Bunking classes: Right or wrong

I Was Wrong: The GOP Will Never Be the Party of the Working Class | Opinion

For half a decade following the rise of Donald Trump, I took a leading part in the effort to bring about a populist GOP: a conservatism that would combat the stresses imposed by the market on working people, helping them attain lives of security and dignity. For a time, I believed Donald Trump could deliver such a conservative movement. But now I’m faced with the realization that he couldn’t—no one could, because the Republican Party remains, incorrigibly, a vehicle for the wealthy.

It’s an unsettling place to be in. While ferociously conservative on cultural issues, I’m increasingly drawn to the economic policies of the Left—figures like Sens. Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who, unlike the vast majority of leaders in American politics, and especially those on the right, are willing to tackle the corporate hegemony and Wall Street domination that make daily life all but unlivable for the asset-less many.The author, Sohrab Ahmari

My turn toward realignment politics didn’t come straightforwardly. Having launched my career at the heart of establishment conservatism, I was initially baffled by the Trump phenomenon. I was then an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal in London, preaching free trade and low taxes. Back home, the more Trump bucked orthodoxy—assailing free trade, defending Social Security, hinting support for a public option in health care—the louder the base cheered him.

I should have known better. Two decades earlier, just before I turned 14, my mother and I had emigrated from Iran to the United States. We landed in northern Utah, of all places, home to the relatives who had helped us obtain our green cards. My parents’ divorce in the old country, combined with a brutal exchange rate, led to straitened circumstances initially.

While finishing graduate school, my mother worked the graveyard shift at a gas station, and our first home sat on wheels. The only health insurance we could access was the shoddy variety on offer at my mother’s minimum-wage jobs. I still remember the terror that gripped us when one of us fell ill—not fear of sickness itself, but of the medical bills that were sure to invade our mailbox afterward. For millions of Americans, that sense of precarity is a permanent condition.

My own sense of vulnerability returned when I became a dad. My son, Max, was born in London, and while the Journal offered private coverage, routine care routed through the National Health Service. Each time my wife and I confronted the illnesses of early childhood, we received decent, humane care from the NHS. And there would be nary a copay, let alone a scary bill.

Not long after returning Stateside, by contrast, we were slapped with a $4,000 bill when Max caught a virus that required a night’s monitoring at a hospital. That personal liability, mind you, was after the contribution of my insurance plan at the New York Post, where I was working as the Op-Ed editor. Our family could handle the extra $4,000 expense, but how, I wondered, do working- and lower-middle-class Americans deal with such insecurity? (The answer is, they don’t: 57 percent of adults carry often-devastating medical debt or have faced it in the past five years.)

Converting to Catholicism in 2016 pushed the problem of economic justice even further to the forefront of my mind. Right-wing Catholics in my circles had long sought to blend the faith with Paul Ryan-style market fundamentalism. But the more I drank in papal teaching, the less tenable that synthesis appeared. The same moral logic that inspired in me a horror of abortion and euthanasia also inveighed powerfully against the exploitation of the many by the few.

At one gleaming moment in the Trump years, it seemed like the mainly Catholic cohort of intellectuals to which I belonged was poised to bring about a right-of-center party that salved the victims of neoliberal economics, while also paying due respect to their cultural yearnings for “order, continuity, and social cohesion,” as I wrote in a much-discussed 2019 essay.

It turned out to be wishful thinking.

Labor was an especially disappointing area. In 2016, Trump’s trade-skeptical plank won him the highest share of union households since Ronald Reagan, helping him clinch crucial battlegrounds like Michigan and Wisconsin. Yet his Department of Labor was all-too-typically Republican, led by the likes of Eugene Scalia, an arch-apologist for corporate power and workplace abuses, and brimming with union-busters.

One grimly eye-opening episode for me was the administration’s approach to commercial-arbitration in the workplace. Originally intended to mediate disputes between merchants of relatively equal bargaining power, the 1925 Federal Arbitration Act has been steadily expanded by mainly conservative Supreme Court justices since the 1980s, corralling labor complaints into secretive, privatized “courts” where employers set the rules, and workers are unlikely to prevail.

In cases where workers had been forced to “consent” to arbitration as a condition of continued employment, Trump’s administration went against his own National Labor Relations Board and insisted that the arbitration clauses be upheld and class actions barred. In one case, this would have meant forcing an employee to shell out $200,000 in individual arbitration expenses to recover $2,000 in overtime owed him by accounting giant Ernst & Young.

By the end of Trump’s term, the promise of the realignment remained largely unfulfilled. To be sure, Trump’s tariffs against China set in motion a broader decoupling that has only accelerated under his Democratic successor. Beyond that, however, the 45th president’s signal legislative “achievement” was a corporate tax bonanza engineered by Paul Ryan, the then-House speaker.

Much of my disillusionment owes to what wasn’t done, rather than what was. GOP populists complained loudly of Big Tech, yet it was progressive congressional staffers like Lina Khan who took the lead on the most serious probes and reform proposals (work Khan has since put to effect as President Biden’s competition czar). Trumpians irritably gestured at Wall Street, yet it’s Warren who introduced a bill to check the corrosion of the economy by asset-strippers.

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