The Republican National Convention is less than 10 days away. Talk continues to persist of a coup, yes another one, to overthrow Trump at the Convention. Or at least to stage a public protest.
These actions might appeal to the ideological diehards in the party but in reality the activists and writers fomenting this resistance are in denial. The insurrection is likely to fizzle and gloss over the issue that Donald Trump has exposed the GOP must fix.
Since the Bush years, the GOP has made a business out of putting ideology over meeting the needs of voters. Sure, calling for tax cuts and fewer regulations sounds good. But, in reality, some regulations are better than others and not everybody should get a tax cut according to the public (rich people, anybody).
Say what you will about Trump, the trash talking nominee of the party, but he recognized the economic needs and concerns of voters. He didn’t luck into the nomination. He defeated 16 rivals, many of them up and coming stars in the party. He assembled a broad coalition of voters ranging from evangelicals in Mississippi to secular moderates in Massachusetts to retired suburbanites in Florida.
Mr. Trump’s appeal is simple. He recognizes peoples need to belong. To have sovereignty and control over their destiny. Witness his comments after Brexit when he said “People want to see borders. They don’t necessarily want people pouring into their country that they don’t know who they are and where they come from.”
Thus it is Mr. Trump who is echoing the nationalist themes and worries of many voters not just confined to the US but many Western Democracies. Yet, many GOP elites and elders continue to be blind to his appeal. To be fair though, many of these leaders have found success in promising smaller government and less taxes in the Obama years. Why should they think voters don’t support their agenda (well, ask Mitt Romney)?
Such a theme was common among many GOP Presidential contenders. Marco Rubio is remembered for his robotic talking point of how Obama is systemically changing the country. Most Republicans agreed with one addition. America is already changed. It is a nation buffeted by globalization and the aftershocks of the Great Recession.
It’s an argument Trump consistently echos. In Appalachia, Trump talks of how free-trade policies have moved jobs overseas and taken the US’s wealth and factories to Mexico. He talks about the repercussions of these policies where inner cities continue to lack jobs and the factories continue to remain closed. In something new for the GOP, Trump talks about how big business and the special interests dominate while the average American struggles.
It’s a message reminiscent of Bernie Sanders and might explain why Sanders has been lukewarm in his support of Hillary. Bernie may dislike Trump’s bluster and dislike of Latinos but the message Trump echoes is a message Sanders disseminates.
Trump’s appeal is thus bipartisan in nature. He would not be the first Republican to try such a message. Eisenhower, a nonpartisan former general until he ran for President, built bridges with House and Senate Democratic majorities which boosted the economy and led to successful Civil Rights legislation being passed.
Eisenhower’s understudy, Richard Nixon did the same. He crafted an agenda that appealed to the growing bloc of conservatives in the party but also the public with the creation of OSHA and the EPA. Even Ronald Reagan and HW Bush made concessions to Democrats to craft successful legislation.
But the ghost of Barry Goldwater came back to haunt the party, especially during the time of Bill Clinton. The party became more ideological and unwilling to try new ideas to solve problems.
Take the case of Marco Rubio in the primary as an example. To combat poverty the junior Senator suggested tripling the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) for low income families. Such a plan actually had the support of the President and Hillary Clinton but was pilloried by GOP elites because it increased the deficit and used government to help solve a problem.
This is a cycle Trump’s candidacy could potentially break. As a result it worries many establishment Republicans. Trump’s white identity politics narrative is troubling but it is no worse than the kind of identity politics Democrats have fostered.
Democrats let the GOP integrate many former Southern Democrats into their ranks as long as they benefited from the integration of blacks into their ranks. Likewise, Democrats were silent as whites migrated to the suburbs of Detroit, Milwaukee and elsewhere as long as these cities remained under their control.
The conservative beef against Trump goes beyond the talking points (he doesn’t lay out policies, he insults everybody, he can’t speak in complete sentences). No, it is that he does not recite conservative boilerplate ideology. Trump rarely talks about liberty or the Constitution. He doesn’t specifically say America is exceptional. This is heresy to many true believers.
As a conservative this is certainly a worry of mine. But these points do little to address the needs of voters. Ideological certitude can often mask the cries of what voters really need. If Republicans had really wanted to understand voters they would have noticed polls that showed Tea Party supporters (for example) supported smaller government but wanted Social Security and Medicare strengthened.
It was inevitable that Trump would be pushed to the right. But he has also maintained his moderate edge by refusing to promise tax cuts for the wealthy and fighting gay marriage. Indeed, he has positioned himself as a compromiser which is why even moderates Trent Lott and Bob Dole preferred him over Ted Cruz.
Trump’s primary issue is not convincing his loyal following that he would help them. He has to broaden his appeal to the middle and upper middle class and convince them his Presidency would also benefit them. If he can do so and start to bring the party along he could be a formidable foe to his already damaged opponent.
Perhaps the best poster child for a Trump candidacy would be Nixon. He ran a polarizing, law and order campaign that divided the nation along economic and racial lines. Yet, he won a landslide reelection in 1972 and guided the nation out of Vietnam, normalized relations with the Soviet Union and opened talks with China. He appointed Democrat Patrick Moynihan to spearhead his urban policy which showed he was no ideologue.
Trump has shown similar tendencies. He has refused to pick a true believer conservative for his VP choice. Most notably, he has avoided taking strong stances on hot button social issues like abortion, gay marriage and transgender bathrooms.
Of course, Trump could give us the self-destructive Presidency of we’ve witnessed with the Trump Institute and Trump University. One would hope the people he appoints would be able to head this off however.
Many conservatives in the halls of academia and political power spitting out the same old talking points and views have contributed to the rise of Trump. If not for demographic factors Trump might be the favorite this November. These individuals are loathe to admit it though. George Will (who I like) has said he is leaving the GOP to become an Independent. In reality, Will’s vision of what and who the GOP should represent is vastly different than most Republicans (few of us live in the DC bubble).
Win or lose, Trump’s candidacy will have a lasting impact on the GOP. Future Republican contests might feature more centrist conservatives vs. the Ted Cruzes of the party. It is possible this could broaden the GOP and start to shift, even if slightly, the continued polarization of the US electorate where 90 percent of liberals vote Democrat and 80 percent of conservatives vote Republican. Mr. Trump probably summed it up best in May when he said, “This is the Republican Party, it’s not called the Conservative Party.” Trump certainly is leading this transformation of the GOP.