Trump in Two Acts: How it Happened (Act I)

Donald Trump Caricature by DonkeyHotey
Caricature by DonkeyHotey

The lead political article in Monday’s New York Times attempts to explain how Donald Trump rushed in and stole Republican voters away from party elites while they were napping. To hear the Times explain it, Trump is succeeding because blue collar Republicans became “disenchanted” and “lost faith in the agenda of their party’s leaders,” who in turn had “lost touch” with ordinary voters. I don’t mean to sound cynical by suggesting a less benign interpretation of these events, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to see how party elites never shared an agenda with rank-and-file voters and instead fueled their anger at economic and social dislocation to get them to the polls so the party’s donor class could stay in power.

The Times piece does a nice job detailing the agenda of that donor class – income tax cuts for the wealthy, privatizing Social Security and Medicare and deregulating the financial industry – and suggests they believed that Republican voters shared with them a “principled rejection of social welfare programs.” Why? Because of their rage over Obamacare. But had Republican elites been paying attention, they would have recognized from the start of the Tea Party movement that “freedom” voters objected primarily to paying for social welfare programs perceived to benefit other people. They never rejected Social Security, and I can’t recall rallies on the Mall in favor of capital gains tax cuts. The idea of a base in ideological lockstep with party leaders has always been a self-serving illusion. The economic program favored by Republican elites had little bearing on the wishes and desires of the rank and file, but that program dominated the preferences of political elites because it benefited those who signed the checks.

None of this mattered for a long time because Republicans were winning – and winning big. Base voters, some of whom are now devoted to Donald Trump, turned out in disproportionate numbers in 2010 and 2014, giving Republicans control of the House and Senate and broad legislative and gubernatorial victories in a majority of states. Only in a national electorate did the formula fail, based as it was on turbocharged turnout from a declining share of white voters. But that was to be finessed through immigration reforms designed to peel off enough Latino voters to make the eventual 2016 nominee viable in a general election. I recall a conversation I had roughly two years ago with a high-level Republican strategist about how his party planned to avoid a repeat of the Romney debacle. He said they planned to capture the Senate that fall and pass a narrowly written immigration measure without a path to citizenship – just enough to get the issue off the table without alienating the base. Well, they captured the Senate. But immigration reform died in the House because of opposition from those same base voters.

The Times primarily regards opposition to immigration among white voters as an economic issue, mentioning only in passing that some see it as a cultural threat. This downplays a broader racial anxiety contributing to the anger exhibited by some present-day Trump supporters, anxiety happily stoked by party elites to boost their turnout. Republicans in the Obama years have been less an opposition party than an army of delegitimization, questioning at every turn the President’s citizenship, motives and patriotism. They’re at it again by refusing to hold hearings on the Merrick Garland nomination and suggesting that we have to wait until after the next election to get a legitimate president who can make a legitimate appointment. The subtext is that Republicans will fight to blot out the Obama years and, by extension, the diverse coalition on which they are built.

This is, of course, an impossible promise and it was only a matter of time before reality caught up with it. After the fiftieth show vote to repeal Obamacare and replace it with an imaginary alternative, the exercise begins to lose potency. Enter Donald Trump, who makes the following simple and simplistic argument to voters angry at elites who have done nothing to address their economic and social concerns: You are being played for suckers by your party leaders. They think you’re losers. But you don’t have to be losers. You should be winners. I’m a winner. I’m a winner because I have billions of dollars. If you vote for me, you’ll be a winner by association. We will be winners together. You will feel empowered. We will make America great again.

That Trump continues to promise the same undeliverable outcomes as party elites is irrelevant at this point (although it will become extremely and perhaps dangerously relevant once the Trump experiment ends in failure). In the end, no one is going to repeal the demography of the 21st century, and – once the Republican Party is ready to rebuild – this little bit of reality will be central to the discussion. You will know the Republican Party is ready to be taken seriously again when they start leveling with their voters about social changes they cannot alter. That will come in time. For now, those individuals who until recently provided the votes for policies they neither need nor want are following a figure who projects strength and confidence and who is openly flaunting the elite class that delivered to him an agitated and vulnerable base of followers. He is staging a hostile takeover of the Republican Party and he is doing it because he can, because he recognized the Republican base is an asset ripe for exploitation and the Republican brand is damaged goods. Like Gordon Gekko, he is busting up the party because its individual assets have more value to him than the party does as a functioning whole. If not stopped, he will drain it of whatever value it has before discarding the carcass.

This leaves party elites and their benefactors with only two viable ways to fight back, but they are fighting from a position of weakness so neither choice is any good. I explore these options in Act II.