In the most general terms, conservatives do not like to be labeled reactionaries. The distinction, which ranges from subtle to meaningless, is that a ‘conservative’ is resistant to change for change’s sake and wants a sober and measured approach to formation of laws, adoption of new mores, etc. A reactionary, by implication, wants to return to a time that is gone. In other words, an out of touch geezer pining for a golden era that has long since passed, and may have been considerably sugar-coated as the years have gone by.
Naturally there are huge degrees of reactionary and/or conservative thinking. It cannot be doubted that the reality of the current GOP’s leadership and political makeup is essentially comprised of middle aged white men. Is this reactionary or have the republicans always been thus constituted?
One of the strange trends we’re seeing is that the Democrats and Republicans are continuing to trade places. After World War II the Democrats were espousing a more domestic and inward oriented policy. In contrast Eisenhower, although certainly not a maverick in this regard, could safely be called an internationalist. Similarly, both Bushes could be described (with reservations) as internationalists, While Ronald Reagan could hardly be described as a beloved international statesman, his actions in Libya and Lebanon (and enthusiastic saber-rattling and commie-baiting) point to someone who subscribes to the ‘America is policeman of the world’ idea.
With the rise of the GOP’s libertarian wing (e.g. Rand Paul) and of course Tea Party (somewhat libertarian and arch-reactionary), these attitudes were frequently challenged and mitigated. However it is safe to say that the Republican elite (remember them?) were always staunchly in favor of free trade policies and an engaged (cynics might say warmongering) foreign policy. Concomitant with the advocacy of free movement of capital was severe hostility to the union movement and, by association, the working class. Labor unions (Teamsters excepted) were solidly in the Democratic camp and their ongoing opposition to free trade (i.e. imports. Exports are OK) put a (sometimes) brake on any democratic internationalist aspirations.
That being said, it should be (quickly I hope) noted that any internationalist tendencies in American foreign policy are recent (i.e. post WW 2). With the exception of Woodrow Wilson’s efforts circa WW I, Isolationism was the rule to the extent that the term did not originate until the 1930’s. And of course, the USA’s refusal to join the League of Nations after the war quickly sunk any ongoing American internationalist aspirations (and the league itself of course).*
Hmmm, guess what? With the populist revolution (or whatever it is), The Republican administration is now completely inward looking, backing out of trade agreements, advocating expulsion of 11,000,000 immigrants and ranting about other countries taking advantage of American largesse (I am not sure ‘largesse’ was the precise term used in the well-researched speeches and reports). But true to this new distorted populism, the working class is now solidly with the GOP. The Democrats are now seen as the urban, elitist party while the Republicans represent the ‘little guy’. The problem for said little guy is that while The Man is happy to let them keep their guns (and is happy to reinforce the view that ‘others’ have taken their jobs), any notion that they will get an increased piece of the pie is absurd. The new tax bill, (which I will not belabor) continue that magical flow of capital up up up and away (apologies to the 5th Dimension) from the lower and middle classes. By the way, did we mention you can keep your guns?
The truth is that the organized labor movement, for good or ill, is responsible for creating the American middle class in the industrial era. They are in their way out. And even greater degrees of inequality (already by far the most lopsided of any ‘Western’ country) continue to be the order of the day. These ‘values’ are the main appeal to the ‘base’, although frequently they are couched in rhetoric meant to display how these attitudes will result in economic well-being.
And, yes, it’s those nagging social issues (the culture wars! Mmmm ….) that really represent the reactionary side. The steady intent to move capital upward, although not a new idea (it’s as old as human history) but is really just a self-interested policy that allows the GOP to repay their donor class.
The populist movement has waxed and waned since its inception in the 19th century as an agrarian push for farmers to gain access to bank credit. One of its most salient features is a general anti-intellectualism – best epitomized in various Frank Capra movies where the ‘common man’ shows greater ingenuity and (yes) ‘common sense’ than the expert. This sort of nonsense has come to full bloom in Trump’s outlandish braggadocio regarding his expertise in… everything. From claiming he had the ‘secret’ solution to permanently defeating ISIS to a steady stream of clownish boasts about his intelligence and business acumen (a laughingstock amongst those who have experienced the Trump MO of bad faith and mendacity first hand), a lack of actual knowledge and experience is now seen as a plus. The outsiders don’t need no book learning.
And it’s all working out marvelously, as a bumbling fool stumbles through government pounding his chest about nonsense while GOP leaders smile beatifically and thank God that at least they passed a tax bill so the donors get paid.
*As far as attitudes towards immigration, it’s a much more checkered history. Nativism (the Nativists tend to prefer the term “patriots”) has had many flavors, veering from anti-Catholicism, to anti-German to anti-Chinese in the 19th century. In the 20th century, starting the in the 1920’s, much anti-immigration sentiment took on a racial tint, focusing on ethnic purity, dangers to the ‘white race’, etc. This bears a striking resemblance to the alt-rights attitudes in the present day, attitudes that have been somewhat mainstreamed after Trump’s election. The focus of the Tea Party also turned sharply away from fiscal austerity and deficit reduction and has become obsessively nativist.
Before we leave this exceedingly brief and superficial analysis (sorry!) of immigration attitudes I should mention that much, if not most of the anti-immigration movements over the years (including the current ones) is concerned with the threat to American jobs, an ongoing concern of both labor unions and various politicians. This has recently been a noteworthy sticking point between organized labor and their ostensibly close allies, the Democratic party