Late last week, Punchbowl News reported that Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar were about to launch something called the “America First Caucus” for Republican members of Congress who want to “follow in President Trump’s footsteps.” In a strategic sense this was a good idea; Republican politics is still gravitationally attracted to Trump even though he mostly doesn’t do anything, and while there is already a hard-right, Trumpist “Freedom Caucus,” there was an opening for a self-branded group to tie itself even more closely to his name and catchphrases. Embattled Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz and Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, two clownish House guys whose instincts are good proxies for the instincts of the Republican primary electorate, said immediately that they’d be interested in joining.
Punchbowl’s scoop noted that a memo that was being circulated about the caucus’s goals cited the purported importance of “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” to the America that is to be put First. Given that nonhistorians usually understand Anglo-Saxon to just mean white, and that Gaetz, Gohmert, Gosar, and Greene aren’t known for their interest in the anthropology of the British Isles, members of the press and public surmised that America First was going to be an openly white nationalist faction.
This appears to be what Republican leaders believed as well, because House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and GOP conference chair Liz Cheney both obliquely criticized the idea immediately, then did whatever it is that’s done to atom-bomb these kinds of things behind the scenes, to the point that Greene was issuing a statement on Saturday denouncing “liars and psychotic left wing communists in the media” for suggesting she had any connection to the caucus, or interest in endorsing it. (This despite her own spokesman having said proudly the previous day that the “America First Caucus platform” would be “announced to the public very soon.”) The America First Caucus is, for now, dead.
The funny thing, though, is that most of the memo, which Vice posted in its entirety, might as well be an official statement of the Republican Party’s current political strategy. It reads like the latest installment of the five-years-and-counting project by conservative intellectuals to create a coherent Trump doctrine, on the fly, that might reframe his reflexive ingroup-outgroup bullying as the expression of a respectable and (more) widely appealing theory about how government should work . As such, however—as an attempt to turn the things that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth into something you might discuss in a college course—it bears certain strains.
Theories of a more stable and enduring Trumpism generally imagine keeping the mood of grievance that fired up Trump’s loyal base, while marrying it to the sort of material accomplishments that might convince nonfanatics to support the program. In its less convincing form, this leads to things like the America First manifesto calling for heavy investment in the nation’s roads, bridges, and drinking water, while insisting on “an infrastructure that reflects the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture.”
But the document also makes arguments about free trade and corporate power that many liberals would agree with, arguing that offshoring has weakened the American middle and working classes, that major technology companies have too much control over cultural discourse, that using money for wars overseas instead of necessities at home is a waste, that climate change is a major threat, and that the U.S. education system mostly serves to retrench an existing elite. At the same time, though, and to a degree that almost seems self-aware, it either ignores or denounces any policy for dealing with those problems that has a hint of a connection to Democratic Party know-it-alls, dismissing the Green New Deal’s clean-energy infrastructure spending for its alleged connection to “social justice,” attacking “Keynesian” economics, and arguing in favor of “shrinking the regulatory state.”
Among the action items the memo supports instead: restricting legal immigration to individuals who can contribute “economically” and show “respect for this nation’s culture,” eliminating the Section 230 protection that prevents social media companies from being held liable for content that appears on their platforms, prohibiting coronavirus-related business closures, and pursuing alliances with Russia and North Korea. In other words, the document outlines a policy of tapping into the anger that voters have about big-business power and income inequality, but only actually doing stuff that is hostile to nonwhite immigrants and liberal-signifying people like public health experts, San Francisco tech executives, and the dweebs who are still upset that Russia’s military intelligence units helped Donald Trump win an election.
The goal is to co-opt, but also to own, the libs. The challenge is that the co-optation can’t involve Democratic ideas or people—and it has to be toothless enough so as not to upset the business interests who are still part of the Republican coalition—while the ownage has to be subtle enough not to alienate voters who don’t want to think of themselves as supporting a white nationalist party. (The phrase “America First,” despite its fascist history, actually seems to have succeeded at the latter goal.)
It’s a delicate balance, because Trump has proved that other parts of the coalition want explicit white nationalism, which is how you get the Anglo-Saxon incident (and also electoral results like “losing the House, presidency, and Senate in quick succession”). It would be convenient, for the Republican Party, if there were a benign, historically justified way to capture the identity of its core voters without making reference to racialized us vs. them conflicts specific to this time and place. But it is tricky, bordering on impossible, to argue that there is an actually deep, shared throughline of political philosophy, cultural heritage, and ethnicity that unites WASPS who hate the estate tax, Irish and Italian Americans who post Blue Lives Matter memes, right-wing Zionist Jews, and Cuban exiles who live in Texas. The party’s best minds are working on the problem, but their worst minds keep crashing through the wall to put the race stuff front and center.
In the seven years I’ve been covering news and politics for Slate, I’ve written about some of the United States’ best and worst moments, people, and ideas. Your continued support of Slate Plus will allow me to continue to give our country’s high-stakes struggle to define itself the coverage it deserves. Thank you! —Ben Mathis-Lilley, senior writer