The Conservative Attack on Big Business

How some Republican presidential candidates are running against the rich and powerful.

Rick Santorum
Man of the people: Former Sen. Rick Santorum at a campaign stop at the Food Truck Bash in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, on May 31, 2015.

Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters

It’s a bad time to be the party of business. According to last week’s CBS News/New York Times poll, 57 percent of Americans think “the government [should] do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.’” Even Republicans are losing faith in the free market: Fifty-three percent of them say only “a few people at the top … have a chance to get ahead,” 56 percent say the wealth gap is increasing, 47 percent say it’s “a problem that needs to be addressed now,” 62 percent say “large corporations have too much influence,” and 53 percent favor “raising taxes on people earning more than $1 million per year.”

If you’re a Republican candidate for president, how do you deal with this grim environment? By running against business. You just have to do it in a way that Republican voters can accept. The trick is to find a trusty conservative message and turn that message into an attack on corporate America. The 2016 GOP candidates are already at work on this challenge. Here are some of the strategies they’ve come up with.

1. Attack big business as an ally of big government. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry is trying out this approach. Here’s what he said Thursday as he announced his candidacy:

For small businesses on Main Street, those that are struggling to just get by, that are smothered by regulation—they’re targeted by Dodd-Frank—I hear you. You’re not forgotten. Your time is coming. The American people, they see this rigged game, where the insiders get rich, the middle class pays the tab. There’s something wrong when the Dow is near record highs, and businesses on Main Street can’t even get a loan. Since when did capitalism involve the elimination of risk for the biggest banks while regulations strangle our community banks? Capitalism is not corporatism. It is not a guarantee of reward without risk. It’s not about Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.

Perry’s audience loved this message. It’s not a call for government intervention or redistribution. It’s a demand that government get out of the way. It blames the rigged game on regulation, and ultimately on “insiders”—rich people who, instead of competing fairly in the free market, use the chains of state power to hobble the rest of us and to insulate themselves from risk. Perry’s closing lines about capitalism and corporatism are perfect. He casts himself not as a revolutionary but as a traditionalist who will lead us back to a truly free market.

The Dodd-Frank restrictions on lending fit nicely into Perry’s critique. So does the Affordable Care Act. In his speech, Perry pledged that when he becomes president, “Health insurers will have to earn the right to your money instead of lobbying Washington to force you to hand it over.” All the Republican candidates bash Obamacare, but Perry is the only one who has figured out how to bash corporations in the same breath.

2. Attack big business as a friend of immigrants. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is betting on this message. Here’s what he said last week as he kicked off his campaign:

In the late ’70s, like many of you, we saw the economic devastation … across this country, particularly in the area of manufacturing, as a result of the excesses and indifference of big labor, big government, and, yes, big business. Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, the epicenter, we lost over 100,000 jobs. … Afterwards, big government and big business told our workers that times had changed, [that] American workers could no longer compete with low foreign wages, and that those jobs were gone forever. …

Over the last 20 years, we’ve brought into this country, legally and illegally, 35 million mostly unskilled workers, and the result … [is that] workers’ wages and family incomes have flat-lined. Hillary and big business, they have called for a massive influx in unskilled labor. Business does it because they want to control costs. Hillary does it [because] she just wants votes. Their priorities are profits and power. My priority is you, the American worker.

Santorum’s message adds a twist to Perry’s. Big business is screwing the rest of us not just by using big government, but by teaming up with liberals who want to open the floodgates to foreign labor. The beauty of this message is that it combines class resentment with ethnic scapegoating. It’s a dog whistle that plays chords. And it outwits the Democratic attack on outsourcing. While liberals complain about jobs being shipped overseas, they’re doing something worse: They’re shipping foreigners into our country, to take our jobs and drown out our votes.

You have to salute Santorum for this brilliant synthesis of manufacturing policy, class struggle, trade, border security, and voter ID. And all the while, he preserves his innocence by mentioning that he’s the son of immigrants. When you come in and shut the door behind you, that’s not prejudice. It’s just practicality.

3. Attack big business as an ally of social liberalism. Earlier this year Indiana and Arkansas debated legislation that would allow anyone to refuse business services based on religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Several gay-friendly companies opposed these bills. To some GOP leaders, this fight between business and the Christian right signified a dangerous crack in the conservative coalition. But two presidential contenders, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, see it as an opportunity. Here’s how Cruz presented the issue last month during an appearance in South Carolina:

All of us, our hearts were breaking as we saw what unfolded in Indiana and Arkansas, as those states stood up to defend religious liberty—and the modern Democratic Party, in a perfect storm, joined with big business to say their commitment to mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states trumps any commitment to the First Amendment.

And here’s how Jindal framed it two weeks later in Oklahoma:

You saw a second example when the left teamed up with corporate America to try to bully leaders in Indiana and Arkansas, when they debated their Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. By the way, this is an unholy alliance between big corporate business leaders and the radical left, the same left that wants to tax and regulate them out of existence, that doesn’t believe in profits. Economic liberty is simply the other side of the same coin that is religious liberty. And my warning to those corporate leaders is: If you think you’re going to come to Louisiana and bully the governor of Louisiana, don’t waste your breath coming to our state and threatening us. But my advice, my warning to the Republican Party is: We’re not the party of big government. We mustn’t become the party of big business either.

Cruz and Jindal speak nobly about the Constitution and the nature of liberty. But what they’re really stoking, with their talk of bullying and an unholy alliance, is Christian conservative distrust of corporate power. They’re taking what was seen as an emerging asset to the gay rights movement—the sympathy and muscle of business leaders—and making it the target of a populist backlash.

If you’re liberal, this anti-corporate rhetoric from the right can be infuriating. In an era of unrest over economic inequality, Republicans are finding ways to run against the rich and powerful. In fact, they’re using populist sentiment to attack the same old enemies: regulation, subsidized health care, immigrants, and gays. How can this be happening?

The answer lies in two things you thought Republicans didn’t understand: climate change and evolution. When the environment changes, organisms must adapt or die. Random mutation, combined with natural selection, either extinguishes the species or changes it.

That’s what is now happening to the GOP. More than 15 Republicans, officially or unofficially, are running for president. They’re trying out different messages. They face an environment of deep skepticism about social mobility under capitalism. That environment has penetrated even the Republican base. It will winnow the field, and then it will test whether the victor can prevail against the party of government intervention.

The climate is changing. Republicans are scrambling to adapt. We’ll find out who’s the fittest.