Why Donald Trump’s ‘populism’ is triumphing over GOP mainstream candidates

The Atlantic magazine offers a smart new wrinkle on the effort to understand the Trump phenomenon. It’s by long-time Republican and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, now a senior editor at The Atlantic.

If not a Republican apostate, Frum is at least a free thinker who often criticizes the party line. In the case of this article, titled “The Great Republican Revolt,” he analyzes the Republican coalition and why it is riven by Trumpism, and he does not seem convinced that it will blow over.

For starters, Frum describes the Repub coalition as fundamentally divided between the mostly wealthy corporate “mainstream Republicans” and the mostly white working-class “populist Republicans.”

The mainstreamers are in it for the tax cuts (especially on corporations and high-earners, whom they prefer to call “makers”). They don’t belong to unions, they don’t really need Social Security or Medicare and are receptive to those who emphasize the need to rein in the costs of those programs.

Unlike the “mainstreamers,” the “populists” don’t see the great need to cut taxes on those making more than $250,000. They are counting on benefits like Social Security and Medicare, which they believe they have earned during their working years. The kind of benefits the populists dislike are those for the poor, the unemployed and the recently arrived immigrants. While the corporate types benefit from immigration, because it creates competition for jobs and holds down wages, the working class “populists” have the opposite interest and worry about losing pay hikes or even their jobs to immigrants who will work for less.

In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat (and you couldn’t be much more corporate establishment than he and his clique were), the big post-mortem conclusion was that the Republicans had to do something to capture a larger share of the growing Hispanic vote, which suggested a need to soften up on the issue of immigration. Frum’s collection of quotes from Republican bigwigs suggessing this is impressive.

The Republican strategy after 2012, which included a few elements other than a great openness to immigration, as Frum sees it, was “a total and utter failure.” He writes:

George W. Bush’s tax cuts for high earners expired in 2013, and Republicans could not renew them. The drive to cut the deficit ended in budget sequestration, whose harshest effect fell on the military. The Gang of Eight deal never came to a vote in the House. All the while, Republicans’ approval ratings slipped and slid. Instead of holding on to their base and adding Hispanics, Republicans alienated their base in return for no gains at all. By mid-2015, a majority of self-identified Republicans disapproved of their party’s congressional leadership — an intensity of disapproval never seen by the Republican majority of the 1990s nor by Democrats during their time in the majority after the 2006 midterm elections.

Along came the 2016 presidential field, featuring “establishment” Republicans who were anxious to send a welcoming message to Hispanic immigrants, including those in the country illegally. Marco Rubio, himself Hispanic, was one of the sponsors of the Gang of Eight bipartisan legislation that would have created a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. But the darling, almost the dream-come-true candidate of the establishment, was Jeb Bush, who Frum describes thus:

As the governor of Florida, Bush had cut taxes and balanced budgets. He’d challenged unions and championed charter schools. At the same time, Bush passionately supported immigration liberalization. The central event in his life history was his reinvention as an honorary Latino American when he married a Mexican woman, Columba Garnica de Gallo. He spoke Spanish at home. He converted to Catholicism. He sought his fortune with a Cuban American business partner. In his most quotable phrase, he described illegal immigration as an “act of love.”

Then Donald Trump hit the fan, with a demand that all those illegals be rounded up and sent home. He warned that the others had no clue how to save Social Security other than cutting benefits, but that he would do it. He told them that the system was rigged in favor of those who made big campaign contributions — and he should know because he has played that game — but since he was financing his own campaign, he would not owe the fatcats anything.

If you accept Frum’s definition of who the “populists” are and what they care about and then watch him pick out the elements of the Trump message that fits, Trump’s astonishing poll numbers may start to make a new kind of sense. Frum writes of Trump’s essential message that it:

Did not resonate with those who’d ridden the S&P 500 from less than 900 in 2009 to more than 2,000 in 2015. But it found an audience all the same. Half of Trump’s supporters within the GOP had stopped their education at or before high-school graduation, according to the polling firm YouGov. Only 19 percent had a college or postcollege degree. Thirty-eight percent earned less than $50,000.

…Trump Republicans were not ideologically militant. Just 13 percent said they were very conservative; 19 percent described themselves as moderate. Nor were they highly religious by Republican standards.

What set them apart from other Republicans was their economic insecurity and the intensity of their economic nationalism. Sixty-three percent of Trump supporters wished to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil — a dozen points higher than the norm for all Republicans. More than other Republicans, Trump supporters distrusted Barack Obama as alien and dangerous: Only 21 percent acknowledged that the president was born in the United States, according to an August survey by the Democratic-oriented polling firm PPP. Sixty-six percent believed the president was a Muslim.

