A repeated, incorrect claim in the Republican nominating contest is that Donald Trump represents negativity, while his opponents speak for “optimism.”
“Amid gloomy rhetoric, John Kasich sticks with optimism,” The New York Times told us in February. In the last days of his campaign, Marco Rubio urged voters to choose “optimism over pessimism.” And when Rubio’s campaign ended, Rich Lowry called it “the end of GOP optimism.”
On Wednesday, House Speaker Paul Ryan also made a pitch for optimism, calling for a politics that is “always about striving to do better.”
But what candidate could be more focused on striving to do better than Donald Trump? His campaign slogan is literally “Make America Great Again.” You don’t get more optimistic than that.
Trump’s opponents often say he’s not a real conservative. That’s true, and it’s part of why he’s able to be so optimistic.
Orthodox conservatism says we can no longer afford to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits as promised. It says we can’t deliver health coverage to all Americans. It says job declines in the manufacturing sector are the inevitable result of global economic change, and that the solution to job loss in the Rust Belt is to move. Trump is not bound by any of these orthodoxies, which is why he can promise to fulfil more of voters’ hopes and dreams.
Consider jobs. The usual Republican line on jobs is that we don’t have enough of them because the government taxes, spends and regulates too much, so we can cut back on those things and hopefully some jobs will appear. Trump agrees with those ideas, but he has a bunch of others to add on top of them.
President Trump would get on the phone with the CEO of Ford and threaten him until he moves production back from Mexico. He’d slap a tariff on Chinese goods so manufacturers (even Apple!) choose to produce here. He’d build great public works again with all the money we save by getting South Korea to defend itself. He’d build a big, beautiful wall on the Mexican border to stop Mexicans from taking American jobs, and he’d get the Mexican government to pay for it.
All that stuff is going to work so well, Trump says, that he’ll be able to cut taxes hugely without touching Medicare and Social Security. He’d “make us so rich,” those cuts won’t be necessary.
Many of Trump’s ideas are bad, or impractical, or xenophobic, or stupid. But they are absolutely optimistic — far more optimistic than other Republican candidates’ ideas.
Of course, Trump has quite negative things to say about the state of the country today. But Rubio, like all the supposedly optimistic Republican alternatives, shares Trump’s diagnosis that our country is in dire condition. (Remember Rubio repeatedly insisting that President Obama has set out to deliberately undermine America?)
But Trump, unlike his opponents, says he is willing to try new things to solve those problems.
What Trump’s opponents need to do is not scold Trump for lack of optimism, but to figure out how to make their own optimism credible to voters. Jeb Bush ran for president on a platform of 4% economic growth — certainly an optimistic idea. But he apparently failed to convince voters that they should share his optimism that the same old agenda of tax cuts for the rich and business deregulation would deliver improvements in their lives.
Plus, Trump gets that Americans don’t just hope for economic growth and opportunity. They also hope for economic security — a promise that they can find a job if they are willing to work hard, and that they can retire comfortably after working a full career. When Trump speaks to these hopes, his Republican opponents attack him as a fake conservative. But the problem there is not with Trump — it is with conservatism.
Many Americans also have some quite unsavoury hopes that Trump is eager to indulge. (“I hope all those Mexicans will go away” is high on this list.) The appeal of racist demagoguery makes it all the more urgent to find a credible way to speak to Republican voters’ valid economic hopes — if you’re not going to beat Trump on racism, you’d better find a way to beat him on jobs.
The core message of the Republican Party for the last seven years has been something like, “Everything sucks, and the government can’t make it better.” That is the opposite of optimism. If establishment Republicans want to reclaim their party from Trump, they need to find a new agenda that convinces voters they, too, can make America great again.
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