The Republican Party is supposed to be the ardent defender of free markets and minimal business regulations. Democrats, by contrast, are supposed to be the protectionists who want to bolster domestic jobs by clamping down on corporations and international trade. Conservatives decry liberals’ pro-regulation rhetoric as ultimately self-defeating, leading to sluggish businesses and a workforce dependent on government protection. This spring, President Trump is testing this conventional wisdom by behaving more like a labor Democrat than a conservative Republican.
For weeks, the commander-in-chief has been slamming Amazon, the corporate titan owned by Jeff Bezos. In a new Battle of the Billionaires, Trump is accusing Amazon of hurting small business and has allegedly been looking at options to go after the online shopping behemoth using anti-trust legislation. Trump’s sudden defense of small business, and the American worker, is at odds with the GOP’s usual love for CEOs.
Similarly, the President’s growing trade war with China is at odds with the GOP’s traditional love of free markets. While the tariffs may be applauded by Trump’s populist base, as well as defense hawks who dread the rise of China as a new superpower, they have already irked powerful industries that rely on imported aluminum and steels. From the auto industry to the oil industry. Republicans are bemoaning the damage a trade war with Beijing will inflict on their bottom lines. States that export agricultural products could feel the most burden, due to most crops going overseas to China.
Trump is also testing Republican orthodoxy by apparently engaging in secret conversations with North Korea. Breaking the Republican tradition that the U.S. does not deal with ardent communists. While Barack Obama was criticized by conservatives for ending the American embargo on Cuba, meaning he was “soft” on both communism and human rights abuses. Trump has also long been given the side-eye by many Republicans for embracing Russia despite Moscow’s notoriety for human rights abuses of its own. The GOP now must grapple with whether or not it should support Trump’s attempts to warm up relations between the U.S. and North Korea through secret meetings.
The Amazon-Tariff-Pyongyang triad of unorthodox Republican behaviors by Donald Trump could embolden a powerful traditional Republican to attempt a 2020 primary challenge. Certainly, the pro-business CEO class would be motivated to [quietly] support a conservative like Mitt Romney who promises to tone down the populist rhetoric that America needs to protect jobs over profits. Foreign policy traditionalists may also be motivated to support someone who promises a return to normalcy, with no fawning embraces of Putin’s Russia or questionable attempts to engage in secret talks with Kim Jong-un.
However, that doesn’t mean that Trump’s modus operandi will be a liability. In fact, breaking with the Republican orthodoxy has served the political newbie well thus far…so there’s little reason for him to want to move toward the political orthodoxy many in his party want him to. “I got stuff done when previous Republicans couldn’t,” Trump could say in 2020, facing off intra-party rivals. While some conservatives would bristle at having their previous leaders mocked, others might cheer the boldness.
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