I’ve written many times about Donald Trump and how his rise shows that partisan policies and ideological loyalty can be trumped (no pun intended) by the unique environment of a particular electoral cycle. Trump’s flirting with running for President in 1988, 1996, 2000, 2008 and even 2012 were all precursors to 2016, the main event!
But, none of those elections hold a candle to the fear, dismay and skepticism of this year’s electorate. Trump was the only one who understood that these factors, unique to this cycle, would allow a political outsider and novice with little loyalty to party or ideology, to take the party’s nomination.
In a way, it is not fair to blame other candidates for not recognizing this factor. In their lifetimes it had never happened before. Other candidates came from deeply red states where ideology was paramount. Yet, others came from the Beltway where shifting and morphing one’s positions were part and parcel of the process (voters get in line).
There is a parallel to this election cycle where an outsider captured a major party’s nomination. Not only did he capture the party’s nomination but he won the general election. One problem, he ruined his party and it died in the 1850’s. That candidate was Zachary Taylor and the year was 1848.
Like today, the country was wracked by social and cultural grievances (over slavery). The Whig Party, much like the GOP today, was a hodgepodge of Northern and Southerners united by their dislike for the expansive federal powers utilized by Democrats and Andrew Jackson. Fueled by Congressional wins in 1846 the Whigs believed they had a real shot to take the White House in 1848.
Win the Whigs did. But they did so narrowly with less than half of the popular vote and electoral college. Like Trump, Taylor campaigned as a “burn the house down” candidate who disdained ideology and party politics. He beat a seasoned Democratic candidate (cue Hillary Clinton) in a squeaker by appealing to all wings of his party and some Democrats to offset his losses among pro-slavery Southerns and abolitionist Northerners.
Taylor’s ignorance of ideology mirrors Trump and only worked because of the mood of the country. Indeed, Trump waited until this year to run, when polls showed solid majorities of the public believed the country was on the wrong track, income was stagnating and views of Congress were at all time lows.
Whether Trump recognized it or not he also ran at a time when party leaders and GOP candidates were misinterpreting their midterm victories as mandates. Republican leaders argued after 2014 that Romney was the reason they lost to Obama again. Give us a better candidate and we will beat the Clinton machine!
Except this view by party elders and power-brokers was fundamentally flawed. Polls showed on taxing the rich, trade and immigration the party faithful was at odds with their leadership. Still, leaders ignored these facts and continued to expect their voters to fall in line (just like 2008 and 2012).
Fueling GOP skepticism was the Supreme Court’s decision last year mandating gay marriage across the country. Evangelicals, middle of the road voters and conservatives all across the country were dismayed their leaders did not even fight the ruling. Sure, a few officials made noises about the decision but that was it. Republicans fell in line with the ruling. But, worries over states cracking down on those with dissenting views (see WA State, OR and NM) worried conservatives that government would mandate acceptance. Worse, that government would punish those who did not accept the LBGT community.
Enter Trump. The brash, tough-talking celebrity already had a following among moderate Republicans and he focused on the wedge issues the party leadership had pretended did not exist. Immigration was his first target. His claims some Mexicans were “rapists” won’t help him in the general election but it instantly vaulted him to the top of the GOP pack.
While the rest of the massive GOP field continued to talk about economic issues it was Trump who was pivoting to the cultural issues of the day. He balked at tax cuts for the rich (even many conservatives don’t support the idea), how religious liberty was being stepped on and he railed against his party’s leaders. Only Cruz was better at it and by virtue of being a sitting Senator Cruz was not able to make as effective a case.
By the time of Super Tuesday the momentum Trump had built could not be stopped and here we are. Trump sits atop the GOP apparatus. It is a victory that is well deserved for its strategic vision as well as understanding of the party electorate (and Independents).
But it also speaks to how fundamentally out of touch many candidates and party elders are with their base. The average GOP voter just does not care as much about protecting the rich from tax cuts and prioritizing trade deals with foreign powers as leadership. Trump recognized this and utilized the issues that were sure to split the party faithful from their elected officials.
There are many issues where Trump has a different stance than those that voted for him. But it did not matter. Trump focused voters attentions on issues that transcended ideology and made other issues seem less important. Perhaps relating more to luck than skill, Trump has been fortunate to be able to galvanize the gender gap inherent in American politics. In essence, facing moderate to insurgent challengers and a gender focused opponent in November has/will allow Trump to galvanize men.
Most importantly, Trump separated the little c of conservatism from the GOP electorate. Trump is the GOP’s strongman answer to Obama and Hillary. Sure, many Trump supporters are dedicated to small government and lower taxes. But, when it comes to protecting their interests they will use the power of government just as much as liberals have since Obama.
Republican leadership, as well as many younger conservatives, refuse to recognize this fact. They do so at their own peril and only advance their careers in purely ideological circles. For as this election shows, the GOP base is far less wedded to ideology than one would assume. For this election cycle at least.