Some People Did See It Coming

A review of Gerald F. Seib’s We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump—A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution.

If only for the sake of accuracy and fairness, the first-person plural pronoun in the title of this book begs definition, since a good many people did see “it” coming over the last four decades.

Still more people, including apparently the author (who has spent his career at the Wall Street Journal), did not. The reason, I suspect, is that many of them either didn’t wish to see, or else they feared that to acknowledge the reality developing under their noses would be to encourage it. This could explain why the American political establishment on the right, as well as on the left, vilified Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot in the 1990s to the point where William F. Buckley, Jr. suggested publicly that Buchanan is an anti-Semite. The tactics the Republican establishment brought to bear against Buchanan and Perot to drop the “populist” advance in its tracks were notably the same ones the establishment employed against Donald J. Trump in 2016—in spades.

What worked in 1992 and 1996 failed spectacularly in 2016, owing largely to the pent anger and resentment on the supposed “extreme right” stoked by previous defeats; while the Republican Party, heedless, continued to follow its long-standing tradition of nominating as its presidential candidate the next up of its senior statesmen whose “turn” had come to receive the honor. Thus the carnage that ensued during the debate season of 2016, as Donald Trump serially slaughtered 16 Republican poohbahs to the delight and approbation of the most vital, aware, and active wing of the GOP, and went on to defeat the Democratic Lady Poobah in November.

The chief value of Mr. Seib’s book is not its recapitulation of the history of the Republican Party from Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964 down to the present day, useful as that may be in a time when historical memory shortens with every year that passes. It is, rather, its placement of the successive stages of that history in clear perspective—the climactic one especially—as the political movement founded by Ronald Reagan quietly exhausted itself, while engendering and inspiring its opposition on the right.

This, in retrospect, is unsurprising. Reagan was always a conservative Democrat, never really a Republican at all and certainly not a conservative Republican, despite the moderate Republican establishment’s subsequent—but equally temporary—success in getting him recognized by the party as Mr. Republican, including its intellectual wing who should have known better. Too much of it still doesn’t.

Though Seib traces the history of the Republican Party from 1964 to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the heart of his narrative is the erosion and disintegration of the Republican majority that Reagan built in the 1980s, as the optimistic elements of Reaganism gradually succumbed to growing discontent, impatience, pessimism, and finally anger on the Right. These elements included supply-side, free trade, and trickle-down theories in economics; a belief in the economic benefits of mass immigration; and an active and aggressively ideological foreign policy designed and implemented by the neoconservative academics Reagan brought into his administration.

Once Reagan left office in 1989, consensus within the GOP, such as it was, began at once to weaken. Though conservatives approved President George H.W. Bush’s foreign policy, they disliked his domestic agenda, which they thought too liberal, including his decision to raise taxes, something he had explicitly promised never to do during the campaign; his lack of enthusiasm in getting Roe. v. Wade reversed; his support for the Civil Rights Act of 1991 that allowed employees to sue their employers if they suspected they were victims of racial bias; and his determination to put the North American Trade Agreement through Congress.

And so Bush soon found himself facing what Seib describes as two populist challenges: the one, from the right, led by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia (the founder of CSPAN and sponsor of the Contract With America), the other from what he calls the “radical center” whose leaders were Patrick Buchanan and Ross Perot. In this respect, Seib argues, “Bush’s challenges, more than his presidency, were the best indication of what was to come.” Indeed, Rahm Emmanuel believes that “Trumpism” actually began with Gingrich.

The Democratic Convention of 1996 took a hard line on immigration, and President Clinton in his second term moved to the center on crime and other matters. But he was determined to get NAFTA approved, thus ensuring that Buchanan and Perot would run again for President that year—especially after the GOP made the grave error of continuing to adhere to their established policy of nominating their next man up. So Clinton was reelected to the White House. Nevertheless, Gingrich’s efforts to build conservative majorities in an increasing number of states, plus the growing influence of FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, and the National Rifle Association (which had entered national politics in the early 80s), had significantly increased the political power of American conservatives, and conservatism. Still, Seib says, “Conservatives ended the twentieth century not only in need of a new leader, but on the road to some big divides.”

