There are a few things we can count on in just about every presidential election. Republicans will call the Democratic candidate weak. Democrats will say the Republican wants to destroy Social Security and Medicare. There will be several hundred inane micro-controversies over somebody's "gaffe." And the Republican nominee, whoever he is, will struggle mightily to convince voters that he doesn't just care about rich people. Oddly, the GOP's best chance at avoiding a repeat of this problem is to nominate a guy who can't stop talking about how rich he is, and who has displayed a decades-long parody of nouveau-riche vulgarity?
As polling has shown consistently, Donald Trump tends to do better among voters with lower incomes than he does among those with higher incomes. This is true of education as well: In the New Hampshire primary, Trump won 23 percent of the votes of those with a post-graduate degree, but 46 percent of those with only a high school degree or less. He's the closest thing the GOP has found to a candidate of the common man in a long time. But that's not necessarily a good thing for the Republican Party.
GOP candidates have long had trouble with the perception that they represent "the rich man's party." It's easy to make a case that a corporate raider with a car elevator like Mitt Romney will represent the interests of the wealthy and powerful. The attack has its greatest sting when opponents can mesh the personal (this guy's a plutocrat) with the political (this guy will represent the plutocrats). Even Republicans who aren't personally wealthy are vulnerable to that attack, since the Republican economic agenda — cutting taxes, particularly on those at the top, and cutting regulations for corporations — remains so firmly wedded to the interests of the rich.
There's no question that Republicans believe deeply that those policies are righteous and true. But it's never been easy to convince ordinary people that what will really improve their lives is a cut in the capital gains tax. Republicans have usually solved this problem during the campaign by focusing on other issues, whether it's terrorism or crime or abortion. They've been particularly adept at finding ways to talk about class that push economics out of the picture, painting Democrats as "elitists" who look down on ordinary people who don't have fancy educations or drink fancy wine. But while the party may campaign on any number of issues, when a Republican takes office, tax cuts will top the agenda for action.
That's what has establishment Republicans so freaked out about Trump: He shows no commitment to core conservative policy dogma, on economics or anything else. Democrats can attack him for being very, very rich, but if he won there's no guarantee he would actually represent rich people's interests. Sure, he'll put out a perfunctory tax plan saying he'll cut rates, but he'll also promise trade wars and pledge not to cut Social Security and Medicare. His outbursts of economic populism are essentially random. They aren't guided by any firm ideological foundation, but by whatever sounds good at the moment. And in a general election, they'd likely become even more frequent. Conservatives who believe that "Thou shalt cut taxes on the wealthy" is one of the Ten Commandments have plenty of reason to doubt Trump's sincerity when he says he's with them.
Trump won't necessarily fix the GOP's image as the party of the rich. Right now he's being tested only by Republican voters, who are overwhelmingly white. Trump has worked hard to alienate every racial and ethnic minority he can find, and he wouldn't get many votes from them, whatever their income. That alone might be enough to defeat him.
Nevertheless, it's ironic that of all the Republicans, the one who has the most appeal to working people may be the one who sees ostentatious displays of wealth as a brand-building project. That may be part of what insulates him: Unlike Mitt Romney, Trump doesn't try to play down his fortune, but instead offers it up as an object of aspiration. As I've argued before, what Trump enacts is in many ways a poor person's idea of what a rich person is like, a comically over-the-top version of great wealth. Many people look at his ornate houses and private plane and rotating cast of Eastern European model wives, and say not "What a rich jerk," but rather, "If I had a billion dollars, that's what I'd do too."
Democrats will, of course, try to portray Trump as just another iteration of the plutocrat Republicans they've struck down so many times before. In fact, they're already preparing the opposition research necessary to do just that. But it would be truly something if the way Republicans finally convinced voters not to see them as just the party of the rich was to nominate a billionaire and just wait around to see what happens.