Even without knowing how the Iowa caucuses will end – it is still entirely possible that the Trumpenproletariat, which is only loosely connected to the political process, will not show up to vote – it’s safe to say that the political commentariat has collectively blown the call with respect to Trump. This will be true even if Trump ultimately fails to win a single primary or caucus. After all, almost all of us believed that the billionaire businessman would fade by the fall, then by the winter, then in the weeks before Iowa. It now seems as if Trump is headed for a second-place finish in Iowa, at worst, something few would have seen as plausible last summer.
But this raises the further question: What is the meaning of Trump’s rise? I think we’re in danger of blowing the call here once again. The go-to explanation has been to see this in the vein of the various uprisings within the Republican Party since 2010, most prominently in primary fights to find the so-called “true conservative” of that year. The GOP’s failure to rein in its base, the story goes, is the culprit behind the rise of Trump.
There’s some truth here, but the full story goes much deeper, as Trump isn’t really the candidate of the base (by which I mean voters who usually vote, and usually vote Republican). To really understand this, some history:
By the time Ronald Reagan finished his second term, the Republican Party was an unwieldy coalition of various geographic, economic, and ideological factions. There were the traditional “Main Street” Republicans from small towns and cities in the Midwest; the “Establishment” Republicans in the Northeast; suburbanites concerned about economic growth and high tax rates, added to the party by Dwight Eisenhower; and the religious right, a relatively new addition during Reagan’s term.
There were other groups as well, but two additional ones are of particular interest for our purposes. First, there were what we might call the ideological conservatives. These groups had found their hero in Barry Goldwater in 1964 and remained in the GOP in a relatively junior role through 1980. While Reagan wasn’t their perfect candidate (it’s hard to believe now, but conservatives were often disappointed in the Gipper during his presidency), he was far better in their eyes than Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford.
The foregoing groups – who in truth overlapped a fair amount – had a variety of interests that clashed. The glue that held them together was the Cold War. This was especially true of the second group of particular interest for this article: what we might call the populists. These were in many instances the Reagan Democrats, although it was Nixon and Eisenhower who initially brought these voters into the Republican fold. These voters didn’t necessarily care for Reagan’s economic policies, but they liked that he spoke their language, stood, at least in theory, for “traditional values” – a notion liberals have long conflated with religious fundamentalism but which isn’t really coterminous – and most importantly, “stood up to the Russians.” More broadly, Reagan seemed interested in redeeming the country for “losing” Vietnam. One might say that in the eyes of these voters, he made America great again (“It’s Morning in America”).
Ever since the Cold War ended, these factions have been warring with one another to varying degrees. The ideological conservatives have grown in importance, moving through the Gingrich Revolution of the 1990s (which explicitly viewed itself as finishing the transformation begun by Reagan), into the spread of groups such as Club for Growth during the 2000s (which notched a number of wins – and losses – pre-2009 that we would today call “Tea Party” wins), through the search for the “true conservative” candidates of primaries starting in 2010.
Most of the recent media focus has been on candidates who embark upon these ideological searches for purity. This is perfectly sensible, given that most of the upstart candidates, especially in 2010, won their primaries because they left little room to their right.
So it is natural, to some extent, that Trump also gets lumped into this category. It is also incorrect. The candidate for those seeking purity is Ted Cruz, who stands as sort of a pure refinement of the Gingrich Revolution. His core support is among the true believers, and his strategy is explicitly pitched to them (he believes, for example, that he can win by motivating millions of conservative voters who sat out the 2012 election).
Trump is different. He actually harkens back to the earliest post-Cold War insurgency against the Republican Party: The Pat Buchanan challenges of the 1990s. Journalists tended to focus on Buchanan’s opposition to illegal immigration, but in so doing they missed the breadth of his appeal, which was planted squarely in the populist aspect of Reaganism. Buchanan, like his Nixon White House counterpart Kevin Phillips, lambasted the party for giving up its fight for the “little guy” and selling out to the rich (Phillips, in fairness, positioned himself further to the left than Buchanan). Buchananism stood as a challenge to what had become Republican orthodoxy not only on issues such as immigration, but also on trade, tax policy, foreign policy and a host of other economic issues.
Throughout the past few decades we’ve seen this insurgency move through the Ross Perot movement and into the candidacies of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. Here’s what I wrote in 2012, in the wake of the Iowa caucuses:
Rick Santorum may well be the future of the Republican Party. While I find it highly unlikely that he’ll be the nominee this time out, there’s a good chance that the Republican coalition will fundamentally change in the next 20 years and move toward Santorum’s style of politics. Twice in a row now, the party has toyed with nominating a candidate who combined social conservatism with economic populism; Santorum’s speech last night was essentially a northern version of a speech Mike Huckabee could have delivered in 2008.
We’ve already seen white working-class voters move toward the Republican Party over the past several decades — a shift perhaps epitomized by the GOP’s special election victory in New York’s 9th Congressional District. If a more credible Santorum/Huckabee candidate could emerge, the party would reciprocate by moving toward these voters. This would have major implications for our political dynamic, and could deal the Democrats a serious blow in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
On the other hand, the Democrats have been moving toward a top-bottom coalition of “New Economy” professionals and minority voters. A Santorum/Huckabee-esque Republican Party would probably hasten the exit of upscale suburbanites from the Republican coalition, and potentially reinvigorate the New Democrat approach to governing that dominated the party’s politics in the ’90s.
This is the strand of Republicanism in which Trumpism largely finds its roots. Think of it this way: Club for Growth, which Huckabee routinely railed against, would likely love Cruz, but I find it hard to believe that they would be excited about a more protectionist candidate like Trump.
Obviously, Trump represents a metamorphosis from Santorum and Huckabee in that he at best offers lip service to social conservatism. But poll after poll shows he draws his strength from the same sorts of downscale, less-educated voters with loose ties to the Republican Party; in other words, he is drawing in new voters (while likely pushing other voters out).
This confusion among analysts and campaigns has had consequences. While there certainly has been a strong element of nationalism and populism within the Tea Party, Trump has not been attempting to rile up those who are angry that the GOP is not sufficiently ideologically pure. In fact, Trump’s support has largely been spread across the party, with substantial strength among moderate and liberal Republicans.
So the attempts to attack him for his lack of conservative bona fides have been ineffective because they were largely directed at voters who were not likely to vote for Trump in the first place. Likewise, attacks on his buffoonish-ness, his hair, and his more-than-occasional mean-spirited comments had little effect on his supporters, many of whom feel looked-down-upon by business, media, and political elites in both parties because they themselves don’t look right or talk right. His attacks on Megyn Kelly didn’t hurt him much because his supporters aren’t the most dedicated Fox News watchers. Again, those are more likely to be Cruz voters.
I’m not at all certain where the Trump train ends. It has been a crazy primary season, and if I’ve been correct about one thing, it is that the race has been largely chaotic. The establishment won’t give in to Trump easily (its moves toward him right now are likely an attempt to deal with Cruz first, before trying to get its preferred candidate into a one-on-one with Trump), and we have yet to see what will happen when the behind-the-scenes Bush/Rubio/Christie/Kasich knife fight draws to a close.
What I am certain of is that the Trump candidacy represents a huge move for a very real strain of Republicanism.
Thursday: Trump, Ted Cruz and the Missing Whites
Friday: Why Trump? Why Now?