President George W. Bush’s first term pleased many conservatives in many things, including his “compassionate conservatism,” his ban on late-term abortions, and his faith-based initiative. Many of them were less pleased by his No Child Left Behind Program and his inclusion of the cost of prescription drugs under Medicare. It was displeasing to them in other ways as well. In 2000 Bush saw to it that China was admitted to the World Trade Organization under a bipartisan agreement and granted the Chinese permanent free trade status (also a bipartisan move), thanks to the establishment’s erroneous conviction that economic cooperation with Beijing ensured that the People’s Republic would evolve in time into a “normal” bourgeois nation. Bush won reelection in 2004, but only by the narrowest of margins and with the indispensable support of Republican populists and religious conservatives—people Steve Bannon later identified as “nothing but Trump voters.”

Nonetheless, Bush’s response to the attacks of September the eleventh three years before, including the PATRIOT Act, had eroded, as Seib puts it, “conservative ideals;” while the attacks themselves had sharpened anti-immigrant sentiment around the country. The President’s failure to press “immigration reform” through Congress exposed the virulence of popular feeling among the grassroots–another indication, as Seib puts it, that “The Reagan and business-community arguments on immigration had lost their primacy.” President Bush himself, Seib believes, registered the coming seismic change more accurately than anyone. According to Peter Wehner (a conservative activist and at the time the President’s deputy speechwriter), Bush had “a troika of concerns: isolationism, nativism, and protectionism,” all of which he saw building across the country.

In the four years leading up to the election of 2008, the division on the right continued to deepen, and widen. The populist candidate that year, Governor Mike Huckabee, along with the rest of the religious right, distrusted John McCain and wanted fair trade, not free trade. And Tim Pawlenty, then Governor of Minnesota, warned the GOP that it was becoming the “Sam’s Club Party” without its recognizing the fact. The crisis arrived with the coming of the so-called Great Recession and Bush’s decision to bail out the banks, a proposal for which McCain voted.

As a direct result of the popular anger this produced, the Tea Party formed itself via the social media the following year. Further, the passage of the Affordable Care Act during President Obama’s administration alarmed and infuriated the populists, while encouraging Republicans (Seib suggests) to think of themselves no longer as the minority party but the opposition one, while making them more angry, more populist, and less open to accommodation and compromise. Astoundingly, the party chiefs’ fatally misread the situation by nominating of Mitt Romney—“perhaps the least populist man in America”—as their presidential candidate in 2012.

Romney’s subsequent defeat by Barack Obama led directly to what Seib calls “the searing internal debate over immigration that exploded immediately following the election”—the occasion, Seib thinks, when Reagan’s conservatism passed over into the nationalism of Donald Trump. “Immigration brought the party and the conservative movement to a fork in the road. Down one path lay the course the party establishment wanted to follow. Down the other lay what we can call, for lack of a better term, the Steve Bannon/Ann Coulter/Donald Trump choice.”

Indeed, the party’s bosses had to concede that their party’s immigration policy was partly responsible for their loss. Still—incredibly—the subject of trade never came up in the course of the pow-wow. Thus, by 2016, “conservatives were more united by what they were against—progressives and liberals—than what they were for.” In fact, some of those liberals were influential members of the Republican Party itself.

And so Donald Trump, despite the seeming improbability of the thing and the violent opposition of establishment conservatives such as George F. Will, was elected president that year. Trump’s party, Will has charged, “[is]a populist party, and whatever populism is, conservatism isn’t. Populism is the belief that the passions of the people should be aroused and transformed into public policy by a strong leader of the sort who might say, ‘only I can fix it.’ Conservatism, Madisonian conservativism, says passions are the political problem.”

But what are “passions”—and whose “passions” are we talking about? Mr. Will assumes that only mobs can be passion-ridden, as if the elites are incapable of extreme and ungovernable thoughts and feelings—the lust for money and national and global power, for instance. And what would Madison have had to say of an elite, which classical political thought assumes to be the natural conservative element in any society, that turns progressive—even revolutionary?

Gerald Seib thinks that Trumpist conservatism will not depart along with Donald Trump, whether he should leave the White House in 2021 or in 2025. The recent attempt by Democrats to impeach the President has, he claims, served only to encourage the Republican establishment to close quarters with Trump, personally as well as politically. He suggests that Yoram Hazony’s type of national conservatism will move further to the foreground, and cites Christopher DeMuth of the Hudson Institute, who predicts that some conservatives will be willing to use big government to solve big national problems, and Oren Cass, the head of American Compass, who says he is busily engaged “in the process of post-Trumpism.”

