House Speaker Paul Ryan would probably like to dismiss Donald Trump's upending of GOP orthodoxy as a fluke. The Wisconsin Republican would surely prefer a comforting return to generic Republicanism: a sunny combo of Reagan-era supply-side economics, small government bromides, and "peace through strength" internationalism.
And indeed, that is pretty much the argument Ryan advanced Wednesday morning in his post-election press conference:
Many months ago Republicans in the House united around a bold, specific agenda for this country. It offers a better way forward for America. … We will honor the timeless principles that our country was founded on — liberty, freedom, free enterprise, consent of the governed — and we will apply those principles to the problems of the day. [Paul Ryan]
Except that's not the agenda Trump ran and won on. The president-elect didn't run on Reaganomics 2.0 (although he did have a big tax cut) or Ryan's new "better way" policy agenda, even though both promise to repeal ObamaCare. Rather, the heart of Trumponomics is a populist, America First economic program built around trade protectionism and mercantilism. It rips up old trade deals and attacks supposed Chinese currency manipulation. It uses tariffs to dissuade companies from offshoring jobs and building plants overseas.
Trump is also nowhere near classic Ryanism, which seeks to avoid a future debt crisis through Medicare and Social Security reform. Rather, Trump said he would leave those programs alone and hope faster economic growth made them financially sound. The only economic policy Trump mentioned in his election night speech was a pricey, debt-financed — even Keynesian — infrastructure plan:
We are going to fix our inner cities and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We're going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it. [Donald Trump]
If Trump has a mandate — and Ryan repeatedly said he did — it has little do with Ryan's House agenda. And it will be the job of GOP congressional leaders to implement Trump's top-down ideas on issues he cares about, not their own. That is the power dynamic. That is how authority will flow. So let's be clear about what it means to be Trumpublican, since Ryan seems a bit fuzzy.
It means continued calls for tough, even, draconian immigration restrictions; further retreat from the party's postwar embrace of globalization; and plenty of nostalgia for the heavy-industry America of times past. Trump's GOP is a right-wing party a bit like the nationalist outfits in Europe, such as Britain's UKIP or France's National Front, though infused with American-style social conservatism from the evangelical right. Sovereignty is the new capitalism. One nation under the Christian God. All with an unhealthy dollop or two of white identity politics.
Trump's GOP lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College — this year. But that is not a viable long-term strategy for an intellectually serious center-right party. The GOP must eventually accept that the postwar American economy and culture of JFK and Reagan are forever gone, no matter what Trump tells white, working-class voters. So the GOP must take stock of early 21st century America, an ethnically and culturally diverse nation whose economy is being reshaped more by technology than trade with Asia.
This vision of the GOP would be built around all faiths, ethnicities, and races. It would seek to promote economic dynamism, competition, and upward mobility. It would fashion a stronger, pro-work safety net — including universal health insurance coverage — with fewer upper-middle class entitlements. It would make work pay better for low-wage workers. It would seek to make America a place that even more talented people from around the globe would see as the best place to accomplish great things. Eliminating the estate tax would not be the "linchpin" of this conservative reform movement, as one Trump donor recently put it. Making a better America for more people would.
Trump's successful GOP takeover suggests the party won't be embracing such conservative modernization anytime soon, if ever. But does Ryan fully grasp he may also be an odd man out? Ryan may have a better way, but it is unlikely to be Trump's.