Peering into the post-Trump era, an increasing number of figures within the Republican Party have decided to adopt Trump’s inchoate “conservative populism” and rebrand themselves, however ludicrously, as a party for the working class economically. This sentiment was recently vocalized by Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Kevin McCarthy, Tom Cotton, Ben Sasse, and many other Republican congressmen. It is personified, however, by Josh Hawley, who has been beating the right-wing populist drum since his election to the Senate in 2018. In reality, the rebranded Republican Party still has nothing to offer workers economically besides the same reactionary pro-corporate and anti-worker policies as always, concealed beneath a gilded veneer of culture war and racial grievances.
The contention that the GOP is a working-class party would be laughable if it were not, at least in one sense, materializing. The Republican voting coalition is not yet overwhelmingly working-class, but it is increasingly so. That the party’s voting coalition is more working-class suggests, of course, nothing about its governing coalition. The GOP has long claimed to represent blue-collar (white) workers culturally while furtively pursuing a regressive anti-worker economic agenda that crushes them. The GOP’s time-tested electoral strategy is to elevate cultural grievances and racial resentments into major campaign issues to appeal to disaffected white working-class voters, and then, after securing political power, to enact the economic agenda of the party’s true constituency – the wealthy and corporate interests that fund their campaigns and thinktanks – with punitive and regressive tax cuts, corporate subsidies and bailouts, attacks on organized labor, slashes in social services, and the elimination of regulations.
Like Trump himself, who campaigned in 2016 as a tribune of the forgotten and betrayed (white) working class then offered the working-class voters who elected him nothing but more pain and betrayal once in office, Republicans endeavoring to emulate his electoral success by rebranding themselves as protectors of the proletariat are doing little more than placing a pro-worker sheen on top of the same rotten corporate policies. In some cases, such as that of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or many other Republicans, who have a long history of opposition to organized labor and any redistributive social program, this rebranding reaches a level of absurdity that is nearly comical.
Rubio, for example, a co-sponsor of national right-to-work legislation, recently endorsed the Amazon union drive in Bessemer, Alabama in a surprising move that ostensibly bolsters his pro-worker bona fides. As the Op-Ed in which he announced his endorsement made clear, however, he did so not because of a commitment to organized labor but rather because Amazon is “woke” and “has waged a war against working-class values.” Curiously missing from Rubio’s analysis is any exploration of how Amazon has waged a war on the working-class itself – and not “working-class values,” a fictional concept. The veiled general criticisms of unions and the PRO Act sprinkled throughout his endorsement make clear that Rubio is no friend of labor. He is merely using the union drive to bludgeon Amazon into submission – and to warn other “woke” corporations – by threatening to withhold conservative support for their union-crushing efforts unless they stop aligning with “the left” in the “culture war.”
More complicated – or perhaps only less transparently disingenuous – figures such as Josh Hawley, who has long stylized himself as a champion of forgotten blue-collar workers, also offer nothing of any substance to the working class. Hawley spends much of his time decrying the loss of jobs and falling wages among American workers, the fault for which he pins on “cosmopolitan elites,” an amorphous and undefined group (that somehow does not include himself). He laments “cultural erosion” – but apparently fails to consider the erosive impact a regressive and highly unequal economic system has on a society’s culture – and yearns, above all, to return to a more traditional economic order in which a single-earner household could sustain a stable middle-class family.
The problem with Hawley’s vision is that it is a mirage. Reviving the sort of economic order of which he dreams, which was built by unions, would require a radical alteration of our current economic system, in which corporate power is entrenched, the wealth and income gap has become a yawning chasm, and wage growth has been rapidly outpaced by the rising costs of housing, healthcare, childcare, and education. Hawley, however, offers no solutions to get us there, and his incoherent and disjointed political positions are more about grandstanding than resolving issues.
Hawley does not support federal economic intervention on behalf of workers or organized labor, the only two mechanisms realistically capable of clawing power back from corporations. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Trump’s war on the working class, has been opposed by labor unions for his entire career, and enjoys a lifetime score of 5% from AFL-CIO. He supported Missouri’s right-to-work law and opposed the state’s minimum wage increase in 2018, and he has not come out in support of Amazon workers in Bessemer. Moreover, he, along with every other Republican in the Senate, voted against the Democrats’ coronavirus stimulus package and their proposed minimum wage increase to $15 an hour this month, instead offering his own unworkable alternative.
If Hawley and the Republicans do have any allegiance to the “little guy,” it is not to the American worker but to the small business owner – who often relies on the exploitation of his workforce even more than large corporations. In Hawley’s world, Democrats are the party of “big business” and “Big Tech” – representing Amazon, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street firms – and Republicans, in contrast, represent small, locally-owned shops. This explains Hawley’s endorsement of a $15 minimum wage only for corporations with more than $1 billion in revenues.
There is some truth to this contention: Democrats, because of their ties to unions, do better with capital-intensive enterprises – which tend to be multinational firms or banks, headquartered in cities – and Republicans do better with smaller, labor-intensive businesses, which are sprinkled throughout the country. A similar argument has been advanced about the New Deal itself and the origin of the Democrats’ support for organized labor. Hawley shrewdly attempts to parlay his “opposition” to big business into support for workers: Democrats represent multinational corporations while Republicans protect the underappreciated “little guy.”
In the final analysis, however, this is merely a contest between competing capitalist firms – not between the owners and workers. Hawley and his ilk represent the bosses, not the workers, and, regardless of the size of a firm, there is a tension of interests between the two. Hawley offers no solutions for workers because he has none. The incoherence of his worldview, and his own party’s structural interests, preclude them. He can ultimately do nothing but fall back on the traditional Republican playbook, which means focusing less on stagnant wages or corporate power and more on “cancel culture,” “wokeism,” “stolen” elections, and, in the words of a longtime GOP operative, “owning the libs and pissing off the media.”
This trend was exhibited at CPAC last month, during which headlining Republicans talked less about the legitimate economic issues facing blue-collar workers and more about fabricated cultural nonsense, demonstrating that “conservative populism” is a myth, and, notwithstanding its newly minted rebranding, the Republican Party still has nothing to offer working people.