My own expectation for the future of populist conservatism in America is that it will be almost wholly anti-intellectual, anti-theoretical, and anti-academic—hence “conservative” only in the sense that it will be fundamentally and viscerally anti-liberal. I can think of worse attitudes and ideas to base a conservative political movement on.

We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump—A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution
By Gerald F. Seib
Random House, 2020
Hardcover, 281 pages


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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 10 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at www.chiltonwilliamson.com.

28 Comments

  1. 1. this seems to be a criticism of the Republican party couched in unfavorable terms without clarifying comments
    2. it would have been interesting to read about a parallel description of the evolution of the Democratic party using similar disparaging remarks.
    3. The article is definitely pro-liberal ideation, pro-Democrat.
    I would have preferred a more balanced article

    • “The article is definitely pro-liberal ideation, pro-Democrat.”

      Honestly, it strikes me as anti-neo-conservative more than anything else.

    • I’m just guessing, of course, but, for a more balanced article, I suspect Mr. Sieb would first have had to have written a more balanced book.

    • 1. Yes, it is a criticism of the GOP party. But what “clarifying comments”? Mr. Williamson very clearly outlines the different factions and factors involved.

      2. The book is about the GOP. The article is a review of the book. Hence the focus on the GOP.

      3. That’s actually quite funny. Did you read the article? Are you familiar at all with the author, who was an editor for National Review, was longtime editor of Chronicles, a noted conservative journal, and editor of the book The Conservative Bookshelf: Essential Works That Impact Today’s Conservative Thinkers?

      Mr. Williamson is what might be called a paleo-conservative. Hence his criticisms of many aspects of the modern-day GOP, which is quite neo-conservative on many fronts. Put another way, it’s quite legitimate to be conservative and quite critical of the GOP (speaking of someone who is both).

      My point is not to say that the review or the author is above criticism. But if you are going to criticize, demonstrate some knowledge of what you’re criticizing.

      • The Democrat monolith is rolling forward attempting to crush everything in its way. At the end of the day, if nothing is done, it will have engulfed our government and the three branches of government will work in lock-step crushing our liberties. What do conservatives do? Bicker about the history of the Republican party! For those people who want to preserve our traditions, values and history; seek a better life for their children and expand the economy for the benefit of all citizens, they look for action i.e. Donald Trump. The American people do not live on words, they live by being productive in a physical way. In other words, they get the job done.

    • Dear Doctor. How could the author provide a “balanced” approached with Trump holding his Thumb on the scale?

      God save this union.

  2. As Whittaker Chambers said, giving “witness” is not at root what you are witnessing against; our duty as free men and women is to give witness to the truth.

    We declare these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Every citizen has a right to the free exercise of religion, and the right to self-defense by force of arms, and the right to freely associate and peaceably assemble, and the right to own and protect his property, and the right to vote for representative government officials. Men and women have the right to marry and raise and educate their children. The Constitutional Republic established by the United States of America exists to CONSERVE and secure these rights. It is unlawful for any man, any group of men, any majority of men, and any government to do any harm to these rights.

    These are the things that are to be “conserved.”

  3. The Democrat party is currently engaged self destruction. Desperately using the tactics of Hitler’s Brown Shirts and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, inciting lawlessness, riots and insurrection, isn’t going to succeed here in America. Too many Americans realize that a political party that resorts to Nazi/Commie tactics will likely establish a Nazi/Commie-like regime if they manage to seize power.

    That will leave us with the new populist GOP, nationalistic, patriotic and committed to the protection of humanity’s inalienable rights to life and liberty vs the RINO GOP backed by the ChiComs, the Globalists, and those who are currently Democrat party elitists, who will find an entirely familiar political home there.

    Globalist multinational corporations with no particular allegiance to a given nation have formed an alliance with the ChiComs, who make available to the Globalists a virtually endless supply of dirt cheap forced/slave labor drawn from a billion people subjected to brutal communist tyranny with no right to vote or to form effective unions. The ChiComs get in return access to Western technology and a share in the obscene profits generated by the use of dirt cheap labor.

    The Globalists have shut down factories around the free world (60,000 in the U.S. alone) and set up shop in China, impoverishing families throughout the free world.

