP as a European-style nationalist-rightist party. It is not clear who will win.
What Will a Trumpist GOP Mean for America in Asia?
The Reaganite GOP has traditionally appealed to Asian elites. Republican belief in free trade allowed export-oriented economies around the region to trade freely, even as Asian mercantilist strategies blunted US imports. Republican hawkishness and obsession with credibility served American allies’ security. Despite reasonable concerns that America’s Asia allies cheap-ride on US guarantees, that debate almost never arises in the GOP. Instead, anxiety runs the other way: GOP elites constantly worry that American allies doubt US commitment, therefore arguing that America must give the allies more attention, resources, and so on. Finally, GOP hawks strongly support American global preponderance. The GOP supports the maintenance or expansion of US bases around the world and a forward US military presence that is frequently interventionist. If the GOP controlled the White House today, the US would be far more heavily involved in Ukraine, the South China Sea, and Syria. All this takes the pressure off US allies to respond to Putin, China, ISIS, and so on.
Trump, for all his foolishness, raises the obvious question of whether all this forward engagement is actually good for the US. With the exception of free trade, it is not immediately clear that it is. Almost 30 years of US intervention in the Persian Gulf has probably worsened American security in the Middle East. Taking the lead in Ukraine would once again let Europe off the hook regarding its own security. If the Americans were not around to bail-out European security, would the Brexit debate have focused on so narrowly on parochial issues like the National Health Service and housing? In Asia, wealthy American allies can clearly spend a good deal more on defence and, with China and North Korea, in their neighborhood, they should. Nor is it immediately clear that Trump’s support for Japanese and South Korean nuclearisation is a bad thing; both are liberal democracies mature enough for nuclear command-and-control, and allied to the US. A lot of Americans, including Trump voters, would like to see a less expensive, less interventionist US foreign policy, with the dividends of that caution brought home.
Specific policies from a Trumpist GOP might include:
- A substantial immigration reduction: If there is one thing that the white working class across the West want — and which is fueling Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen, and others — it is reduced non-white immigration. This would effect southeast Asia more than northeast Asia.
- The end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and new FTAs: Free trade is an easy target for nationalists. Trade with Asia has a racial edge to it as well.
- Expanded Asian defense spending: Post-Trumpers will likely be far more serious about burden-sharing division than any US administration since Nixon.
The Pivot and its problems
I have long argued (short version, long version) the Achilles heel of the US pivot is public opinion. A commitment to Asia interests American elites but does not really grip the US median voter. Americans do not know or care that much about Asia; it’s far away, the languages are very hard (no Spanglish?), the religious beliefs are even more foreign than Islam (which is at least monotheistic), the food is a challenge, we don’t learn about it in school, there aren’t many Asian-Americans (less than 5%), and so on. There are still more Americans studying Latin than Chinese.
As post-Trump candidates pick-up Trumpist threads, expect his America First-ism, focus on allied free-riding, and hostility to trade deals to push the GOP away from its previous Reaganite internationalism. This year’s primary revealed the Reaganite GOP establishment as the emperor with no clothes; neither Democratic nor Republican voters actually want what the GOP in Washington is selling. Trump (of all people!) just proved this, and that is a titanic shift in American politics. When the GOP establishment eventually reflects its voters’ actual preferences, the GOP of recent decades, which Asian elites know, will fade.
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