The entrepreneur has almost disappeared from Republican-Party rhetoric. Where businessmen once loomed like Atlas in Republicans’ rhetorical world, the dominant thrust of GOP discourse today focuses upon the twin bogeys of “wokeness” and “elites.” They use the language of populism to communicate a message of grievance.
Political parties define themselves in part by proffering aspirational archetypes. By venerating certain social types, a party shows what kind of society it thinks is the best model for the country. In Republican circles, the hero used to be the tycoon. Channeling Ayn Rand and her followers, Republican politicians from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney championed economically successful businessmen as the ideal Americans. But as Donald Trump–ironically, a billionaire developer himself–reshaped the party, the GOP laudatory emphasis shifted towards the traditionalist white male, shorn of financial trappings. Republicans now stand firmly for the hegemony of all white, straight men without obsessing over the wealth they accumulate in the market.
The reasons for this rhetorical repositioning are twofold. First, the Trump-era has seen a revolution in GOP voter opinion. A recent New York Times/Siena poll recorded the astonishing finding that only 7% of Republicans agree with George W. Bush’s positions on entitlements, foreign policy, and trade. A hefty share of Republicans are straight populists on all three issues, and even those who side with W. on one or two of his signature stances tend to support the populist autocrat, Donald J. Trump. In short, the ideological superstructure for pro-entrepreneurship rhetoric has withered.
This transformation owes in large part to the sweeping changes that have overtaken the GOP’s demographic base. Republican entrepreneurs, largely white and educated at universities, have abandoned their ancestral party out of disgust toward Trumpian populism. For example, in Raleigh, North Carolina, the tony precinct of Hayes Barton voted for Mitt Romney by 11% but shifted 180 degrees towards Democrats in 2016, voting for Hillary Clinton by nearly 20 points. Voters in the fine mansions of central Raleigh no longer prioritize their tax bills over the integrity of American democracy and its elected caretakers.
But the GOP has not simply collapsed, so by definition some large bloc of Americans must have arisen to replace the investor class in Republican ranks. This substitution has come from non-college-educated white voters. And the white working class, while deeply conservative on social issues and identity, still has little affinity for celebrations of economic wealth. Return to Romney-Ryan. While in 2012 the Hayes-Barton grandees were comfortably voting for the Man from Bain Capital, working-class whites across the Midwest refused to vote for the vulture capitalist despite their deep anxieties about the fact of a Black president. Economic royalism could not defeat FDR’s ghost.
These working-class white communities, while voting for a Trump administration that cut rich people’s taxes and tried to remove blue-collar people from the Medicaid roles, have suffered horrendous blows to their collective wellbeing. MIT economist David Autor found that the “China Shock” of offshoring and import competition cost 2 million American jobs, most of them in industrial towns across the heartland. Non-college-educated whites have accordingly suffered a spike in deaths from overdose, suicide, and other lethal outgrowths of economic despair. None of this is to succumb to the fallacy of “economic anxiety”; most empirical studies have found that Trump’s support is wholly racial in nature. But it’s clear enough why a struggling social community would recoil from rhetoric that heaps adulation on the rich and the successful.
The Republican Party’s shift away from economic royalism could, in theory, be a healthy development. The Romney-Ryan iteration of the party was appallingly callous toward the poor. But instead of becoming more egalitarian, the GOP has substituted one social hierarchy for another. Republicans have largely taken Ayn Rand’s cartoon-millionaires off of their pedestal. But in place of John Galt stands a fierce commitment to white supremacy, and a contempt for the minorities and women who could, in another world, be allies of the working white men who now vote for Trump.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.