    Obama famously said, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.” Trump disagreed. The ChiCom/Globalist Alliance that owns and operates the Democrat party, the RINOs, and our MSM have been ferociously attacking Trump ever since. After all, Trump dared to apply the brakes to their obscene profit-generating gravy train.

    Absent the new GOP we are headed for world domination by the ChiCom/Globalist Alliance, who will run behind the scenes some sanctimonious-sounding global authority, backed by a thoroughly corrupt Catholic Church, that will implement the “China Model” worldwide: an elite ruling class gets to play at crony capitalism while everybody else is subjected to brutal communist tyranny.

    • Unfortunately, as irrevocably dangerous as the Democratic Party is becoming to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, in the long run Trumpism is not more the answer than the Fascists were to the Communists. You probably can’t even recognize Trump’s lawlessness, corruption, and authoritarian tendencies. But the Church needs to avoid getting complacent just because we Americans now have our own Francisco Franco as the “Great Protector” for this passing moment in time. If Christians cannot learn to keep their distance from the indefensible parts of Trump’s agenda and insist on cultivating character and principled action in civic life, Trumpism’s fall from grace will be our fall from grace, too. Start reading Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative for a more sober and realistic view as to what Trump is and is not.

      • “Insist on cultivating character and principled action in civic life..” …like the right to life speech of last Jan. and the defense of the little Sisters of the Poor?

      • Trump is the most Pro-Life president ever. His presidency is the beginning of the end of the greatest holocaust of innocent human life in the history of the world: two billion innocent human beings “legally” murdered in the last half-century. That is more people murdered than the entire human population of planet Earth at the beginning of the twentieth century.

        St. Dominic realized that every human being is someone for whom God became a man and suffered a humiliating, agonizing death. He realized that whatever we fail to do for the very least of His brethren, we fail to do for Him. St. Dominic would have fervently come to the aid of the child in the womb (one of whom God became), seeing in them Christ Himself.

        A son of St. Dominic would do the same.

    • Harry… WOW! You sound like a true Trumper. Trump is an abomination. He is and has abdicated any semblance of “leadership”. He should have been impeached for treason based exclusively on his favoring Putin over his own intelligence experts at Helsinki. And he continues today unchallenged by his senate Republican Pretorian Guard. He is, although he never accepts responsibility for anything, blatantly responsible for our nation’s late reaction to the coronavirus causing the inexcusable loss of many thousand unwitting and innocent souls. Some have said it was murder.

      So be involved in the sane discourse. My GOP hero Lincoln said wisely, “better remain silent and thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”.

      Morgan

        • Yes, Mr. OLson when the election is over. It’s my feeling that the Republicans may take this race if they just get a handle on voter suppression. How do they do it? 1. Reduce the mail in ballot boxes to one per county. I.e Texas. 2. rewrite the election maps to favor the GOP. Gerrymandering. 3. Hogtie the US Postal Service by reducing their ability to handle mail-ins. 4. Move the voting places to a remote location. I.e Georgia.
          5. 24 states have implemented new restrictions on voting. Alabama now requires a photo ID to cast a ballot. Other states such as Ohio and Georgia have enacted “use it or lose it” laws, which strike voters from registration rolls if they have not participated in an election within a prescribed period of time.

          So Mr. Olson, I have lost you in the GOP weeds. As I said support a sane election even though one party is beyond help. Trump is his own worst enemy.

  4. By flipping their support so easily to a radically liberal Democrat ticket, the Republican elites have demonstrated the truth of what we always thought of them: that at heart they are no better than Democrats. The “conservatives” in the Republican Party are interested only in one thing: conserving their positions of power in the Party and in Washington. If they succeed in electing Biden/Harris, they will lose an enormous portion of the Party’s most energized and active voters. The Republican Party will die a well-deserved death.

    • The GOP represent much more than you say, and are going nowhere. More likely, the Dems, if any destroy themselves.. they are the purveyors ofdeath, abortion, riots, atheism… will like turn on themselves. Especially if their history of true and real racism and pro slavery come to light.
      “Super Predator”!

