Donald Trump and the revenge of the radical center
The GOP may soon recover from the Donald Trump scare. Despite his maddeningly persistent lead in the polls, Trump isn't building the normal campaign operations that are usually needed to win. He won't get key endorsements. His voters may be the ones least likely to be active. It's unclear how much, if any, of his fortune he's willing to spend on advertising himself.
Nonetheless, Trump's continued presence in the race is a danger to other viable candidates. Trump's campaign may discredit the party in the eyes of many voters who are disgusted with Trump's presence in the GOP, or other voters who are disgusted with the treatment of Trump's supporters by the party apparatus.
And that brings us to the big lesson the GOP should take from the entire Trump affair: There is another side to the Republican Party, one that the GOP has tried to ignore, and can ignore no longer. It's a side of the party that has learned to distrust its leaders on immigration, to be suspicious of a turbo-charged capitalism that threatens their way of life. And it may be a side of the party that is needed to return the GOP to presidential victories. It is the forgotten part of the Nixon-Reagan coalition. And by being ignored, it has turned angrier and more toxic.
The winning Republican coalition may still be the Nixon and Reagan coalition, old as it is. This is a coalition that includes conservatism, and is "anti-left," certainly. But it also includes a huge number of people to whom the dogmas of conservatism are as foreign to their experience as Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. The piece of the Nixon coalition that Trump has activated cares not for the ordered liberty of conservatism, nor the egalitarian project of progressivism. It cares about fairness, and just rewards for work and loyalty. There is nothing moderate about it. This is the radical center. And it explains why when Trump's support is measured, it is almost always found to be strongest among "moderate" or "liberal" Republicans.
These are the voters who hate modern, tight-suited, Democratic-style liberalism not because it offends God, but because it is "killing" the America they knew. It threatens their jobs with globalization and immigration. They hate tassle-loafered right-wingers who flippantly tell them to get retrained in computers at age 58, and warn that Medicare might be cut. They built their lives around promises that have been broken and revoked over the past two decades. Trump looks like their savior. Someone who can't be bought by the people who downsized them. Or at least, he is their revenge.
It is frustrating for most conservatives to take Trump seriously as a presidential candidate. He's a ridiculous troll. He talks about renegotiating the global order with China based on "feel." He also says he can "feel" terrorism about to strike, perhaps the way an arthritic can feel a storm coming. This is idiotic. But the Republican Party needs to learn a lesson from it. And learn it fast. Few have Trump's resources, his can't-look-away persona, or his absurdly high Q-rating among reality TV viewers. But many are watching him divide the GOP in twain, on issues like trade, jobs, and immigration. It would be surprising if no one tried to campaign on his mix of issues again after seeing his success.
This should have been obvious from the politics of the past two decades. Pat Buchanan's challenge to the GOP in the mid-1990s focused on some of the same issues, though Buchanan was also a tub-thumping social conservative. Buchanan won four states in 1996, while suffering the same taunts about fascism that are now aimed at Trump. His race was premised on finding the "conservatives of the heart." His 1992 convention speech begged Republicans to get in touch with "our people" who "don't read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke," like the "hearty" mill worker of New Hampshire who told Buchanan, "Save our jobs."
And it is not just populists. Even conservative wonks have been warning for years that the GOP was offering little of economic substance to their base of voters, save for the vain hope of transforming them into an ersatz investor class by privatizing Social Security, and making them manage health savings accounts. In the mid-2000s, there was the plea for a new Sam's Club Republicanism, a harbinger of the so-called reform conservatism to come later. This was an attempt to connect with the middle American voter, really the Trump voter.
Republicans need to understand this not just to repair their coalition, but to head off Trump in the here and now. Flying banners over his rallies that say, "Trump will raise your taxes" is counterproductive. His supporters correctly perceive the burden of higher taxes will likely fall on those who already have more than they do. Similarly, all the attacks on Trump's cronyism, or his relationships with Democrats, will fail as well. His supporters are weakly attached to the Republican Party. They won't blame him for being the same way.
Trump's candidacy is teaching the GOP that it has to deliver for voters who feel economic insecurity. If they don't, the radical middle will rise not just to embarrass them, but to wound them as well.