The Republican Party has long faced a simple yet vexing mathematical problem. While there are benefits that come with being the party that represents the interests of large corporations and the wealthy, executives and rich people won't give you enough votes to win a majority come election day. So one of the ways the GOP has handled the problem is with a deflection of discontentment: There's an elite you should resent, they tell ordinary people, but it isn't the people who control the country's economic life. Instead, it's the cultural elite, those wine-sipping, brie-nibbling college professors, Hollywood liberals, and cosmopolitan multiculturalists who look down their noses at you and tell you your values are wrong. The best way to stand up for yourself and stick it to those elitists is to vote Republican.
It's an argument that dates back to the 1960s, but for the first time since then the GOP has a presidential nominee who doesn't quite get it. Not steeped in the subtleties of Republican rhetoric and the goals it's meant to serve, Donald Trump is blasting in all different directions, even hitting some Republican sacred cows.
There's nothing coherent about Trump's arguments — he'll say how terrible it is that wages haven't grown, then say that we need to get rid of the federal minimum wage. But he has taken the core of the GOP's trickle-down agenda — tax cuts for the wealthy and a drastic reduction in taxes and regulation on businesses — and tossed on top of it a garnish of protectionism, promising to impose tariffs on foreign competitors and initiate trade wars until other countries march right over here and give us back our jobs. He's even feuding with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Trump's offensive against international trade is apparently based on the theory that it will help win working-class white voters to his cause, particularly in Rust Belt states where manufacturing jobs have declined in recent decades. And this has his party very nervous.
"Mr. Trump wants to make Republicans into the Tariff Party," laments The Wall Street Journal editorial page, house organ of America's economic masters. "He'll have a better chance of winning the economic debate if he focuses on the taxes, regulations, and monetary policy that are the real cause of our economic malaise." In other words, stick to the stuff the people in the board rooms care about.
That's not to say that Trump's infantile ideas about trade would actually produce any benefit to working people — on that basic point, the Journal has it right. And there have been Republicans who advocated protectionism before; some of them even ran for president. But they lost. The party's nominee always understood which side its economic bread was buttered on.
All the while, though, the audience for an explicitly economic anti-elitism remained in the party, a product of their success at bringing in whites of modest means with appeals to cultural and racial solidarity. Those downscale voters may have been told that upper-income tax cuts were the best path to prosperity for all, but they never quite bought it. One recent poll showed 54 percent of Republican voters supporting increasing taxes on those making over $250,000 a year, a result that's enough to make Paul Ryan spit up his Gatorade.
There's a way to handle that, which is to turn up the dial on cultural resentments. But it has to be done carefully in order to minimize the collateral damage. Republicans always knew that nativism and racial appeals had to be fed to these voters carefully, couched in dog-whistles and euphemisms. But Trump just hands them an overflowing glass of hate and tells them to tilt their heads back and chug. A secure border? Hell, we need to build a 20-foot high wall because Mexicans are rapists. Strong measures to stop terrorism? Just keep out all the Muslims.
Part of what has Republicans upset is that Trump's nativism narrows the cultural argument down to ethnic and racial identity. They may have condemned "political correctness" to get people upset at liberal elitists telling you what to think, but in Trump's version, rejecting it means indulging your ugliest impulses, taking every rancid thought about foreigners or minorities that pops into your head and vomiting it right out of your mouth in triumph.
Once you unleash that stuff, it's hard to pretend that it's anything other than what it is. So the Republican elites — who, let's be honest, usually bear more of a cultural resemblance to the liberals against whom they whip up all those resentments than to the working-class whites whose votes they want — look on in horror as Trump ruins everything. He lays the GOP's racial appeals bare so they can't be denied, and he can't even be trusted to keep faithful to all of the party's economic agenda. If you can't rely on an (alleged) billionaire to keep all that straight, what hope does your party have?