Speaker of the House Paul Ryan waded into the tumult of protests this week against Donald Trump’s plan to close the U.S. borders for a time to Muslim immigrants. Trump’s proposal has sparked universal condemnation across the political spectrum. Of course, to call it a plan was a bit hasty; as in all things Trump, it was rhetoric. There are no plans to build a wall along the Mexican border. There is no plan to register Muslim Americans. And there is no plan to implement a religious test for immigration into the United States. There are just words.
This is not conservatism, this is not what the Republican Party stands for, Paul Ryan complained. What is conservatism and what does the Republican Party stand for are probably the right questions, but Ryan is raising those question a few decades late.
Politics in America is not about ethics and it is not an exercise in philosophical debate. There may be implicit arguments involved about what policies might deliver the greatest good for the greatest number, but the core undertaking is about using the democratic process to achieve and maintain political power. And over the past half-century, the Republican Party has played the game well. Despite all the demographic arguments pointing to inherent Democrat advantages, the high-minded theories about Democrats being on the right side of history, and decades-long disadvantages in party identity and registration, the Republican Party stands today with an iron-clad grip on the House of Representatives, a solid majority in the U.S. Senate, and control over an overwhelming majority of state governorships and state legislatures. Only the Presidential election next year stands between the GOP and total domination of U.S. politics.
And there sits Donald Trump as the obstacle to GOP hopes and dreams. The oddly coiffed real estate mogul has translated his two decades of reality show stardom into absolute dominance in the Republican primary season to date. Trump showed early on that he has a sense for the political jugular when he took down the presumptive front-runner Jeb Bush through little more than suggestions that Bush lacked energy, and he has gone on to tap into the zeitgeist of a large share of the Republican Party base with one controversial statement or proposal after another. And each time Republican pundits stated with great assurance thatthis time Trump had gone too far, Trump’s popularity just kept rising. This week, Trump’s call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration into the United States set off two new firestorms, one with respect to the harshness of his rhetoric, and another of panic within the GOP that Trump might be marching the party toward a political catastrophe that it is powerless to avert.
The depth of the Republican problem was made evident by polling published since Trump’s most recent pronouncement. On December 9th, a Bloomberg/Purple Strategies poll suggested that Trump’s temporary ban on Muslim immigration was supported by 65% of likely Republican primary voters, and that 37% of respondents suggested that his proposal made them more likely to vote for him, while only 16% indicated that the proposal would make them less likely to vote for him. Then, the next day, a CBS News/New York Times poll taken from December 4th through 8th — days both before and after Trump initially made his comments — showed him with 35% support among national Republican primary voters — up 13 points since its last poll in October — and a 19 point lead over second place Ted Cruz. Most notable about the CBS News poll was their observation that Trump’s support was 30% before his comments on Muslim immigration, and jumped to 38% after the comments.
As despicable as many view Trump’s comments, his populist success should not come as a surprise to the Republican establishment. For the past half-century, the GOP has built its electoral success on an uneasy alliance between the GOP establishment — with roots among the landed aristocracy, Wall Street and Main Street mercantilist classes — and the predominantly white working class and evangelical wings of the party.
This modern Republican coalition was the strategic brainchild of Richard Nixon and Kevin Phillips among others. After losing the 1960 presidential contest to John F. Kennedy by 100,000 votes of 70 million cast, Nixon won the presidency eight years later with a slim 43.4% to 42.7% popular vote margin over Hubert Humphrey, with segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace winning 13.5% of the vote and five southern states in the Electoral College.
Determined not to face a third close contest, Nixon and the Republican Party implemented the Southern Strategy to bring long-time Democratic white southern, rural and evangelical voters into the Republican Party. Those voters, alienated largely by the Democratic Party’s embrace of civil rights, became a core GOP constituency. And the strategy was successful. Four years after his narrow win over Humphrey, Nixon demolished George McGovern, winning 49 states and 60.1% of the popular vote. While McGovern was a particularly weak candidate, Nixon’s 1972 election numbers largely mirrored what 1968 would have been if you added George Wallace’s vote totals to Richard Nixon’s, which would have given Nixon 56.9% of the popular vote and a 44 state landslide.
Against that backdrop, Donald Trump’s success this year should not be particularly surprising. This year’s revolt of less-educated, southern, rural and working class voters against the GOP establishment has been simmering for decades. The Republican Party establishment has long held tight control over its nomination process. As the saying goes, Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. Yet along the way there has been a history of discord. In 1992 and 1996, Nixon speechwriter and conservative herald Pat Buchanan led his Peasants with Pitchforks uprisings against the establishment candidates, winning 20–25% of the primary vote against the incumbent George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, respectively. Buchanan’s share of the vote mirrored exactly the share of the GOP electorate represented by the Wallace voters that Nixon brought into the party. The subsequent emergence of the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party demonstrated more than a decade after Buchanan’s last race that the anti-establishment, nativist wing of the GOP was alive and well.
