The spasms of rage within the Republican base that have flared on and off throughout the Obama era have an ideological component and an emotional component. The two strands have been difficult to disentangle because the moments during which they’ve flared up have involved elements of both: the debt-ceiling fights, the shutdowns, the Obamacare repeals, the primary challenges against any member who had ever tried to legislate, the opposition to comprehensive immigration reform. These episodes entailed both efforts to move the party substantively rightward and to precipitate more confrontation with Obama. The current moment of enthusiasm for Donald Trump is instructive because it pulls the strands apart. Trump’s appeal reflects, in nearly singular form, the nonideological component of Republican rage. He is the candidate of affect.
The official (i.e., non-Trump) Republican Party has experienced its activist base during the Obama years as an incessant and implacable series of demands for ideological purity. Republicans have dutifully complied with every policy demand. They have refused to increase taxes, even at the cost of programs they support, like infrastructure and defense. They quickly withdrew cooperation from all of President Obama’s legislative initiatives, opposed virtually all of his nominees, and joined self-destructive demonstrations of anger they knew would fail.
It has never been enough. Eric Cantor had dutifully toed the party line for his career and even repeatedly sabotaged John Boehner’s nascent attempts to strike a fiscal compromise, and when a right-wing primary challenger defeated him last summer, Republicans decided they had to repudiate … the Export-Import Bank, a tiny and justifiably obscure federal program. George Will sagely explained Cantor’s defeat like so: “[H]e was a supporter of reauthorizing the Ex-Im Bank, and I think the Export-Import Bank, this will stun you as counterintuitive, played as larger role in that election as immigration did and they were all part of the same (inaudible) of issues that said this man is an insider not paying attention to normal people.”
Next to the tiny ideological bumps Republicans have obsessively smoothed from their record, Trump’s profile of deviations is incomprehensibly vast. He has called himself pro-choice, endorsed single-payer health care, praised Hillary Clinton’s performance as secretary of State, donated to Democrats, and called for a huge onetime tax on existing wealth. It must be galling for the party regulars to prostrate themselves helplessly before the base, purging any hint of independent thought, only to watch a formerly pro-choice, libertine if not liberal, Democratic donor waltz into the lead.
The contrast with Ted Cruz is telling. Cruz has fashioned himself as the leader of the tea-party movement in Washington, and he has mostly grasped the nature of conservative agita. Republicans believe their leaders have done too little to fight the president. “I have yet to meet a person whose criticism of Congress is, ‘You guys haven’t cooperated with Obama enough,’” he announced the other day. (Which is preposterous, of course: Republicans in Congress wouldn’t cooperate with Obama if Obama’s idea was to help Nancy Reagan cross a busy intersection.)
Cruz has the knack for self-destructive political theater, competitive Reagan idolatry, and purer-than-pure factional infighting. But Trump has outdone him not just in celebrity appeal, but in calculated offensiveness. Trump’s crude denunciation of Mexican immigrants as criminals made him the symbol of Republican nativism in the Latino community, yet this only enhanced his appeal. The most staggering indicator of his success to date is not that he has maintained his polling lead. It is that opposition among Republican voters has actually decreased. A month ago 59 percent of likely Republican voters said they would never vote for Trump. That has fallen to one third. The attacks on Trump have actually backfired.
The amorphous fervor of the right-wing base has stumped liberals as well as conservatives. Outsiders have struggled to comprehend how Republican voters can attach themselves to an economic agenda so plainly at odds with their own interest, or whip themselves into a frenzy over a manufactured outrage (whether it is Elián González, ACORN, death panels, or the legitimacy of Obama’s birth). Trump embodies that mysterious X factor that has eluded analysts of all sides. His affect supplies his appeal — he is strong, mad, and, above all, unapologetic in a world that demands he apologize. Trump is not the spokesman for an idea at all, but the representation of undifferentiated resentment.