June 11, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Republican Masochism

Some say Republican voters will revolt against Trump's trade war. Don't believe it.

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Where there was once elite consensus that trade wars are the very definition of dumb, some elites are now saying that if the policy experts can’t soften President Trump’s calcified mind, perhaps voters can, especially his fellow Republicans.

The thinking is that farmers, the white working class, and Rotary Club businessmen—the very heart of the Republican Party—are going to feel the most pain from a trade war. Once they do, surely GOP voters will resist, or maybe revolt. As conservative Tom Nichols said in USA Today last week, “Maybe the experts, with all their silly theories about free trade, should just get out of the way and let the people touch that stove.”

I doubt it will matter. I think the reverse is more likely.

Republicans will continue to harm, even mutilate, themselves, with gladness in their hearts for God’s gift of granting them the glory of a Republican president. Moreover, facts, reason and empirical evidence matter so little to Republican voters that Trump need only lie, telling voters, nope, it wasn’t me. The Democrats did it.

This sounds unkind, but I don’t mean to be. I’m drawing a conclusion from observable reality. People tend to vote against their economic interests, not for them. If they voted for them, affluent highly taxed New Yorkers would all be Republicans and the white working class would all be Democrats. That the economy’s strong performance appears to have little or no effect on public opinion should not be surprising.

The myth of the economically self-interested voter is unlikely to perish. Thomas Frank wrote a widely read and very influential book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? some years ago. He wanted to understand why any working-class American would support any Republican candidate given that Republican economic policies strive mightily to comfort the already very comfortable. Frank’s conclusion: The Republicans are working an elaborate scheme to con the American working class.

I don’t doubt the con, but I believe some don’t need conning. They already want to participate in harming those whom they feel are undeserving of membership in the American political franchise. Sure, they might feel an unpleasant pinch here and there, but that pales compared to the pleasure of seeing The Other struggle for air.

Again, I don’t mean to be unkind. I’m pointing out conservative ideology in action. Tom Nichols and others can be trusted to wax nostalgic on higher-order conservatism, but beneath the intellectual gloss has always lurked something barbaric.

In the past, conservatism might have been a desire to slow the pace of change, to bring progress to a crawl, or reverse time, but that hasn’t been the case for years. It seeks to inflict pain, first and last. Conservatism has been fully Southernized.

It is now a byword for sadism.

But sadism has a flip side. While sadism derives pleasure from the pain of others, masochism derives pleasure from one’s own pain. Economics is a poor indicator of future political performance. Behavioral psychology, however, is an excellent one.

As the international trade war escalates, as prices rise, and as businesses and farms go under, don’t expect Republican voters in Kansas and other GOP strongholds to revolt. Revolting would mean voting for the Democrats, and that’s unthinkable. Republican voters are more likely to say, hell yeah, Mr. President, give us some more!

And the GOP establishment is likely to lie, telling the base that Trump isn’t to blame. The Democrats are. This is already happening with respect to immigration. Republican members of Congress are parroting Trump’s lie that a “Democratic law” is forcing the administration to separate children, including infants, from parents crossing the border or asking for political asylum. There is no such law, and such barbarism is wholly the product of implementing sadism as a form of policy.

It’s happening with respect to international trade too. Trump betrayed American allies after the Group of Seven met in Canada this weekend. He signed a consensus statement. Then, after leaving, he blasted the very same statement via Twitter. The White House said that Trump was the one betrayed, not our allies. The Republican establishment has been mum or blamed the Canadians for Trump’s sabotage.

It’s rational to expect Republican voters to rebel against a president launching a trade war. But we are not talking about a rational political party. We are talking about a political party that is deeply sadistic and that has surrendered to madness. And many Republican voters are all too happy to endure pain if that means Democrats suffer.

To suggest GOP voters are going to revolt is an assertion. It might be true. Time will tell if it is. Until then, be skeptical. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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