What kind of political animal is Donald Trump? His campaign caught the Republican establishment, including the conservative think tanks, completely off guard. He may have caught himself off guard as well, never expecting to get this far, thinking of the campaign with an early exit as simply a way to burnish the Trump brand. In P.T. Barnum's America, that is imaginable.
Trump, it is said, does not read deeply. He listens instead to television talk shows. He thinks he has a keen ear for the zeitgeist. It is also said, by his onetime ghostwriter, that he holds no ideological convictions. As a corporate huckster, he is the master of telling his target market what it wants to hear. Out of all that he cobbled together a message that resonated enough with voters to get him this far.
The message is three parts traditional Republicanism and two parts European populism. A strong nationalist appeal, opposition to immigration, and strong support for law and order fit comfortably within traditional Republicanism. But two parts are discordant: opposition to free trade agreements and a hinted support for Social Security, the crown jewel of what exists of an American welfare state.
These latter two are so discordant, along with a number of additional, mostly foreign policy, issues that a large number of prominent Republican leaders, including former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George Bush and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney, are not supporting his campaign.
What is at the center of the dispute is that Trump has not shown fealty to the Republicans' free trade orthodoxy, as great a shocking break with convention as his seeming lack of scorn for Putin.
Much as it's tempting to dismiss Trump's postures as erratic reflections of an intemperate man, there is a logic to them, however clumsily he may have stumbled upon it.
Consider the politics of the National Front of Marine Le Pen in France by comparison. Like traditional Republicans and Trump, it is firmly nationalist, anti-immigrant, and strong on law and order. Unlike the Republicans, though, but like Trump, it opposes globalized free trade entities such as the European Union and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the counterparts to Trump's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership. Equally important, unlike the traditional Republicans but like (sort of) Trump, it supports the welfare state, in its case so long as benefits go to the French. We have to qualify Trump's support for the American welfare state because he has not been entirely consistent with his views--supporting and casting doubt at the same time on Social Security, for example.
The National Front is regularly referred to as right wing, and that it is certainly is on the issue of immigration. However, it does not refer to itself as a rightwing party since it combines rightwing with leftwing (support for the welfare state) elements.
There's no question that this political formula has significant, if not majority, electoral backing. The National Front is now receiving up to a quarter of the French vote. It and ideologically aligned parties in other EU countries elect 11 percent of the representatives to the European Parliament.
In the United States, Trump is regularly polling over 40 percent of the vote. It is unclear though how much of that is from his combination of traditional Republican with unorthodox positions and how much of that is because of an anyone-but-Clinton (or any other Democrat) sentiment held by these voters.
It is unlikely that Trump and his advisors arrived at these stances as a result of careful ideological construction as was the case of the National Front or studying the European anti-immigrant parties. More likely the stances were cobbled together pragmatically from what seemed to resonate with significant public concerns, which included the beliefs that free trade agreements were responsible for exporting well-paying jobs, that immigrants were taking jobs from Americans, that there was rampant lawlessness, and that Social Security and Medicare were beneficial programs. Support for Medicare though does not extend to support for Obamacare. Logically it should but because of the racially-tinged hatred for Obama of much of his base, it doesn't.
Whatever the origin of the message or the skillfulness of its deliverer (Le Pen vs. Trump), it is a message that will not disappear soon regardless of its fate in current elections on both sides of the Atlantic. Trump may have stumbled onto it and may be doing a clumsy job delivering it, but no one should assume for those reasons alone that it does not have a current base that could grow in American politics.
On the other hand, unlike in European multiparty systems in which new political combinations have space to grow as new party configurations, the U.S. two party system will preclude development of an electorally successful break out party from the Republicans. Trumpism, if it is the have a future in American politics should it lose in November will have to remain uneasily within the Republican Party, causing more headaches for its leaders.