WASHINGTON – “I don’t want it to be about me,” Donald Trump explained at a recent event in Nashville. In other news: War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
The Trump campaign is emphatically about Trump, in a manner typical of populism from Huey Long to Hugo Chavez. The people are infallible, but they require someone who embodies their collective wisdom. The country – betrayed by elites, beset by foreigners, exploited and humiliated at every turn – needs more than policy papers. It needs a savior. Populism is not identical to demagoguery, but it attracts demagogues.
Trump, on the evidence of past behavior, would take whatever political shape the moment required. But the direction upon which his spinning compass has settled is instructive. His approach has little to do with the Republican Party’s history of religious conservatism. Nor is it rooted primarily in tea party constitutionalism. Trump is pressing a case against corrupt and cosmopolitan elites; against mass and illegal immigration and the dilution of American identity; and against the economic dislocations of free trade and business capitalism.
Insofar as Trump leads a movement, it is headed in the direction of a more European form of secular, nationalist, right-wing populism. Were Trump to succeed, the GOP would be an anti-immigration party of the white working class. Before he fails – as he certainly will – Americans may long for the good old days of the religious right.
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A number of thoughtful conservatives are attempting to take the good parts of Trump’s message – his unapologetic nationalism, his identification with working-class discontents – while minimizing the parts that appeal to the lowest human instincts. They prefer their Trumpism with a little less Trump. But by leading off with the issue of immigration, by proposing to narrow the protections of the 14th Amendment, by representing undocumented Mexicans as rapists, criminals and sources of infectious disease, by pledging to construct a wall across a continent, by promising the roundup and forced deportation of 11 million people, Trump has made looking on the bright side pretty difficult. In fact, Trump’s political approach is defined by the fomenting of conflict with foreigners: with scheming Mexicans and predatory Chinese. Remove the appeal to base instincts and you are left with little but opposition to entitlement reform.
I understand how this campaign will serve the Trump brand. But no one has adequately explained how Trump’s “silent majority” becomes an actual majority in a national election. When Richard Nixon coined that phrase in 1969, it was plausible that southern, George Wallace Democrats and northern, Richard Daley Democrats might be persuaded to join a new Republican coalition. The cultural chaos of the 1960s – riots, assassinations, bombings, hippies – was translated by Nixon and his brilliant political team into a mass backlash against cultural liberalism.
At that point in history, as columnist Ron Brownstein has noted, American voters were more than 80 percent non-college-educated whites. In recent exit polls, this group has been more like 36 percent. Despite the vivid discontents and cultural changes of the Obama years, it is difficult to imagine Trump’s coalition of the disaffected sweeping to power. Instead, it seems more like a quarter of the GOP primary electorate, amplified and incited by conservative talk radio, and led by a candidate with a remarkable talent for attracting the spotlight.
The pertinent question is not: Can the Trump movement win? Rather: Can any political coalition that includes and accommodates the Trump movement win?
Trump and his supporters on immigration hope to change the demographic playing field in future elections through restrictions – essentially trying to expand the Republican appeal in the white working class while limiting the total number of Hispanic voters. But declaring war on demography is like declaring war on gravity – all your victories are temporary. A populist, right-wing, anti-immigration party would eventually be voted into irrelevance.
The alternative is for the GOP to accommodate demographic and cultural changes within the boundaries of a principled conservatism. The goal would be to compete on America’s changing demographic playing field. This would require crafting a working-class appeal that does not use Hispanic immigrants as foils and tries to win the support of 40 percent or more of Hispanic voters through ethnic outreach and innovative policy that addresses the needs and aspirations of new Americans.
And the rise of Trump makes all of it more difficult.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.