Explaining Trump

The Republican party's attempts at stopping Trump have become laughable in their futile repetition.
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You're reading an article in The Huffington Post, so you're probably a progressive. Nowadays most of us get our political news from partisan media outlets, so you may have missed recent pieces by reform-minded conservatives David Frum and Reihan Salam. These writers showed how Trump's rise has been an almost inevitable reaction to the GOP's long descent into extremism. The modern Republican party offers almost nothing to its rank-and-file members, and they've finally taken notice. But that's only one piece of the Trump puzzle.

The most common progressive reaction to Trump has been revulsion at his gross nativism, xenophobia, and sexism. This is a valid response, of course, but it neglects the long-standing appeal of these sentiments to some Americans. Indeed, successful Republican candidates have consistently mobilized some white voters by invoking racial beliefs and stereotypes. Richard Nixon had his "southern strategy," whereby he acquired the crucial support of white southerners by promising in carefully coded language not to enforce much of the Civil Rights Act. George H. W. Bush raised fears of Black criminals with his infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. Ronald Reagan denounced a "young buck" for welfare fraud ("buck" is a derogatory Southern nickname for an African-American man; it frequently appears in the context "buck n-word.") Thankfully the GOP has largely put such racial appeals in the past, but Trump's success shows the constituency for a racist candidate has not disappeared. Whereas previous GOP presidents relied on dog whistles, Trump is open and direct.

Trump's appeal to anti-immigrant Americans reflects just one of many ways that the mainstream GOP had abandoned many of its traditional constituents. Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum describes how this happened. After Mitt Romney's crushing 2012 defeat, Republican elites gathered to figure out what went wrong. Somehow they concluded that their fundamental program was sound, but were concerned about alienating Latinos after all the tough campaign talk about "self deportation." Influential conservatives like Washington Post pundit Charles Krauthammer and talk show powerhouse Sean Hannity publicly supported this assessment. However, the ensuing focus on immigration reform and the "Gang of Eight" turned out to be electoral poison for the GOP in the 2016 election cycle. Latinos didn't much care -- they were more interested in education and the economy than in immigration reform. Progressives want immigration reform for moral reasons; leaders on both sides of the aisle want it for economic reasons. But working class whites, some of whom had responded to racist dog whistles in the past, were alienated. Immigration reform seemed to threaten their jobs, so they felt betrayed by the GOP.

But they had already been betrayed by a party that increasingly served the economic interests of a wealthy elite. The GOP program of entitlement cuts and tax breaks for the rich offered less and less to the middle and working classes, as conservative author Reihan Salam wrote recently. Cultural issues like marriage equality continue to keep some Republicans in the fold, but they are losing their significance for many Americans. Of course battles continue to be fought over abortion and "religious liberty," but they have paled in significance in the 2016 presidential election compared to economic and national security concerns.

The Donald is perfectly positioned to exploit this changing landscape. All his talk of self-funding walls on the Mexican border appeals to working class Republicans worried about keeping their jobs (indeed, he's loud and clear in his xenophobic appeals to the same voters that had responded to dog whistles from previous GOP politicians.) He reassures voters that their social security and Medicare are safe. He promises independence from the crony capitalists that have benefited so greatly from Republican (and, less often, Democratic) governance. And when it comes to foreign policy, he accomplishes a neat trick: projecting American toughness while simultaneously tapping into the war-weariness that stemmed from George W. Bush's misadventure in Iraq.

The Republican party's attempts at stopping Trump have become laughable in their futile repetition. Here's a snapshot: someone, say establishment favorite Marco Rubio, or perhaps a bastion of elite conservative thought like National Review, issues an incisive critique. Trump insults them, writes them off as irrelevant. If the would-be assailant is one of his rivals for the GOP nomination, elite opinion inevitably bleats that Trump had a "disastrous" debate performance. Then he maintains his poll numbers and wins a bunch of primaries. What happened? Trump just denigrated a bunch of elites, the same folks the GOP rank and file no longer trusts.

The conventional wisdom is that Trump wins his party's nomination, then loses to Hillary in the fall. I'm OK with that. Indeed, I'm in agreement with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman--who recently made arguments similar to mine--and liberal blogger Noah Smith that Trump's candidacy has been good for America (assuming, of course, that he doesn't actually become president). He has laid bare the xenophobia that Republican politicians have all too often relied on. His economic populism has shown that the GOP rank-and-file is no longer content to support a program of high-end tax cuts that has repeatedly failed to benefit anyone but the high end.

Perhaps this is a teachable moment for the GOP if they listen to the likes of Frum and Salam, both of whom offer constructive suggestions for a more reasonable Republican agenda. I hope so: the democrats need a real opposition party, not one devoted to special interests and 24/7 obstructionism. But I can't say I'm hopeful.

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