Trump's Onto Something. The GOP Needs a New Storyline

Defense attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. tries on a pair of leather gloves during closing arguments in the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles on September 27, 1995. The author argues that, like Cochrane in the Simpson trial, conservatives need a new alternative narrative, a realistic story about the future, about change, about what America can be. Tall tales about the Reagan era aren’t going to cut it. Vince Bucci/reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

Donald Trump will bring the optimism. If he is elected, there will be so much optimism, we'll be praying for some pessimism. Here is Business Insider's Josh Barro on why conservatives are losing to Trump when it comes to optimism:

Orthodox conservatism says we can no longer afford to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits as promised. It says we can't deliver health coverage to all Americans. It says that job declines in the manufacturing sector are the inevitable result of global economic change — and that the solution to job loss in the Rust Belt is to move.

Trump is not bound by any of these orthodoxies, which is why he can promise to fulfill more of voters' hopes and dreams.

Consider jobs. The usual Republican line on jobs is that we don't have enough of them because the government taxes, spends and regulates too much, so we can cut back on those things and hopefully some jobs will appear. Trump agrees with those ideas, but he has a bunch of others to add on top of them.

President Trump would get on the phone with the CEO of Ford and threaten him until he moves production back from Mexico. He'd slap a tariff on Chinese goods so manufacturers (even Apple!) choose to produce in the US.

He'd build great public works again with all the money we save by getting South Korea to defend itself. He'd build a big, beautiful wall on the Mexican border to stop Mexicans from taking American jobs, and he'd get the Mexican government to pay for it.

All that stuff will work so well, Trump says, that he'll be able to cut taxes hugely without touching Medicare and Social Security. He'd "make us so rich" that those cuts won't be necessary. …

What Trump's opponents need to do is not scold Trump for lack of optimism, but instead figure out how to make their own optimism credible to voters.

Jeb Bush ran for president on a platform of 4 percent economic growth — certainly an optimistic idea. But he apparently failed to convince voters that they should share his optimism that the same old agenda of tax cuts for the rich and business deregulation would deliver improvements in their lives. …

The core message of the Republican Party for the past seven years has been something like, "Everything sucks, and the government can't make it better." That is the opposite of optimism.

If establishment Republicans want to reclaim their party from Trump, they need to find a new agenda that convinces voters they, too, can make America great again.

To put this all in different terms, let me cite the "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" on FX. As depicted, the core of the Johnnie Cochran-devised defense is simply to tell a better story than the Marcia Clark-led prosecution.

Team Cochran believes if it can tell a more compelling—not necessarily more logical or evidence-based—story about what happened on the night of the double murders, all the prosecution's physical evidence against Simpson won't matter. And so Team Cochran cooks up a dramatic conspiracy theory about a racist, rogue LAPD that appealed to enough of the jury to get Simpson acquitted.

Trump is pulling off the same trick in the 2016. He is telling not just an optimistic story, but a nostalgic one—even if the facts often make it a fantastical one.

Really it's a raw, revised version of Bob Dole's 1996 offer to serve as a "bridge to an America than only the unknowing call myth. Let me be the bridge to a time of tranquility, faith and confidence in action." (Of course, Bill Clinton stuffed that offer back at Dole, saying, "We do not need to build a bridge to the past. We need to build a bridge to the future.")

In this case, Trump is promising a return to the post-war, pre-globalization status quo on culture and economics. He'll almost single-handedly bring the jobs back and send the immigrants away.

To respond to Trumpian populism, conservatives need to tell their own story—a realistic story about the future, about technological change, about what America can be and about how to help make it work for all Americans by creatively applying timeless principles to modern challenges. Tall tales about the Reagan era aren't going to cut it.

Now I am not sure exactly what that story should be. But among the plot beats would be modernizing the safety net, using technology to drive education reform and making sure the economy rewards innovation, rather than rent-seeking.

The heroes would be modern ones: openness, inclusiveness, collaboration and bottom-up change. And the finale needs to be rising living standards, increased opportunity and shared prosperity.

It would be a story about how modern America can flourish in the new century, not the previous one.

James Pethokoukis is editor, AEIdeas and DeWitt Wallace Fellow, at the American Enterprise Institute.