Read the editorial and news pages today and you’ll find a mix of hand-wringing and demands about an uncouth and outrageous outsider who is threatening to wrest the Republican party from its rightful owners. Liar, racist, clown, fascist, vigilante. There is no shortage of labels for Trump being bandied about in late November. But they’re all negative – at least in the mainstream press. He seemed to be losing steam in the face of a surging Ben Carson. But then the country’s politics, especially on the right, pivoted hard toward fear and rage against Muslims in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks. And with that and a series of Carson stumbles, Trump stormed back into hefty leads basically everywhere.
This report in The Washington Post gives us a look at the waiting game members of the GOP donor class are playing, resisting calls to spend money on a Stop Trump movement because they remain convinced that GOP base voters will eventually reject Trump’s brand of politics. The article raises a number of interesting themes, which we’ll return to. But for now the most notable is the focus group data suggesting that there’s basically nothing Trump can say or anything that can be revealed about him that will sway his supporters.
After conducting two focus groups of Trump supporters this fall, GOP consultant Frank Luntz said he has concluded that there is no political issue or stance that will turn off his supporters.
“They came to him because he is unlike any other politician,” Luntz said. “That allows him to do and say things others could not and get away with it.”
One party strategist privy to recent research on Trump voters said that none of the messages tested swayed them — including his past support for universal health care or fond words about Bill and Hillary Clinton.
“They’re incredibly angry, and he’s the first guy in their mind who speaks to that anger in a visceral way,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the findings. “They have a deep longing for that.”
But all of this is simply a mix of denial, willful ignorance and aggressive flimflam. My first thought when I started writing this post was that Trump is nothing so much as the Frankenstein’s monster of the contemporary Republican party.
Is Trump really too anti-immigrant for the 21st century GOP? Or too hostile to Muslims in the US and abroad? Or has he broken with the party in pushing caricatures of black criminals either threatening the safety of ordinary Americans or mobilizing through voter fraud to take away the stuff earned by middle class white people? It’s not too much to say that there’s nothing Trump has said in recent weeks that you couldn’t hear any given Monday on the Rush Limbaugh Show, from various backbench House conservatives or a million other places in conservative media. If you pay attention to any of these three fronts, you know this. These are the same themes, enemies, and swear lines that have run right at the water line of conservative politics for years. What Trump has done – I suspect more intuitively than with a conscious strategy or plan – is to package them all together and strip away the window dressing which has allowed this menu of resentment to both stoke base conservative anger and appeal to more respectable conservative elites without creating channel conflict between the two. This is no more than the monster which Republican elites created and used to marvelous effect. Only now it appears to be in the process of slipping its leash and devouring its creators rather than uneasily or crankily serving it.
Michael Lind once quoted a movement conservative veteran describing the movement as consisting of “midwestern foundations paying Jewish and Catholic intellectuals in the Northeast to tell Southern Baptists why they should vote for Sunbelt politicians.” Lind himself more aptly categorized the defining factions as the “the grass-roots right, the corporate right, and the brain trust right.” However you slice it, this is the resentment-fueled base of the GOP calling the shots.
And yet, for all the poetic justice, this doesn’t quite capture what’s happening. Parties and politics inflect and harness trends in the broader society. They don’t create them. There’s nothing new under the sun about Trumpism. It’s just a turbo-charged, more media savvy version of the resentment politics the GOP has been tapping for fuel and riding for decades. The familiarity of the Trump message comes across clearly in that aforementioned Washington Post article where those pushing a Stop Trump movement don’t focus on the racism or xenophobia but on Trump’s past support for universal health care or the Clintons. In other words, there’s apparently no stopping Trump on the right. Or as Romney guru and former top aide Eric Fehrnstrom told The Boston Globe: “These Republican candidates haven’t figured out a successful way to disqualify Trump. Attacking him from the left is a losing strategy in our primary.” The only viable attack is that he’s actually too liberal or is merely a cynical manipulator pretending to embrace hard right politics for his own gain.
Trump is no more alien to base Republican politics than Bernie Sanders is to Democratic base politics when Sanders states openly what many liberals have always believed, which is that taxes on the wealthy should be dramatically higher and that Obamacare is merely a half-measure in lieu of real reform, which is a single payer national health insurance. In case this strikes you as some blithe false equivalency, quite the contrary. The distinction speaks for itself. Trump proposes a mass deportation which if actually carried out as he describes it might actually qualify as a war crime while Sanders proposes adopting a national health insurance program similar to what the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Canada and numerous other countries have enjoyed for going on three generations.
I know many of my Republican friends are aghast and will insist that Trump’s politics is one they abhor rather than endorse. For many that’s true. But the Republican party has also been relying on this politics for many years to drive its campaigns. Trump, in his current incarnation, is no more than right wing politics turned up to eleven. It shouldn’t surprise us he’s garnered a ton of support or that it’s proven, thus far, almost impossible to dislodge.