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Inside a Key Part of the Republican Base: Car Dealers

The party was on at a gathering of unsung Republican heavyweights, and I was in search of the armadillo racing. The booze was flowing: Open bars numbered in the double digits, plus metal bathtubs teemed with beer on ice. Cover bands played and DJs spun. There was line dancing and trick ropers, twirling lassos and mechanical bulls, bucking riders and stilt-walkers.

And there were car dealers—thousands of them. So many gray blazers atop so many pairs of jeans, so many corporate logos embossed on so many fleece vests. So many, many men. This year’s blowout was in Dallas and the invite called for “Western duds,” so there were omni gallon hats and dinner-plate belt buckles too.

This was opening night of the NADA Show, the annual convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association, one of the most powerful trade organizations representing one of the richest professions in America, and there was much to celebrate.

The years since COVID hit had been some of the industry’s best ever. Supply-chain issues had sent prices skyrocketing. New car prices were up; used car prices were up even more. “This has been an unexpected bonanza for new car dealers,” George Hoffer, professor emeritus of transportation economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, told Time late last year. Only a few months prior, the research firm Haig Partners clocked average gross profit for dealers at 180 percent over 2019 levels.


In many ways, you can’t understand U.S. conservatism without understanding the car dealer—that middlemensch of American capitalism, selling a product he doesn’t make at a fat-enough markup to become fabulously rich and politically powerful. And dealers who have lodged themselves in the middle of Republican politics find themselves at a crossroads, just like the party they patronize. Underneath the froth, and the humidity, there was anxiety in the air. I journeyed to the NADA convention to hear the dealers’ vision of the future. What I found is a stark prescription for what Republicans want now.

When the first car dealership opened in 1898, in Detroit, it was seen as a convenience for cash-strapped manufacturers, who were overwhelmed just by producing the cars. They needed a means to reach customers without having to build their own sales networks. A class of middlemen sprang up. Car dealers quickly became pioneers of influence, concocting new and astonishing breakthroughs in the very American alchemy of converting riches to political sway.

As the automobile industry flourished, so did the dealership model—but the American entrance into World War I threatened to interrupt that ascent. So, in 1917, a group of 30 Chicago dealers went before Congress to argue that cars shouldn’t be classified as luxuries by the tax code. The luxury distinction would have allowed car-manufacturing facilities to be converted to use for wartime production. That would have been fine for manufacturers, which would have continued making money manufacturing, but disastrous for car dealers, who couldn’t just sell tanks.

The dealers won the argument and then some, leaving Washington with a 40 percent cut in the “luxury tax,” which was then being levied on car sales. With that, the National Automobile Dealers Association was born.

That first taste of triumph only whetted the appetite. By the 1930s, with another war effort in the works, dealers went state by state. “At that time, there was lots of attention being paid to small business as having inherent virtue and the need to protect mom-and-pop shops,” Daniel Crane, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School, told me. “They embraced that story, and were extremely successful at getting legislatures in all 50 states to strictly regulate how cars were sold.” In 17 states, it is outright illegal for car manufacturers to sell cars at all.

The “mom-and-pop” facade of the postwar period gave way to multibillion-dollar, intergenerational dealership empires. As of 2021, the top 10 dealership groups in the U.S. had annual revenues around $100 billion, more than any company that actually makes cars.* The NADA became one of the most influential lobbying entities in Washington, with 16,000 dues-paying businesses spanning 32,500 franchises. Soon enough, a stop at the annual NADA convention became routine for presidential hopefuls and even presidents. Lyndon B. Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and Hillary Clinton all attended ahead of presidential runs; Bill Clinton and both Bushes came after they left the White House.

Read entire article at Slate