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Oren Cass: “Trump is an inherently time-limited phenomenon”

The pro-worker policy wonk who wants to save the Republican Party from itself.

By Megan Gibson

On an overcast day in Belleville, Michigan last autumn, Joe Biden made history. As striking United Auto Workers marched on 26 September, Biden appeared, becoming the first American president to join a picket line. With a UAW baseball cap slung low over his forehead, Biden used a bullhorn to tell the marching car workers, “You deserve what you earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid now.” It was hailed in the media as a pivotal moment for pro-labour politics. Yet in the view of many American workers across the country, Biden might as well have stayed at home. Though the Democrats were once the party of the blue-collar worker, the majority of working-class voters are now firmly behind Donald Trump.

The Democratic Party bears no relationship to the actual interests or priorities of the union members that they’re supposed to represent,” says Oren Cass, a former adviser to the Utah senator Mitt Romney and a rising star in Republican policy circles. In the eight years since Trump first entered the White House, thanks largely to the support of the white working class, an entire conservative policy apparatus has emerged, designed to channel the momentum of that base into a governing agenda and even the future economic doctrine of the Republican Party. Cass is key among those who are shaping these policies.

Through American Compass, the pro-worker think tank he founded in 2020, Cass is attempting to advance policies that move the party away from Wall Street, market fundamentalism, free trade, globalisation and prioritising consumption over production. The Economist has called its agenda “a slaughterhouse for Republican sacred cows”.

Some of the policies sound downright Democrat, albeit with caveats. Cass supports expanding child benefits for parents (so long as said parents are working). Laws that protect organised labour should be strengthened (though the political power of the country’s existing unions, which Cass describes to me as “extremely unpopular”, should be curbed). Other ideas, however, sound as though they were ripped from a Trump rally speech, particularly those built around hawkishness on immigration, China and trade.

But Cass, 40, speaking over video link from his home in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where he lives with his wife Kristine and their three children, suggests that Trump’s skillset doesn’t lie in the ideas. Rather, he is adept at smashing through the “ossified orthodoxy” of the GOP, which has created an opening. “Among the things that Trump doesn’t do is the actual intellectual foundations of policy development.” That is where Cass comes in.

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Oren Cass was born in 1983, to a small-business-owner father and a homemaker mother. He grew up near Boston and attended a charter school (a publicly funded model of school which partly inspired academies in the UK). After studying political economy at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, he began working for the consultancy Bain & Company in 2005. But politics beckoned. Ahead of the 2008 election, Cass took a six-month leave of absence to work on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. While studying law at Harvard, he returned to Team Romney and became the 2012 campaign’s domestic policy director.

Though Romney lost, the overall grubbiness of campaigns didn’t dissuade Cass from politics. He has a pleasant demeanour and his interest in policy is apparent, particularly when he expounds on the history of economic theory (New York Magazine last year referred to him as a “nerd out of central casting”; one online reviewer of his book describes him as an “egghead”). But he told me that his main takeaway from the campaign experience was that the “mainstream conservative establishment of consultants, economists, policy advisers and donors clearly did not understand the realities of the modern economy or the problems and priorities of ordinary Americans”. 

In 2015, he became a senior fellow at the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Three years later he published a book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, which condemns both globalisation and the commoditisation of labour. It drew praise from across the political spectrum, from The National Review to the New York Times’s David Brooks and Barack Obama’s economic adviser Jason Furman.

In January 2020 he founded American Compass, a Washington based non-profit organisation with a focus on realigning the GOP as the party of the American worker. In a short amount of time, Compass has found some success. Working with younger senators in the party, including Ohio’s JD Vance, Josh Hawley from Missouri, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Arkansas’s Tom Cotton, as well as members of the House of Representatives, several of Compass’s policies have become successful bills. Measures on expanding child benefits for working parents have been particularly successful, such as a recent bill sponsored by Republican congressman Jason Smith, which significantly expands the child tax credit, and passed the House earlier this year with bipartisan support of 357 votes to 70

Cass says the bill is symbolic of where the GOP is headed, away from the era of neoliberal Reaganomics. “You had all of the old right institutions – American Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, the Wall Street Journal editorial board – just screaming bloody murder about it. And it passed 169 to 47 among Republicans; even members of the House Freedom Caucus voted for it,” he says.

“The Old Guard has gotten really good at complaining about [our agenda]. But they don’t actually have any agenda of their own at this point. There aren’t really any interesting, creative efforts to solve any of America’s problems by doing Ronald Reagan more.” 

