One of the common talking points bandied about regarding Donald Trump’s success in this primary is that this is an issue of chickens coming home to roost. The idea is that the anger built up by conservative media and talk radio over the past several years over issues such as Republican candidates – conservatives and establishment figures alike – promising to repeal Obamacare and then failing to do so has given birth to this phenomenon.
I don’t buy the “talk radio and right wing websites made this happen” argument, mostly because the data is not supportive of it. The people who support Trump are not the tri-corner hat people furious about a break from the Constitution or Mitch McConnell’s double dealing or the ExIm bank – those folks are with Ted Cruz.
What I do buy is that by not going after Trump early –instead playing along with his politically incorrect games – Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham helped protect him early on from conservative critiques (Levin has since shifted, and Glenn Beck, FYI Chris Cuomo, never supported Trump). The volatility and anger was always out there, but in 2010 and in the form of the Tea Party, it came from a different and more politically engaged group of people.
It’s very telling that so many of Trump’s supporters are disengaged voters who haven’t pulled a lever in a primary in ages – that is not a description that applies to most conservative talk radio listeners, who are passionate and very engaged in politics. Talk to people about the issue of the failure of Republicans to repeal Obamacare, or the Cromnibus, or Planned Parenthood, and I guarantee you will find it is a bigger issue at Cruz’s rallies than at Trump’s. And that really tells you all you need to know about the differences between their core supporters.
The broader frustration among Trump supporters is directed at both parties, and is animated by frustrations over three specific policy factors, which are not accidentally the same three specific policies that Trump stresses in virtually every speech he gives: immigration, foreign policy, and general corruption/cronyism of the existing system. Let’s untangle each issue for a moment, because if these voters deserve our respect, then so do their priorities.
On immigration, polling data makes it clear there’s about a quarter of the electorate that really is in favor building a wall, stopping immigration, and actively deporting those here illegally. Byron York cited some data on this back in August, but there’s plenty more to support that point.
This position is totally out of step with the elites in both parties, and with elected officials in Washington. It is also economically foolish and wrongheaded. But it is also one that is held, and held firmly, by a large portion of Americans. The failure of Republican elites to at least offer them a half a measure, let alone a whole one, is fueling Trump on the issue.
2. Foreign Policy
On foreign policy, Donald Trump is exploiting American frustration with the elites of both parties. He cites over and over again his opposition to the war in Iraq as a smackdown for the neoconservative views which have ruled the roost in Republican foreign policy circles for 15 years. But he also uses his opposition to engagement in Libya to smack Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Marco Rubio.
It is very telling that the two leading candidates in the GOP primary today are very critical of intervention in Iraq and Libya and Syria, and this has not only not hurt them, but potentially helped them reach more than 50 percent support in the polls. One would think Republican elites would recognize this and think about what it means about the views of their base. One would think, but one would be wrong.
3. Elite Corruption
The overall issue of elite corruption – the idea that the game is rigged, and elitists on Wall Street and in Washington are gaming the system, a bunch of fat cats getting sweetheart deals while the working man is left behind. This is also an issue cited by Cruz but in a different way – he talks of the Washington cartel in more specific terms and implies he will smash it, where Trump instead offers the promise of perverting the existing corruption in ways that will benefit his supporters. If the Tea Party’s mantra was “no more bailouts”, the Trump army’s mantra is “where’s my bailout?” He promises not that he will blow up the system, but that he will make the system work better for you. (This can also include the “bad deals” portion of Trump’s rhetoric – that our leaders are cutting bad deals on trade, on China, etc. to please elites, not serve the national interest.)
There’s one additional and obvious thing fueling Trump, but it is a cultural phenomenon, not a policy issue – animosity toward political correctness. There’s no real policy prescription to force people to say Merry Christmas, after all. But this factor isn’t to be underestimated in an era when the Feds propose removing ‘he’ and ‘she’ from regulation to ‘avoid the gender binary.’
Trump’s rejection of this type of ridiculousness – and it is ridiculousness – is part of his brand now, and cuts across normal partisan barriers to include a number of white working class Democrats who reject the cultural priorities of the liberal elites who have taken over their party leadership.
The unwillingness of Republican elites to more directly confront these policy and culture war issues has been a gift to Donald Trump. There has been no significant reconsideration of the current policies Republicans have adopted on each of these three fronts – immigration, foreign policy, and the cronyism of the current economic system – nor have they been sounding louder notes on the political correctness issue, despite plenty of evidence that these are issues people care about.
By focusing on the priorities of those within their political and cultural orbit instead of those held by disaffected and angry citizens, Republicans have left open the potential for an actor interested only in the pursuit of power to exploit these vacuums and take on the role many in the American electorate wanted to see filled: that of the strong man, the incorruptible traitor to his class, who rejects the priorities of the elites in favor of the priorities of the people.