Lack of self-awareness can be fatal. The haplessness of the Republican establishment in the face of Trumpism is a case in point.
As many have noted, it’s remarkable how shocked – shocked! – that establishment has been at the success of Donald Trump’s racist, xenophobic campaign. Who knew that this kind of thing would appeal to the party’s base? Isn’t the GOP the party of Ronald Reagan, who sold conservatism with high-minded philosophical messages, like talking about a “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy T-bone steaks?
Seriously, Republican political strategy has been exploiting racial antagonism, getting working-class whites to despise government because it dares to help Those People, for almost half a century. So it’s amazing to see the party’s elite utterly astonished by the success of a candidate who is just saying outright what they have consistently tried to convey with dog whistles.
What I find even more amazing, however, are the Republican establishment’s delusions about what its own voters are for. You see, all indications are that the party elite imagines that base voters share its own faith in conservative principles, when that not only isn’t true, it never has been.
Here’s an example: Last summer, back when Trump was just beginning his rise, he promised not to cut Social Security, and insiders like William Kristol gleefully declared that he was “willing to lose the primary to win the general.” In reality, however, Republican voters don’t at all share the elite’s enthusiasm for entitlement cuts – remember, George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security ran aground in the face of disapproval from Republicans as well as Democrats.
Yet the Republican establishment still seems unable to understand that hardly any of its own voters, let alone the voters it would need to win in the general election, are committed to free-market, small-government ideology. Indeed, although Marco Rubio – the establishment’s last hope – has finally started to go after the front-runner, so far his attack seems to rest almost entirely on questioning the coiffed one’s ideological purity. Why does he imagine that voters care?
Oh, and the Republican establishment was also sure that Trump would pay a heavy price for asserting that we were misled into Iraq – evidently unaware just how widespread that (correct) belief is among Americans of all political persuasions.
So what’s the source of this obliviousness? The answer, I’d suggest, is that in recent years – and, in fact, for the past couple of decades – becoming a conservative activist has actually been a low-risk, comfortable career choice. Most Republican officeholders hold safe seats, which they can count on keeping if they are sufficiently orthodox. Moreover, if they should stumble, they can fall back on “wingnut welfare,” the array of positions at right-wing media organizations, think tanks and so on that are always there for loyal spear carriers.
And loyalty is almost the only thing that matters. Does an economist at a right-wing think tank have a remarkable record of embarrassing mistakes? Does a pundit have an almost surreal history of bad calls? No matter, as long as they hew to the orthodox line.
There is, by the way, nothing comparable on the Democratic side. Of course there’s an establishment, but it’s much more diffuse, much less lavishly funded, much less insistent on orthodoxy and forgiving of loyal incompetence.
But back to the hermetic world of the Republican elite: This world has, as I said, existed for decades. The result is an establishment comprising apparatchiks, men (mainly) who have spent their entire professional lives in an environment where repeating approved orthodoxy guarantees an easy life, while any deviation from that orthodoxy means excommunication. They know that people outside their party disagree, but that doesn’t matter much for their careers.
Now, however, they face the reality that most voters inside their party don’t agree with the orthodoxy, either. And all signs are that they still can’t wrap their minds around that fact. They just keep waiting for Donald Trump to suffer the fall from grace that, in their world, always happens to anyone who questions the eternal truth of supply-side economics or the gospel of 9/11. Even now, when it’s almost too late to stop the Trump Express, they still imagine that “But he’s not a true conservative!” is an effective attack.
Things would be very different, obviously, if Trump were in fact to lock in the Republican nomination (which could happen in a few weeks). Would his raw appeal to white Americans’ baser instincts continue to work? I don’t think so. But given the ineffectuality of his party’s elite, my guess is that we will get a chance to find out.