I have said that Donald Trump’s strength lies in his intuitive sense of where the Republican party members’ passions lie and his ability to tap into that populist strain. I thought that this analysis by Jonathan Chait hits the mark in fleshing out that idea.
Chait points out that Trump’s plans for the economy can cost anywhere between half a trillion dollars and a trillion dollars but it triggers hardly a peep from these alleged fiscal conservatives.
Why, that is quite a puzzle, isn’t it? The entire Republican Party treated Obama’s stimulus as a threat to the Republic, yet has said nothing as Trump has embraced a proposal with equally objectionable features.
But the truth is that the freaked-out Republicans in America, watching Fox News in their Barcaloungers, were not animated by newfound appreciation for Rand and Hayek. As careful studies of the tea-party movement revealed, what animated Republican voters was a fear of cultural change. Their anti-statism was confined to programs that seemed to benefit people other than themselves. Racial resentment and ethnocentrism, not passion for limited government, drove the conservative base.
In the conservative elite’s imagination, the romanticized history of the tea-party revolt — a story of liberty-loving Americans rising up against Big Government excess — still prevails. It is a story that attributes the party’s extraordinary opposition to the president’s policies, not to the primal fears he aroused. Trump has not only disproven the conservative movement’s theory of its own base. He’s disproven its history of the Obama presidency.
Republican elites always knew that they were using dog-whistle politics, using respectable-sounding ideological policies and coded language to disguise the fact that they were appealing to more base instincts. It took Trump to realize that the façade carefully created by the Republican intellectuals was a waste of time and could be dispensed with, that the passions of the Republican party base could be appealed to directly, and use that realization to destroy his opponents within the party who tried to steer the conversation away from blatant xenophobia and outright racism and bring it back to some sort of orthodoxy.
As Chait says:
Almost alone within the party, Trump understood this. That is why his comically long list of ideological deviations never hurt him. Trump’s racism demonstrated to most Republican voters that he stood with them on the essential divide that ordered their political world — one defined by identity more than ideology.
While it is true that his many, many contradictory statements have not harmed his support within the party thus far, his basic message of xenophobia and nativism and racism has remained pretty consistent. I think that his weakness is that he now cannot deviate from that core message. Observe how he can always get the crowd to cheer loudly simply by repeating his pledge to build the wall. He can flip on NATO and taxes but I don’t think he can flip on Mexicans and Muslims. He cannot let down those supporters who think that he is going to restore the primacy of white cultural supremacy, where people can express racist sentiments free from the restraints of ‘political correctness’ and everyone says ‘Merry Christmas’.
The success of the Trump campaign is going to be a measure of the support that this kind of sentiment commands in the broader electorate. But what worked in the Republican primaries where the audience was the Republican party base may prove to be a harder sell to the public at large. If it turns out to be tougher going, and the current precipitous drop in his poll numbers is not a good early sign for him, I don’t think he can change his message in response.
Here again is the compilation of clips of Trump supporters at rallies that I showed yesterday that indicates the passions of his crowds.
One should view these compilations with caution. They are suggestive but not definitive, since it is possible to edit videos to highlight the most extreme members of any movement. The raucous behavior within the Trump rallies, often egged on by the candidate himself, are more indicative of the nature of the campaign that he is running.