On June 2, Paul Ryan said he was backing Donald Trump because he believed the presumptive Republican nominee would help turn Ryan’s policy ideas into reality. But instead of waxing lyrical about the genius of Ryan’s plans to revolutionize America’s social safety net, Trump has spent the past several days lashing out at Gonzalo Curiel, the federal judge presiding over the Trump University case. According to Trump, his support for building a wall along the U.S.–Mexico border means any judge of Mexican descent who is “proud of his heritage” would be biased against him. In an interview with John Dickerson of Face the Nation, Trump suggested a Muslim judge might also be too biased to deal with Trump-related litigation as he has called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration. One wonders who’s next. Are Filipino judges out of the question because Trump once refused to finish a heaping portion of chicken adobo?
To his credit, Ryan was forthright in describing Trump’s attacks on Curiel as “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” But in the same breath, Ryan defended his decision to back the reality TV star on the grounds that conservatives were more likely to achieve their policy goals with Trump rather than Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office. One gets the sense that Ryan would rather eat broken glass than spend another minute defending his decision to support the candidacy of a man he genuinely seems to despise. Broken glass, alas, is not on the menu.
As Ryan searches his soul, his most steadfast allies in the conservative movement, the Wall Street Journal editorial board, find themselves in a nightmarishly difficult position. Ryan is a Journal-style conservative through and through, and he is reportedly close to the Journal’s chief ideologist, Paul Gigot. Throughout his career, Ryan has fought for the causes dearest to the newspaper’s heart—namely tax cuts for the rich, open borders, and a hawkish foreign policy. The fact that Trump has won the GOP nomination by bashing elites and immigrants and calling for an “America First” foreign policy is, for Ryan and the Journal alike, an unmitigated disaster. What exactly is the Journal doing to rescue its greatest champion? Are they urging him to get behind Hillary Clinton on the grounds that she’s pro-immigration and more of an internationalist than Trump? Not quite.
Sensing that a beleaguered Ryan was in need of bucking up, the WSJ editorial page defended the House speaker’s endorsement of Trump. Without naming names, the Journal takes “conservative journalists” and “Beltway grandees” to task for arguing that Ryan has sullied his good name. Among other things, the editorial accuses these anti-Trump conservatives of aiding and abetting Democrats in their efforts to destroy the Republican Party: “Do they really expect a House Speaker to deny support to the GOP nominee, making the Trump-Ryan division a running story through November? There’s nothing like a bloody Republican civil war to dampen turnout and produce an election rout for the other side.” This is an argument one often hears from those who insist Republicans must unite behind Trump—that to do otherwise is politically imprudent. But the Journal’s case for Ryan doesn’t actually make much sense.
The Journal blames the rise of Trump not on the fact that the conservative agenda championed by Ryan is not all that popular with rank-and-file conservatives. Rather, it claims that “[m]any of the most devout Never-Trumpers” are themselves to blame because they “have spent years fanning grassroots hostility against immigration and Mexicans.” According to the Journal, Trump would never have darkened the GOP’s door with his anti-immigration rhetoric had these dastardly right-wingers allowed Ryan to broker a deal with President Obama that would have increased immigration levels.
The Journal deserves credit for offering such a daringly original take. Unfortunately, it does not bear even a passing resemblance to reality. First, it is worth noting that many of the most devout Never Trumpers are in fact open-borders Journal devotees, people who believe all conservatives who want to deport unauthorized immigrants are incorrigible racists. Second, it strains credulity to argue anti-immigration sentiment among Republicans was manufactured by the pundit class.
Most Republicans are strongly opposed to the kind of immigration reform championed by the Journal. One survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in September, when Trump’s victory was far from assured, found only 7 percent of Republicans said they’d favor an increase in immigration levels. A far larger share of the GOP electorate—67 percent—favored decreasing immigration levels. It should hardly come as a surprise that the battle for the GOP nomination came down to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the GOP candidates who were in line with the 67 percent of Republican voters who favored decreasing immigration levels, and not one of the many also-rans who came closer to the Journal’s view.
Despite these very clear numbers, the Journal maintains that conservative pundits are responsible for the fact that Ryan failed to cut a deal with President Obama that would have substantially increased immigration levels. I dare say this overestimates the influence of conservative pundits. Lest we forget, in 2014, Eric Cantor, the very bright, immigration-friendly House majority leader who was by all accounts well-liked by Beltway grandees, met with a shocking defeat at the hands of an obscure economist named Dave Brat, not least because Brat took a stridently restrictionist stance. Does the Journal believe congressional Republicans who backed an immigration deal—a deal opposed by large majorities of Republicans in their districts—could have somehow magically avoided anti-immigration primary challengers? One suspects that this threat did far more to discipline congressional Republicans than pundit bloviation on either side of the issue, the Journal’s very much included.
So no, there is very little reason to believe anti-immigration conservative pundits are smooth-talking svengalis who’ve somehow hypnotized Republicans into opposing big immigration increases. If anything, it would be closer to the mark to say many Never-Trump conservative pundits—people like David Frum of the Atlantic and Ross Douthat of the New York Times —have embraced more restrictionist views because their gut instincts are to sympathize with working-class conservatives.
If the Journal really wants to understand the rise of Trump, they’d do well to look closer to home. For years, congressional Republicans, Ryan foremost among them, have championed a Wall Street Journal–approved policy agenda that grass-roots Republicans have found doesn’t address their concerns. The RAND Presidential Election Panel Survey found that 51 percent of GOP primary voters favored increasing taxes on households earning over $200,000 a year. While this is hardly an overwhelming majority, it’s striking that hardly any Republican candidates bothered trying to appeal to this rather large GOP constituency. The Wall Street Journal has long called on Republicans to oppose tax increases on affluent voters. Indeed, for decades, the Journal has insisted the GOP make tax cuts for high earners a centerpiece of its economic agenda, despite the fact that support for this position is neither broad nor deep.
Leaving aside the merits of the case for tax cuts, the federal income tax is now far more progressive than it was when Ronald Reagan first came to office. Relatively few voters, including relatively few Republican voters, consider tax cuts a particularly high policy priority, as Megan McArdle of Bloomberg View observed back in January. “There is simply no way to make federal tax cuts add up to a winning strategy in this day and age,” she wrote. “It’s great for the donor base and the think tanks. But it’s going to fall on deaf ears among the voters, who just don’t care that much.”
The political advice the Wall Street Journal is giving Paul Ryan and his Republican allies is transparently absurd. Nevertheless, one can’t help but sympathize with the Journal. In the Journal’s ideal world, the GOP would largely abandon social conservatism and instead offer tax cuts for the rich, open borders, and deep cuts in programs like Social Security and Medicare. There is no longer any doubt that this generation of Republican voters has thoroughly repudiated the newspaper’s worldview. That’s obviously pretty distressing. But the Journal doesn’t support these policies because they are popular among Republicans or the public at large. Anyone with even a casual familiarity with American politics would know that simply isn’t so. Rather, the Journal takes these positions because they believe them to be intellectually and morally compelling. That’s fair enough. What the Journal should do, then, is give up on offering political advice and get on with making the intellectual and moral case for welcoming more poor immigrants to America while denying them food stamps and subsidized medical care.