As Frum describes the “establishment” and the “populists,” it’s hard to understand how they have remained in the same party until now. Trump has now taken off the table the Republican nightmare that he might run as a third-party candidate. But, after reading Frum, it did cross my mind that if Trump loses the nomination and it looks like the “establishment” did him in, a great many Trump supporters might not vote, which could have a devastating effect on the establishment’s choice.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 12/23/2015 - 03:20 pm.

    Trumpeter Swains

    Eric, after considering allusions, synonyms and applications, you may freely adopt this label as categorically correct for Donald’s admirers.

    In this season of giving and graciously accepting presents, may you enjoy and artfully use this gift.

    [With apology to moderators: In addition to the “establishment” and “populist” Republicans, we really should acknowledge Trump’s cadre of simply “Pissed-Off People,” POPs of several kinds.]

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/23/2015 - 04:12 pm.

    It’s not that Trump supporters are republican

    it’s that most have nothing in common with today’s democrats. The Trump “movement” has more in common with Reagan’s “Reagan democrats,” or Jerry Falwell’s “silent majority.” Those supporters were tied to a personality, not an ideology. And as the polls show, they’re not conservatives, they’re simply anti-establishment.

    Donald Trump is the antithesis of Barack Obama and by extension, Hillary Clinton. The people who dislike those two are not limited to republicans.

    The republicans I know today are conservatives, in that we’re tied to a set of ideas and principles. We’re entrepreneurs and small businessmen who believe in small un-intrusive government with lower taxes and fewer regulations because those things are important to people who are trying to make a living in a competitive marketplace, and we believe in traditional values. Conservatives choose a candidate who best represents those ideas and principles. That’s why Cruz is our preferred candidate.

    We’re not convinced Donald Trump shares those ideas and principles even as he mouths the words.

    When Reagan ran in 1980, the DC-based republican establishment despised him and his supporters for pretty much the same reasons the establishment despises Trump today. I was a disillusioned democrat who was disappointed in Carter’s performance in the White House, from the gas lines and double-digit interest rates to the Iran hostage situation. At 30 years of age, I was ready to consider alternatives.

    I haven’t voted for a democrat since.

    With a similar state of the nation today and a similarly out-of-touch establishment, Trump has the potential of pulling off another Reagan-like victory, supported by disillusioned democrats, frustrated independents and reluctant republican voters who would vote for Trump simply because he’s not the establishment candidate.

    A Gallup poll on October 26th, 1980 had it Jimmy Carter 47, Ronald Reagan 39, so don’t bother showing me any polls that show Clinton winning. Anything can happen.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/30/2015 - 04:06 pm.

      Historical note

      Richard Nixon is usually credited with popularizing the term ‘silent majority’ in 1969.
      Falwell didn’t use it publicly until 1980.
      And of course the Iran hostage to-do can be traced back to Reagan’s Iran-Contra fiasco.
      Those whom the Lord would destroy he first makes Conservative ;-).

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/30/2015 - 11:48 pm.

        Historical correction

        Iran hostage crisis – 1979-1980
        Iran Contra fiasco – 1985-1987

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/01/2016 - 09:59 am.

          Point taken

          I’ll let readers judge which point is more important.
          And I’ll add to the list the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, a process which (with CIA involvement) began in 1977. By the time Carter took over from Ford the wheels were already turning.
          His reign was the high water mark for democracy in Iran — he was replaced by Khomeni and his fellow theocrats.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 01/03/2016 - 03:28 am.


        The “moral majority” was his constituency.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/31/2015 - 03:31 pm.

      And you’re right that Trump

      is the antithesis of Obama and Clinton.
      FactCheck has documented which of them most habitually wanders from reality.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/03/2016 - 12:12 pm.

      Out of touch establishments

      To the extent that they exist, cannot be resolved by voters that are even more out of touch.

  3. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/23/2015 - 04:21 pm.

    Nice and Tidy

    Mr. Frum seems to think that the Republican Party’s issues began in 2009. That isn’t even close to the truth.

    The elephants (pardon the expression) in the room that Mr. Frum refuses to mention are race and the social/cultural issues. President Nixon started exploiting the racial issue, and President Reagan and his team (Lord knows, the man was responsible for nothing remotely negative) saw the opening with the other issues. Race and culture are both highly divisive and not subject to efforts to find a common ground. On the other hand, these issues were used to give Republicans years of electoral success. Nothing got the crowd riled up faster than the three Gs (guns, God, and gays), and if you could drop in a few references to “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” using food stamps to buy t-bone steaks, so much the better.

