The Economic Policy Paradigm Shift in the Republican Party

During his presidential campaign, President Trump advocated for an economic platform that defied the Republican orthodoxy in place since the George H.W. Bush administration. Whereas other Republicans had preached free trade and laissez-faire capitalism, Trump advocated for “fair trade,” a catchall term that referred to the use of reciprocal tariffs and other import-reduction tools to mitigate outsourcing, foreign dumping, and foreign currency devaluation [1]. Trump’s economic views may seem iconoclastic, but his rhetoric actually represents a welcome return to the pre-Great Depression Republican ideology typified by Teddy Roosevelt—the aggressive use of tariffs paired with calls for the disintegration of monopolies [2]. President Trump’s rapid political ascent and personal appeal in the Republican Party now appears to be changing the party’s economic ideology as a whole.

This wholesale change in philosophy was displayed in Marco Rubio’s recent speech delivered at the National Defense University [3]. Senator Rubio, long perceived to be an establishment bulwark, argued that the days of “market fundamentalism”, in which the government assiduously abstained from significant intervention in markets, needed to come to an end. He contended that the rapid growth of China’s economy, coupled with unfair Chinese governmental practices such as state subsidies, currency devaluation, and outright intellectual property theft, present a dire threat to American industry. Instead of promoting market libertarianism, the federal government needs to oversee “common-good capitalism” that preserves the positive aspects of capitalism, such as strong incentives to work hard and economic freedom, while including necessary checks on corporate power to ensure that corporations act in the best long-term interest of American citizens rather than the interests of short-term stockholders. Rubio advocated for a national industrial policy that marries capital controls on foreign investment with U.S. government subsidies for vital domestic manufacturing and mining industries, such as rare earth mining, that may be more costly in the United States than overseas, but are necessary to preserve national security and good-paying American jobs [3].  

The neoliberal Republican orthodoxy pertaining to industrial organization is also changing rapidly. The long-revered Chicago School of Antitrust Economics, that argued for highly limited application of antitrust laws, is going out of vogue in exchange for demands of more robust enforcement and the breakup of tech monopolies [4]. While the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has long opposed the concentration of corporate power, the recent Republican calls for the breakup of oligopolies and monopolies are informed by economics, but propelled primarily by a self-interested perception of elite cultural bias against conservatives and their way of life. Right-wing viewpoints are indeed disproportionately censored by tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Google that tend to have left-leaning executive teams [5]. 

Conservatives also decry the corporate concentration in the traditional media landscape and the resulting hegemony of liberal views. A recent analysis, for example, found that 93% of all traditional media coverage about President Trump had a negative slant [6]. In contrast, criticism of China’s governmental human rights abuses has been avoided in Hollywood films in order to appease Chinese audiences [7]. In reaction to this media bias and censorship, calls for action from rank-and-file Republican congressman are growing. The freshman senator Josh Hawley, for example, has become a young star in the party by vigorously calling for Big Tech companies to either rapidly reform themselves or be broken up if they fail to do so [8]. Hawley’s complaints have recently widened into a query of the power of corporate elites in general, including an excoriation of Wall Street [9].

Rubio’s “common-good capitalism” and Hawley’s calls for increased antitrust scrutiny of Big Tech both represent the likely populist future of a Republican party that now relies heavily on a support base of culturally alienated working-class voters, in contrast to the party’s previous base of affluent suburbanites. Antitrust enforcement and national industrial policy increasingly appear to be bipartisan priorities. Just as a backlash to the excesses of the Gilded Age resulted in contemporaneous currents of Republican nationalism and Wilsonian progressivism, the adverse consequences of globalization and corporate concentration are generating a centrifugal pull away from the neoliberal economic consensus preached by Clinton, Obama, and both Bushes, towards dipoles of Trumpian populism and Bernie Sanders-style social democracy.

[1] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-confronting-chinas-unfair-trade-policies/

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/09/opinion/trump-rhetoric-precedents.html

[3] https://americanmind.org/essays/american-industrial-policy-and-the-rise-of-china/

[4] https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-conservative-case-for-antitrust-jonathan-tepper/

[5] https://quillette.com/2019/02/12/it-isnt-your-imagination-twitter-treats-conservatives-more-harshly-than-liberals/

[6] https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2020/jan/13/tradition-continues-obsessive-broadcast-coverage-o/

[7] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/18/world/asia/china-movies.html?mtrref=www.google.com&gwh=4CFD1C5E757E7C969F7D604F989954D8&gwt=pay&assetType=REGIWALL

[8] https://www.axios.com/josh-hawley-tech-companies-untrustworthy-be1dede4-8f76-4598-bf0d-6e4ccd3163c7.html

[9] https://www.hawley.senate.gov/senator-josh-hawleys-speech-national-conservatism-conference

[10] Photo Credit: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-conservative-case-for-antitrust-jonathan-tepper/

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Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

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