Donald Trump’s rise to Republican presidential front-runner has surprised nearly everybody. Watching last year as Trump exploded onto the scene, some liberals quickly concluded that his mastery of right-wing populist currents could easily win him the nomination. Others (like me) believed the forces of the party Establishment would likely crush him, whatever his authentic appeal to the rank and file. What neither camp missed was that Trump’s nativist, authoritarian, anti-intellectual style was something the Republican electorate craved.
The failure to grasp that natural affinity lies at the root of the party’s far-too-belated recognition of the threat Trump poses. Conservatives have treated him as an alien force. Trump is “a pro-abortion liberal masquerading as a conservative, who preys on nationalistic, tribal tendencies and has an army of white supremacists online as his loudest cheerleaders,” as Erick Erickson puts it, or “a pro-gun control, pro-single-payer health care, pro-eminent domain, pro-abortion, and pro-statism liberal,” in Rick Wilson’s terms. Commentary’s Noah Rothman complains that Trump “counts as allies the bigoted and the bloodthirsty.” One might conclude from these reactions that Trump chose the Republican party purely by accident, and that Republican voters have chosen him out of confusion.
In reality, the tendencies on display in Trump’s campaign have constituted a large and growing element of Republican politics. Figures like Strom Thurmond and George Wallace led white Southerners out of the Democratic Party and brought white populist politics into the GOP. Simultaneously, the party’s genteel northern liberal tradition has withered. These trends accelerated during the Obama years. Social scientist Michael Tesler has found that white racial resentment, which has grown steadily as a driving factor in the partisan realignment, has taken on a dramatically greater role in shaping partisan views. White racism is a far greater determinate of Republican loyalty than ever before. A rigorous study originally conducted in 2013 found that the most slave-intensive southern counties in 1860 have the most conservative and Republican white populations today. Recent work by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler finds that authoritarian psychology has also driven much of recent polarization.
I discussed both of these findings, among others, in a story on Obama and race two years ago, and even though the study criticized much of the left’s treatment of race during the Obama years, conservatives dismissed these findings. Their sensitivity is understandable. Conservatism, and the modern Republican party, is the lineal heir of a historically continuous defense of white racial hierarchy that has been written out of the American civic tradition. While conservatism has perfectly non-racist basis in theory — and a great many people subscribe to it without harboring racial motives of either the open or the covert kind — it is simply a fact that white racial fears supply a large proportion of real-world Republican votes. Conservatives, with very few exceptions, refuse to grapple with this reality. They prefer to treat racism as lying completely outside of, or even antithetical to, the American conservative tradition. Intellectuals on the right also habitually dismiss the entire theory of the authoritarian personality as biased claptrap designed to pathologize them.
Yet now they find these studies seem to have a familiar ring. The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, a staunch conservative, admirably denounces Trump for “embracing the conspiracy theory that President Obama wasn't eligible to be president because he wasn't born in the U.S. – which is at the core a racist theory trying to delegitimize the first black president.” And it is true that Republican leaders have previously steered clear of endorsing Birtherism. But they have also steered clear of denouncing it. Pressed to denounce Birtherism, Republicans have evaded it. (Eric Cantor: “I don't think it's an issue that we need to address at all. … I don't think it's nice to call anyone crazy.” John Boehner: “It’s not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people.”) They danced delicately around the question because Birthers constitute an important segment of the Republican coalition they could not afford to alienate. The same logic drove Mitt Romney to publicly solicit and accept Trump’s endorsement four years ago, an event that prompted little complaint from conservative intellectuals.
Conservatives have sound practical reasons to consider the 2016 version of Trump a liability after having seen the 2012 version as an asset. Trump’s record of partisan loyalty really is shaky, and they have good reason to fear that he might betray cherished elements of party doctrine. Economic conservatives are happy to harness authoritarian and anti-intellectual passions to a policy agenda whose endpoint is business deregulation and low taxes.
Watching Trump divert those sentiments away from the traditional right-wing formula has admirably awakened right-wing elites to their ugly underside. Still, the fact that these qualities continue to reside within traditional Republican politics has created an odd split-brained response. Conservatives depict Trump as a cancer in the Republican body politic, ignoring its obvious spread elsewhere. Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens pleads, “it’s enough to fault Barack Obama for being a lousy president without also accusing him of being a sworn enemy of the United States.” Of course, Marco Rubio, the candidate Stephens touts in his column as the preferable alternative, has also depicted Obama as not merely misguided but the mastermind of a secret and deliberate plot to weaken the United States. (“Let’s dispel with the fiction …” etc.) Max Boot denounces Trump for advocating the reinstitution of torture without acknowledging that Rubio advocates the same (or that Boot is advising Rubio on foreign policy). A Washington Examiner editorial frets that Trump “usually avoids specifics, but the few things he has discussed in any detail fall apart upon inspection,” but the same can be said of the mainstream Republican field, which has embraced a fantastic combination of enormous tax cuts, defense spending increases, a balanced-budget amendment, no cuts in retirement benefits for anybody 55 or over, and Obamacare repeal without a detailed alternative.
When figures like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin brushed aside detailed policy critiques as the picayune obsessions of Washington insiders, Republicans cheered their vapid anti-intellectualism as the righteous populist folk wisdom. It has been a bracing experience for conservative elites to behold when the forces they have successfully harnessed for so long shake free and turn against them. Conservatives are right that Trump does not represent their ideas perfectly, or even very well. What he represents instead is the actual constituency for those ideas.