    The problem is, those wedge issues have a limited shelf life. There still are true believers, but the tide has turned. Crowds are not going to mobilize to overturn the Obergefell decision, and basing the nation’s laws on the Bible isn’t polling well, either. The corporate wing of the Republican Party was never terribly excited about these issues–their focus was on the bank book, not Scripture. With the changing attitudes of the nation, social issues are a recipe for limited success, at best.

    So–immigration. Vague yet tough rhetoric can keep the “POPs” adequately POd. The corporate side may not care for it, but it’s the inevitable culmination of the last 40+ years of Republican strategy.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/30/2015 - 10:48 am.

      Exactly Mr. Holbrook

      The GOP slide into oblivion began with Ronald Reagan. We had a short respite with the first Bush but then Gingrich picked up the baton and magical thinking combined with anti-correctness (I mean, who wants to get anything correct when you never get tired of being wrong?) and the party simultaneously became a magnet for toxic personalities AND toxic policy; both divorced from reality.

      What we know now, that we couldn’t know for sure in the 90s, is that no one of any consequence in the Republican party has the intellect or the leadership skills to pull them out of this death spiral.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 12/24/2015 - 09:25 am.

    Dennis is right.

    Dennis is right! The GOP is tied to ideas and principles. They are so tied to them that the GOP loses elections, does an election autopsy to find what went wrong, and then goes back to the things that caused them to fail. If you wonder at all how the GOP ideas and principles work you only have to go back one president to GOP conservative George W. Bush. We will hear responses back that good old G.W. Bush was not a conservative, but he was because the GOP was in lock step with George. There weren’t any words of GOP dissention during Bush’s rein of fiscal terror. Listen to the GOP words today. They still have their wars on women, race, personal freedom, religion, taxes, and common sense. Have you ever noticed how the GOP is against something until it impacts them and then they see the light and change their tune? For seven years they have been against anything that moves, but no one can tell me what they are for that would benefit everyone, not just the top 1%. For seven years they have been against the Affordable Care Act. For seven years they have tried to repeal it over 50 times, because it looks good to their base. For seven years they haven’t tried to fix what they feel needs to be fixed. For seven years they have not said what they would replace it with. For seven years the GOP has been leaderless. For years GOP politicians have tripped over themselves to see who could spew, “In the tradition of Ronald Reagan”, fastest. You don’t hear that much anymore because the country and GOP politics started its downward spiral during the Reagan years. More and more of Reagan’s policies have failed the middle of America. Look at any non-partisan fiscal chart. Look at the divergence of the rich and poor. The rich have gotten ever richer and the poorer have gotten poorer. Now even the GOP tea partier’s are fed up with the GOP and the GOP has the Trump problem they don’t know how to deal with. The GOP has gone from Trump is a temporary fad and will fade to now having to defend Trumps ways because he isn’t fading. Once again we know what Trump is against but we don’t have a clue what he would do to fix the things he is against. The GOP remains tied to failed ideas and principles. You might as well start your next election autopsy now, no need to wait.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/02/2016 - 11:01 am.

    I can’t tell…

    If people are actually surprised by Trumps GOP popularity or what? First, the other candidates aren’t really any better, they’re just less bellicose. Second, none of this is surprising because the GOP has been cultivating this base for decades and their support of a guy like Trump may be problematic for the GOP, but it’s not a surprise. To the extent that Trump is a problem for the GOP it’s a product of their own stupidity regarding their agenda and electoral strategies. Toxic fear and intolerance mongering may win an election cycle once and a while in the short term but in the end it will kill you, it always has, remember the “Thousand Year Reich?”

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/02/2016 - 09:21 pm.

    Like I was saying up thread, re: Reagan redux

    Donald Trump’s Strongest Supporters: A Certain Kind of Democrat


    “… during the Obama era, many of these voters have abandoned the Democrats. Many Democrats may now even identify as Republicans, or as independents who lean Republican, when asked by pollsters — a choice that means they’re included in a national Republican primary survey, whether they remain registered as Democrats or not.

    Mr. Trump appears to hold his greatest strength among people like these — registered Democrats who identify as Republican leaners”

    And catch this sentence:
    “He even holds a nominal lead among Republican respondents that Civis estimated are Hispanic, based on their names and where they live.”

    Ruh roh.

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