Sean Trende over at RCP has a thoughtful piece on the Trump phenomenon (in fact, it’s part of a three-piece column). Trump connects culturally to his supporters in a way that transcends ideology and that matters. Trump is not a rock-ribbed conservative and neither are his voters.
But none of this is surprising. What is surprising at first glance (not so much later) is the comparison made between Trump and Bush. Bush was a doctrinaire conservative on many issues (abortion, gay marriage, defense) and a life-long partisan in direct comparison to Trump. But get beyond those differences and you see their similarities begin to emerge.
Both Bush and Trump grew up to pretty silver spoons. Yes, Bush’s parents were richer but Trump went to private schools and elite colleges just like Bush. Both were incredibly wealthy when they ran for the Presidency. Yet, both had a cultural connection to rural America that transcends the current divide.
Almost all political analysis today divides things into worlds of black and white; pro/anti abortion, pro/anti legalization, etc. In reality there is a significant segment of the public that simply does not care about these issues. What they care more about is the cultural divide that is increasingly growing in our nation.
You can call this the rural/suburban/urban divide, the cultural divide but I think I tend to lean more towards Trende’s traditionalist vs. cosmopolitan view (full disclosure, I am a religious conservative with cosmopolitan views on gay marriage).
What connects Bush and Trump is their ability to discard their cosmopolitan views (on some issues) and connect directly with the traditional crowd. Bush and Trump might have been born with silver spoons but their language and actions don’t suggest they did.
Think about the response to the Iraq War in the run-up to the 2004 election.Bush’s blunt, outspoken support for the War and the threat we faced connected with traditionalists in a way not seen since Perot. All the silly attacks on Bush on his vocabulary, his accent, etc. did nothing to dent his support. The same is true of Trump. Why the hell can we not call illegals, well, illegals? What’s wrong with saying radical Muslims want to kill us and moderate Muslims are weak for not doing about it?
This is why Bush’s support never faded until after he was reelected and why Trump continues to sit at 30 percent in many state surveys and nationally. There is a base of voters, traditionalists, who connect to Trump at a visceral level. We can call them downscale whites, blue-collar voters, etc. but at the end of the day they will always relate to Trump (let’s not forget Bush).
There are many reasons why this is important to the modern GOP. First-off, it tells the GOP they have to navigate not just an ideological divide in their party but also a deeply cultural one. Secondly, and most importantly, it means the party will have to rethink its ideological priorities to make its message more appealing just to its base.
Think about it this way. Who runs GOP campaigns? The cultural elite, aka cosmopolitans. Who inhabits the offices of power in Congress and the RNC? Cosmopolitans. I can’t tell you how many articles I have read echoing this theme but it is very true.
All this creates a political minefield for the GOP. Either they acquiesce to Trump and let him win the nomination, winning whites by significant margins but losing suburban and minority voters or they go towards a more cosmopolitan candidate like Rubio who would never garner Trump’s numbers among the politically ignored.
There is a third option. Find another Bush. In the current field the closest candidate the GOP has to fitting this description is Rubio and it has far more to do with his rhetoric than his style. Yes, Rubio won’t win traditionalists the way Trump can but the difference is Rubio probably could take these losses while still adding to the party’s numbers among Millennials and minorities. Trump is more of a win/lose scenario for while he is drawing in new voters he is driving others out of the party.