Donald Trump isn't a Republican traitor. He's giving primary voters exactly what they want.
The Republican establishment hates taxes. The base might think differently.
As panic sets in among Republicans at the prospect of Donald Trump either winning the GOP nomination, dividing the right by bolting the party to run as an independent, or merely trashing the rest of the field without restraint for the next six months before imploding, a narrative is taking hold among conservatives that's equal parts self-protective and self-pitying. Trump, in this telling, isn't really a Republican at all. He's some extra-partisan saboteur who's looking to blow up the GOP for his own purposes.
It's true that Trump's issue matrix (very far right on immigration, more centrist or pragmatic on entitlements and taxes, hawkish on foreign policy while denouncing the Iraq debacle without hedging) is not one that's typically embraced by Republican presidential contenders. Yet conservatives are being too easy on themselves when they treat Trump as some force of nature that came out of nowhere or an anti-Republican conspiracy hatched in cahoots with the Clintons.
Trump may not precisely endorse the constellation of policies favored by either the GOP establishment or its reformist wing. But he's not an ideological apostate arbitrarily endorsing idiosyncratic positions with no plausible connection to the conservative movement. On the contrary, he's pushing a program that amounts to a distinctively Republican heresy.
Let's start with immigration. It's easy for members of the Republican establishment to see Trump's position as anathema on this issue because they tend to oppose immigration restrictions — because they're cosmopolitan elites, because they think the party desperately needs Hispanic votes to remain competitive, and because they're beholden to a donor class that overwhelmingly favors allowing low-wage workers into the country.
But a party is nothing without voters, and the GOP's overwhelmingly white and disproportionately rural voters — the actual foot soldiers of the party — take a polar opposite view on the issue. It was their revolt that sank immigration reform after the 2012 election, and it's their support that is buoying Trump's campaign. The establishment might not like it, but the fact is that Trump is never more in line with Republican voters than when he rails against undocumented immigrants and their ''anchor babies.''
Trump is exploiting another tension between the GOP elite and the grassroots on issues of tax cuts and government spending on entitlements. The Republican establishment is relatively consistent in its hostility to big government, preferring to cut taxes along with spending, with the latter ideally accomplished by such reforms as partial privatization of Social Security and the transformation of Medicaid into a program that hands out block grants.
The Republican base is far less consistent. It wants to cut taxes, and it likes speeches that rail against government spending. But when it comes to making real-world spending cuts, GOP voters (who tend to be older than Democrats and therefore more dependent on government programs that aid the elderly) agree with the person who famously (and absurdly) declared, ''Keep your government hands off my Medicare!'' The grassroots want a free lunch, in other words, which is one important reason why the federal budget deficit has soared under every Republican president since Ronald Reagan.
Add in a growing willingness on the right to see the rich pay more in taxes, and Trump's seemingly off-sides positioning begins to make sense in Republican terms. Yes, the mix of support for tax cuts and hikes, spending cuts and entitlement protections that one finds in the GOP base is contradictory, even incoherent. But it's where conservative voters are, and Trump is the one candidate promising to give them exactly what they want.
Then there's Trump's blustery approach to foreign policy and trade relations: ''Elect me,'' he seems to be saying, ''and I'll be the toughest negotiator you've ever seen. I'll get my way by sheer force of indefatigable will.'' But of course, the Republican toughness fetish set in a long time before Trump. Ever since the Sept. 11 attacks and George W. Bush's cowboy swagger and "Dead or Alive" threats to Osama bin Laden, the GOP has been obsessed with projecting strength — and assuming that the U.S. is bound to get its way if only the president unapologetically drives the hardest bargain at every moment. Trump is merely proving to be marginally more convincing than his rivals on this score because he's been cultivating an omniconfident image in the public eye for decades.
Finally, we have Trump's campaign slogan: ''Make America Great Again!'' Calling the country ''great'' is as American as apple pie, of course, but it was given new force in the late 1990s by the second-generation neocons, who championed an ideology they called National Greatness Conservatism. By now, nothing could be more commonplace than for a Republican to praise America's super-duper, better-than-everyone-else exceptionalism.
Trump's only modest innovation is to add the word ''again,'' which grows out of the discontent with Barack Obama that's laced through every speech Ted Cruz has ever given. Turn on right-wing talk radio any day of the year and you'll hear hosts railing against American decline, which (as Charles Krauthammer put it during Obama's first term) is a deliberate ''choice'' that the current president is actively, even enthusiastically, pursuing. The amazing thing is that no one else thought to grab (and trademark) this GOP cliché for a campaign slogan before now.
Donald Trump might scramble the pieces of the Republican coalition and emphasize different policies than the party's leadership would prefer, but he's not a traitor to the GOP. He's a heretic — one whose heterodoxy comes from deep inside the Republican fold.