by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Since the Trump revolution, there has been much ado about “zombie Reaganism.” The “dead consensus” of free enterprise and limited government, the thinking goes, lost its appeal for a newer (older?) kind of conservative. By no means afraid of government power, these conservatives have learned to stop worrying and love the state. Despite Trump’s defeat, they assure us that the GOP has changed tack: Laissez-faire and procedural liberalism are out; industrial policy and the common good are in.
American conservatives are no strangers to these kinds of intramural debates. But the rapid spread of this so-called consensus is unprecedented in the history of conservatism. Many influential figures take for granted that Trump represented a structural break in conservative thinking. It’s true that some of the Trump administration’s policies, notably on immigration and international trade, were deviations from conservative orthodoxy, but these were hardly successes. The trade deficit didn’t fall; in fact, it hit a record high. And while border security tightened, what we got did not remotely resemble the promised border wall and mass deportations. Both in terms of campaign assurances and sound policy, these aspects of “America First” were unambiguous failures.
Where Trump did achieve policy victories, all were straight out of the zombie Reaganism playbook. This isn’t to say they were always in line with the policies pursued by Reagan himself: Reagan’s brand of conservatism has taken on a life of its own, concisely expressed in the Gipper’s famous quip that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Casey Mulligan, who served at Trump’s CEA and wrote a memoir of his time there, reminds us that the gap between Reaganism and Reagan can be large. Nevertheless, zombie Reaganism represents a specific mythos, one that has infused the GOP for decades.