Over the past fifty years, the GOP has catered to the socially conservative views of the voters who migrated to the GOP in the wake of the Southern Strategy, but has been largely inimical to their economic interests. Pat Buchanan railed for years that the GOP was serving the interests of Republican corporate and Wall Street elites by supporting free trade and immigration policies that undermined the economic interests of working and middle class Americans. Donald Trump expanded on Buchanan’s attacks on the GOP establishment when he targeted the preferential tax treatment provided to hedge fund managers and the control of GOP candidates by mega-donors and special interests. Last month, a report published by Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case documenting the increasing death rates among middle-aged white Americans — in particular from suicide and substance abuse — provided epidemiological evidence that anger and despair growing out of decades of economic stagnation and decline affecting working class and middle class Americans that have given rise to the anti-establishment revolt within the GOP are reflected in mortality statistics as well.
Even as the GOP establishment is complaining about Donald Trump’s rhetoric, the rest of the Republican field has largely ignored evidence from his rise that the Republican base is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it any more. Across the board, the candidates have had little to offer their working class constituents beyond one more round of tax cuts, ignoring the simple reality that tax cuts are of little or no value to working and middle class Americans who pay little or no federal income tax. As Mitt Romney famously observed four years ago, the bottom 40% of Americans pay no federal income tax, while those in the middle quintile have an average income tax rate of only 1.3%.
In the wake of the most recent turmoil, leaders of the GOP still seem to be pinning their hopes on Trump voters falling in line, but history suggests that they won’t. In 1992 and 1996, when Pat Robertson won his 20–25% — a bit below Trump’s polling today — those voters did not fall in line during the primary season; it is just that their votes did not matter as — like Bernie Sanders this year — Robertson was running against a single establishment candidate who easily won 60–70% of the vote. The problem the GOP faces today is that against a field of 14, Trump’s 30% share may hard to beat, unless most of those candidates drop out early on once the voting actually starts, or, as in 1992, Trump takes the path of Ross Perot, who ran as a third party candidate — with anti-free trade rhetoric that mirrored Pat Buchanan’s — and won 18.9% of the national vote, enough to cost George H.W. Bush reelection and give the White House to Bill Clinton.
GOP efforts to shame Trump into submission — and preferably into leaving the race — are ill-conceived. As recent polling has suggested — and as has been evident for months now — Trump has his finger on the pulse of a broad swath of the GOP electorate, and those voters appear to be hunkering down in defense of their man. The less educated core of Trump voters today — as has been true for decades — resent being labeled as uneducated bigots, particularly by GOP establishment elites who for fifty years have leveraged their votes to achieve political success, but have offered little or nothing in return except for a stout defense of the second amendment and other social issues.
Paul Ryan complains that Trump is not acting as a conservative, but Ryan is showing a tin ear to the situation facing his party. The definition of being a conservative — to say nothing of being a Republican — has changed dramatically over the years. Richard Nixon walked away from the New England small government conservatives when he brought southern, rural and evangelical conservatives into the fold who were activists on social issues. Similarly, Ronald Reagan killed the fiscal conservative traditions of the party, while George W. Bush cast out the GOP traditions of conservative restraint in foreign policy in favor of neoconservative activism. But through it all, the GOP remained true to its corporate and Wall Street masters, the elements of the party that were most distrusted by the groups that were brought into the fold fifty years ago, and by Pat Buchanan and the Tea Party in the decades since. Conservatism in Republican politics is not a static concept defined in the writing of Edmund Burke, or Ayn Rand for that matter, as Paul Ryan’s words suggest. It has been balanced over the years by the exigencies of what it takes to win.
Paul Ryan’s protests notwithstanding, Donald Trump’s populist, nativist rhetoric — as offensive as it may be — is well within the American political tradition, and his campaign has its antecedents in the traditions of the GOP as well. GOP candidates have thrived over the years through their willingness to say the words necessary to motivate their base — however offensive to others they might be — and Trump is no different. The question is what comes next. Now that the GOP top brass — from Speaker Paul Ryan to GOP Chairman Reince Priebus to its éminence grise Dick Cheney — have heaped condemnation on Donald Trump, and many declared him unfit to serve, they have placed themselves between a rock and a hard place. Either they find a way to take Trump down — even if it means daring him to bolt the party to launch a third party bid — and reassert control over the primary process going forward, or they sit on their hands and risk a Trump victory, a fracturing of the Republican coalition on Election Day, and undermining in a few short months what it took them decades to build.