The GOP returns to its bad old self

I’ve recently been reading about Warren Buffett’s father, Howard Buffett, a four-term Republican congressman from Nebraska. He seems to have been a very good father, but his political worldview was predicated on a deep pessimism. He was so convinced that federal spending was ruining the country that he bought a farm so that his family could feed itself while everyone else starved. He predicted that all government bonds would soon be worthless and bought his daughters gold jewelry so that they would have something of value after the dollar became worthless.

His pessimism manifested itself politically in several ways. First, an intense distrust of elites and a penchant for conspiratorial thinking. He believed that Franklin Roosevelt and George Marshall had secretly maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to drag the United States into war. Second, intense isolationism. A nation on the road to ruin could not afford to be active internationally. Third, political rigidity. He refused to compromise or negotiate with the Democrats, who he thought were destroying the country. He was more willing to lose in Congress in order to make a point than to cut a deal.


Buffett was not alone in thinking this way. The Republican Party in the 1920s, ’30s and early ’40s was steeped in pessimism, and that pessimism showed up as it often does: as nativism, isolationism and protectionism. In 1924, Republicans set strict immigration quotas with the Johnson-Reed Act. As World War II loomed, Sen. Gerald Nye urged the passage of several neutrality acts to keep us from exporting arms to warring nations and opposed Lend-Lease to Britain. Sen. Robert Taft supported the America First movement before the United States joined the war, and after the war, he opposed the Marshall Plan, NATO, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was designed to lower trade barriers.

That version of the Republican Party ended in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower defeated Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. Buffett was so dismayed by the outcome that he refused to endorse Ike, his party leader. That decision effectively ended Buffett’s political career. He ended up joining the John Birch Society, the notorious nativist group.

Ronald Reagan gets most of the credit, but it was Ike, not Reagan, who transformed the GOP from an anxious, inward-looking party into a confident, outward-facing one. He and his internationalist successors believed that the only way to prevent more world wars was to build a multilateral democratic world order. They had the confidence to believe America could lead such an order. The key to success in any political conflict, political theorist James Burnham argued in 1941, is spirit and willpower: “All history makes clear that an indispensable quality of any man or class that wishes to lead, to hold power and privilege in society, is boundless self-confidence.”

Ike’s confidence launched 60 years of Republican internationalism, gradually creating a party that helped defeat communism and ushered in more global prosperity. Reagan amplified that sense of confidence and possibility. “Emerson was right,” Reagan told the 1992 Republican convention. “We are the country of tomorrow.” Reagan was confident enough to believe that America could welcome immigrants, benefit from their abilities and still remain distinctly America: “Our nation is a nation of immigrants. More than any other country, our strength comes from our own immigrant heritage and our capacity to welcome those from other lands.”

In his superb history of conservatism, “The Right,” Matthew Continetti describes dueling essays in 1989 between conservative commentators Charles Krauthammer and Pat Buchanan that ran in the pages of The National Interest. Krauthammer argued that America should steer the world away from an unstable multipolar order and toward a more stable “unipolar world whose center is a confederated West.” Buchanan, one of the few remaining spokespeople for the older, isolationist GOP, titled his essay “America First — and Second and Third.”

At that time, the party embraced Krauthammer’s vision and rejected Buchanan’s. Within a decade, Pat Buchanan had left the Republican Party, thoroughly marginalized. In 1999, the editors of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, where I worked, celebrated Buchanan’s departure from the party. In that same issue, I wrote a humor piece trying to imagine the most hilariously unlikely version of the GOP future. That piece was headlined “Donald Trump Inaugurated.”

It turns out that some political tendencies never really die; they just lie dormant for a few decades, waiting for the emotional mood to change. It’s conventional to say that Trump destroyed the postwar Republican establishment. That’s not quite right. The Tea Party’s extreme disgust with the course of American life was already flowing by 2009. The Pew Research Center detected a surge in American isolationism back in 2013. In 2004, only 8% of Republicans thought the U.S.’ power in world affairs was declining. By 2013, after Iraq and Afghanistan, 74% of Republicans thought America was in decline. By 2021, nearly one-third of Republicans thought violence might be necessary to save America.

In other words, many Americans had concluded that the country had lost its greatness before Trump entered politics, but he magnified that sense and capitalized on it. Trump didn’t remake the party in his image. He restored the 1930s version of the party, merely adding a showman’s bravura and gold-plated fixtures.

If any event could have brought back the Eisenhower-Reagan trajectory, it was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And for a few months, it seemed to. But isolationism is still on the march. As Thomas B. Edsall noted in The New York Times recently, between March 2022 and December 2023, the share of Republicans who say America provides “too much support” for Ukraine rose to 48% from 9%. The message is eerily the same as it was in the late 1930s when the isolationists refused to confront the Nazis: America is too morally bankrupt, broke and corrupt to lead. We need to take care of our own.

People often say that history is a battle of ideas, but sometimes it is just a succession of moods. It was a culture of pessimism — Trump’s belief that we’re living in an era of “American carnage” — that restored the old GOP, not any set of arguments. America has a dazzling economy and dominant military strength. Military spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is dangerously close to its postwar low. But the Republicans apparently lack the self-confidence to believe they can improve the world, or the willpower to substantially try.

Now Mitch McConnell, a child of the Eisenhower-Reagan party, is stepping back. Nikki Haley is cruising toward defeat. Congress may pass a Ukraine aid package, but it will be mostly because of Democratic votes, not Republican ones. The postwar GOP is heaving its last breaths.

Some of my friends believe that after Trump the showman is off the stage, the future of the party will be up for grabs. I disagree. Today’s Republicanism has deep roots in American history. I suspect the post-Trump Republicans will be just as inward-looking, but drab and defeatist, without the Trumpian razzle dazzle. Howard Buffett would feel at home.

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