In the run-up to the U.K. vote to leave the European Union, pro-Brexit politician Michael Gove said "people in this country have had enough of experts." In other words, voters would be right to ignore all the economists and business executives warning that Brexit would do serious long-term harm to the British economy. And so they did.
Surely, many Republicans are taking the same dismissive attitude to a letter released this week from a group of nearly 400 economists, including eight Nobel laureates. These experts called Donald Trump a "dangerous, destructive choice" for president and chastised him for promoting "magical thinking and conspiracy theories over sober assessments of feasible economic policy options."
The letter is unlikely to sway many Trump voters, or nudge any swing states toward Hillary Clinton. Nor would it change the minds of Trump's most ardent fans to learn that a Wall Street Journal survey was unable to find a single Trump backer among the former top economic advisers to Republican presidents. After all, in the age of Trump, the Republican Party has embraced a sort of visceral, nativist populism. Rank-and-file GOP voters have no use for what "pointy headed" intellectuals — on the left or right — have to say. Experts and elites be damned!
And yet, amazingly, many GOP leaders still consider theirs the "party of ideas." It's a term first applied to the GOP by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a New York Democrat, in response to the Ronald Reagan-era party's growing reputation for intellectual heft. And it's a particularly favorite phrase of House Speaker Paul Ryan.
— Paul Ryan (@PRyan) August 17, 2016
Or as he said at the Republican National Convention, "It still comes down to a contest of ideas, which is really good news, ladies and gentlemen, because when it's about ideas that advantage goes to us."
But does the ideas advantage clearly go to the Republican Party when its presidential nominee rejects the broad economic consensus, across the political spectrum, on a whole host of fundamental economic issues, including taxes, trade, immigration, and monetary policy?
Now, Ryan and other thoughtful Republicans will surely counter that Trumponomics is not the same as mainstream, pro-market GOP economics. And that might be true of some Washington pols and thinkers at center-right think tanks and magazines. But a recent Bloomberg poll found that when asked who better represents their view of the party, Republican voters prefer Trump over Ryan — 51 percent to 33 percent. What's more, a majority of GOP voters, unlike Democrats, think free trade has been bad for the United States.
Recall that it was the Reagan-era GOP that first earned the "party of ideas" tag. Yet Trump's nomination is a de facto repudiation of Reagan's achievements and legacy. Trump's "Make America Great Again" vision hearkens back not to the 1980s and 1990s but to the 1950s and 1960s. In Trump's bizarro version of economic history, the Reagan years are when the U.S. economy began to veer wildly off course by letting Asia — first Japan and now China — steal U.S. manufacturing jobs. And Trump called Reagan's sweeping 1986 tax reform an "absolute catastrophe for the country." (Translation: an absolute catastrophe for highly leveraged New York real estate developers.)
But the problem isn't just Trump. Even before his presidential run, the GOP had become been susceptible to sketchy, fringe economic theories that led politicians to declare that deep tax cuts pay for themselves, U.S. debt default would be no big deal, in a deep recession you should "cut to grow" the economy, and that it's time to take another look at linking the dollar to the gold standard. There is a direct line from the acceptance of those ideas to the embrace of the loony Trumpian notion that America would be better off by reversing globalization and mass immigration, and building a mega-wall on its southern border.
So even if Trump loses next week and his white nationalist populism is exorcized from the party, the GOP will remain in a precarious position, at least as a vehicle able to engage in serious policy debate and push forward a fact-based policy agenda. What Reagan once said of Democrats now seems true of far too many Republicans: It isn't so much "that they are ignorant, "it's just that they know so many things that aren't so."