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.