Robert George Discusses How Trump Changed the GOP

Joining a growing chorus of Catholic commentators, the Princeton philosopher says Republicans’ future is socially conservative and economically populist.

Dr. Robert George
Dr. Robert George (photo: Sameer A. Khan / EWTN)

Barring a dramatic reversal via state recounts or court battles, Donald Trump is likely on his way out of the White House. Nonetheless, the close nature of the presidential race, as well as the fact that Republicans made gains in the House and appear poised to keep control of the Senate, has shocked the national media. Just as they did for Hillary Clinton in 2016, pundits and pollsters largely projected a massive victory for Joe Biden, with a subsequent “blue wave” crashing down throughout the ballot. 

And just as in 2016. it never materialized. Part of the story is Trump’s gains among nonwhites, who voted for him at a rate higher than any Republican presidential candidate in 60 years. Part of the story, too, is the fact that Republican Senate candidates outperformed the president in a number of states, suggesting personal discomfort with Trump, but approval of the general direction the GOP has headed under his leadership.

To understand what this all might mean — for Catholics and the future of the U.S. political landscape — the Register spoke with Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a leading Catholic intellectual in the United States.


We still don't know the final outcome of the presidential election, but we do know that Joe Biden will not win overwhelmingly, and that Democrats have failed to seize a significant majority in the Senate. And all of this against the backdrop of a Republican president the mainstream media portrayed as historically unpopular and unfit. What do you make of this, particularly as it might relate to the American political landscape and each parties’ place in it?

Here’s what I think is significant. For a couple of decades or more, important elements of the Republican elite thought that the future success of the Republican Party depended on moving in a socially liberal direction, especially on issues such as abortion, marriage and religious freedom. The idea was to combine social liberalism with economic libertarianism: the ideology of small government, free markets, free trade and so forth. They reasoned roughly as follows: We need to get ourselves out from under the control of religious conservatives with their pro-life position and their pro-marriage position; then we’ll be able to appeal to a broader swath of Americans who are moving in a more socially liberal direction and who are not averse to our economic message. They thought this was the way you get the votes of suburban women, for example, and professionals — people who want low taxes but who don’t like being associated with people who are opposed to abortion or gay marriage.

What Trump perceived is that not only was the Republican establishment wrong, they had exactly the opposite of the correct view. I’m not here addressing moral questions; I’m talking about how do you succeed in politics, how do you win, how do you get votes? What Trump perceived was that the way to win was to combine social conservatism with economic populism. States that were otherwise tough to get or un-gettable — Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin — all of a sudden were back in play; and even if Trump loses, what was not repudiated in this election, and what will be the lasting consequence of the Trump phenomenon, is that the Republican party now sees that its elites were wrong — this is now a working-class party, it’s no longer a professional-class party. It’s a party that shares the values of the working class, which are socially conservative and economically populist. Trump may go but that philosophy will stay. 

Look at your young stars in the party, the ones who are going to be the future candidates for president and so forth. A very good example is Josh Hawley from Missouri, he has internalized this message like nobody’s business, it’s economic populism and social conservatism. This is not Reaganism, it’s not the Republican philosophy of the ’80s. It’s not the philosophy of the Republican elite or the establishment. Reagan was not an economic populist, though he was a social conservative. The Republican establishment were not socially conservative, but they were economically libertarian-leaning — so they shared Reagan’s economic philosophy but not his social philosophy. Josh Hawley has seen, because Trump has proven it to be true, that the key to winning for Republicans, at least today, is to combine economic populism with social conservatism. I think the future lies with him and others who see what he sees. 

On the Democratic side, we’re going to witness a war in which the old liberals gradually lose to the young socialists. People like Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schumer and the old Democratic guard will gradually give way to the much more left-wing elements of the party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar. The energy and dynamism in the Democratic Party is on the left — socially and economically. So if the Republican Party goes in the direction I foresee, it’s going to be the economic populists/social conservative Republicans against the more socialist-oriented and ultra-socially liberal Democrats.

It will also increasingly be a religious vs. secular divide. The Republicans will increasingly be the party of the religious and the Democrats increasingly the party of the secular. 


Exit polls suggest some trends of political realignment that began in 2016 continuing; particularly, it looks like Trump increased his already unprecedented percentage of the nonwhite vote, while suburban whites continue to support Democratic presidential candidates in greater numbers. What do you make of this? 

What was the thing that kept minorities from getting on board with the Republican Party? What stopped the Republican Party from at least getting maybe 25%? It was not social conservatism. Minorities tend to be disproportionately more religious and socially conservative than non-minorities, especially when we’re talking about Black and Latino minorities. It wasn’t the social conservatism that was keeping them out, making them feel alienated. It was the economic libertarianism and focus on low taxation and regulation and lack of enthusiasm for social welfare programs. What happens when you get rid of that philosophy on the economic side and replace it with economic populism and keep the social conservatism? The impediment has gone away. 

Now what you need are some attractive candidates to go out there and prove it. Trump’s problem was that he was personally polarizing — in the extreme. But now imagine it’s 2024; imagine Biden is president; he either seeks re-election or he gives it up and Kamala Harris runs. but they’re running on the new Democratic philosophy — the ultra-progressive Green New Deal, Medicare for All, unlimited abortion, the whole thing. Let’s say they’re facing the following ticket: Josh Hawley and Tim Scott running as socially conservative, economically populist, faith-friendly anti-elitists. The Republicans are no longer the party of the big corporations; big business and the professional classes now belong to the Democrats. The Republicans have repositioned themselves as the party of the working class — and, of course, most minorities are working class. 

I think what you’re looking at there is a fundamental shift in American politics. And it is one that favors the Republicans. That will be especially true if, as I suspect will happen, Biden is a weak president and the war within the Democratic Party between the old liberals and the young socialists gets ugly.


What would be the implications for Catholic voters and their concerns?

It they’re smart, the Republicans will do a big outreach to two kinds of Catholics: white, Mass-attending Catholics and Latino Mass-attending Catholics. Those constituencies will likely find the combination of social conservatism and economic populism extremely appealing.


Any other insights, thoughts, or reflections based on the results we've seen so far?

The key thing is that even if Trump is personally repudiated, the message of social conservatism combined with economic populism wasn’t repudiated. There was no blue wave. The Republicans will probably hold the Senate and they’ve picked up a number of seats in the House — which was a shock to the Democrats and the media. Trump himself outperformed the polls very significantly, especially in states that have high concentrations of working-class people, and he did better among minorities than Republicans have in a long, long time. All that is bad news for the Democrats. They were once the party of the working class. But that is no more. The transformation of the Republican Party into a socially conservative, economically populist party puts it in the position the Democrats were once in.