Yet despite his criticism of the party’s traditionalists, Cass is loyal. When I suggest that many of the GOP’s politicians strike me as fundamentally unserious, more eager to double down on destructive culture wars than focus on constructive policy agendas, he responds sharply, clearly piqued. “I categorically reject that framing of what is going on in American politics on the right,” he says. “The idea that people are taking an issue that’s not about race and injecting the race fight into it, [that] is obviously not an innovation of the Republican Party.”

When I push back on this, pointing to Republican politicians and pundits’ propensity to dwell on the harms of “wokeness” rather than on policy fixes, he relents somewhat. “Republican polling often shows there’s more consensus among voters on cultural issues, which is why politicians often focus on them publicly,” he says. “Whereas, when you start digging into economic issues, there are massive divides all over the place because the party is in transition. And so, if you are a politician trying to appeal to the broadest base possible, which one are you going to talk about?”

Yet, away from the stump speeches and soundbites, he says, “You find an incredible amount of work being done, not just by the think tank folks, but by the folks who I think are going to be the future leaders of the party – that’s obviously not, like, Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene,” referring to the two Republican members of Congress most likely to peddle conspiracy theories.

That’s not to mischaracterise Cass’s Republican bona fides: as well as research and polling on the working class, American Compass has published papers on “woke schools” and the “sins of identity politics”. He’s pro-life and against “climate catastrophising”. Though bipartisan support remains crucial for advancing Cass’s agenda, the left, in general, remains sceptical about many aspects of the think tank’s programme. Nor has he convinced the right that the Compass way is a truly conservative one. The right-wing Capital Research Center, a so-called investigative think tank, has called American Compass’s labour policies “bad” and lambasted the organisation for the fact that it receives funding from left-wing philanthropic foundations such as the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network. This could of course be taken simply as inter-think-tank warfare, but even Cass admits that some of his policies’ critics, such as the Wall Street Journal editorial board, remain extraordinarily influential on the party.

Over the course of our conversation, Donald Trump comes up surprisingly little. But, as Cass acknowledges, the former and potentially future president “looms over all of this”. Trump clearly speaks to working-class voters in a way that no other contemporary American politician does. When he talks about making the country great again by bringing back industrial jobs and stopping illegal immigrants from taking work and driving down wages, many Americans feel heard. Yet Trump also increasingly speaks, with alarming frequency, of stolen elections and launching criminal investigations into political rivals. And polling suggests that that darker, more authoritarian talk is also being heard. The non-profit Public Religion Research Institute revealed in October that a third of Republicans believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence to save the country”.

With the Republican Party at large still in thrall to Trump, is there a way to imagine disentangling the growing pro-worker movement on the right from the base’s increasing ease with authoritarianism?

“I think that it’s entirely fair and correct to criticise Trump himself for all of those things,” says Cass, somewhat delicately. (As a think-tanker, Cass clearly would like to have influence on a future Trump administration; he co-authored the Heritage Foundation’s labour section in its current Mandate for Leadership, drafted with the intent of being implemented by the next Republican president.) “There’s a very interesting, almost Shakespearean, question of whether you could have had the important, positive things that I think Trump has brought [to the party]… without the part that is so toxic. Hypothetically, sure, why not? And yet, at the same time, in a country of 300 million people, that combination doesn’t seem to have existed. So I think it’s perfectly possible to say that there was not going to be a Good Trump without a Bad Trump.” 

But as Cass sees it, Good Trump being inseparable from Bad Trump applies only to the man, not the movement. “The reality is that he is an inherently time-limited phenomenon,” he says. “What comes after Trump? It’s not more Trump.” He thinks it will be the next generation of politicians, such as Vance, Hawley and Rubio, “who take very seriously a lot of the concerns Trump has raised, and certainly are shaping conservatism differently than it had been understood pre-Trump. But they’re all really serious, thoughtful policymakers who are already doing a lot of serious policy.” 

In Oren Cass’s view, the policies are what the future of the party hinges on. He recounts a recent event he attended at the Heritage Foundation, in which the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum, was speaking. Santorum, who Cass described as a “real rock-ribbed conservative”, said something that resonated. Trump, the senator said, was the conservative movement’s Moses in that he helped liberate conservatives from an outdated era, and gave them a new way of thinking. “But Trump was not the one who was going to lead them to the promised land.” What the movement needed now was a Joshua to provide that leadership.

So who is that Joshua? “I have no idea,” Cass says. “But I think where you have the right set of ideas, the political talent will come.”

[See also: No country for old men?]

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