  5. One niggle with Chilton’s otherwise fine review: “Bush won reelection in 2004, but only by the narrowest of margins…”

    Maybe this was just rhetorical excess on Chilton’s part, but the honor of “narrowest of margins” really must go to Bush’s *first* election the previous time around, where he famously won only by 537 votes in Florida – which, for an electorate of 100 million voters, is surely about as close as it gets. Whereas in 2004, Dubya won by 2.4% and 3 million votes – a close election, to be sure, but not as close as 2000, or even 2016. In fact, to underline how not-quite-super-narrow his 2004 win was, we note that Bush even managed to win a outright majority of the popular vote, which is the only time a Republican presidential candidate has managed that feat since 1988.

    Sadly, even that modest feat also deluded a lot of Republican leaders into thinking that the post-Reagan neo-conservative policy agenda then regnant was a lot more popular than it really was – as we now can see.

  6. What if the “mob” actually turns out to be the “virtuous people”, now labeled “deplorables” by both liberal and conservative elites?

    It was Nixon, not Reagan, who created Trump’s “Silent Majority” party — Reagan/Bushes suppressed it.

  7. It almost sounded as a positive review of ‘National Conservatism’.

    But at the end Mr. Williamson painted a negative view of it.

    To me, Paleo-Conservatism & National Conservatism are about the same thing.

  8. If everyone would have read Pat Buchanan’s Book, Death of the West in 2004 you would understand this article and Seib book. The major decay on the Western Cultural started in the LBJ era.

  9. Many have seen it coming, and within it all, if you really look, there is a trace of goodness accented with freedom and responsibility.

  10. I guess I missed something. Based on Mr. Williamson’s review, it appears that the pro-life movement and those holding traditional religious beliefs have/had little impact on politics in Mr. Seib’s “recapitulation” of the history of the Republican Party and the election of Donald J. Trump. Regarding Ross Perot, the way I saw it back then was that he could not possibly win and entering the race only took votes away from Bush; and so Bill Clinton was elected. But what does it matter, except to those of us who care about the killing of preborn children and the life issues? The Bushes and the Clintons were/are Globalists and are “friends”. That President Trump is not a “globalist” is why Jorge ‘Francis’ Bergoglio attacks him. As a side note, I certainly have no interest in what Rahm Emmanuel thinks about the beginnings of “Trumpism”.

  11. A couple of observations. Mr. Seib hits the mark more often than he misses. Mr. Williamson also gets behind the scenes well though I feel that his last paragraph predicts a future more dismal than it need be. One item to be noted is that while Reagan always considered himself a sort of spiritual Franklin Roosevelt democrat, in reality he more closely resembled a TR republican without the anti-corporation bombast. Finally, the is a sort of middle ground voter (for lack of a better term) that migrates from party to party based on impressions of issues rather than facts on the ground. They knew Carter failed even though they knew little of monetary or economic policy. They were turned off by Hillary Clinton because they found little to like and they now skew somewhat negative toward Trump more for reasons of “presidential” appearances than issues. The fact that a Biden victory almost certainly means a Harris presidency some time before he can complete a first term, concerns them very little. Finally, the left as represented by George McGovern and others of his era was honest in the sense that he made no secret of what he wanted to do. Today’s liberals (or radicals if you please) do their best to hide their true aims with generalities, pleasantries and outright lies.

    • I agree with you Donald. But what I believe the difference between the old Democrats saying what they believe and the current ones hiding what they believe is the lack of an honest press. Today the press believes that they are, and deserve to be, power brokers. And they don’t mind lying or telling half truths to accomplish their ends. Politicians have always lied and misrepresented the facts, but in the US they were controlled by the press. Today the press is just as corrupt as the worst of the politicians. This allows the current Democrats to hide what they believe or lie without fear.

  12. Roubini, Cowen, Galbraith, Fukuyama…Ten years ago they predicted the U.S. we live in today. In many ways the Trump years was a brief restoration of the glory days of an already forgone conclusion. When 1/3 of Catholic Bishops in this nation express Immigration as more important than Abortion then Decay, erosion and the destruction of traditional Christian values in the U.S. will be its natural end. This nation has to pay for its deviance but if we continue to ask the Holy Spirit to spare us for a few more years I pray the Lord might grant us at least a window into how to stay faithful to our mother Church.

  13. Another article on the Catholic World Report that is entirely about how great the modern Republican party of the USA is.
    LOL keep the boomer think-pieces comin’ boys!

  14. Newt Gingrich founded C-Span??? Where is the evidence of that!! It would seem that Mr. Brian Lamb contributed a bit more to its founding.

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