By Stephen Collinson
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s political hurricane is no accident. It’s been brewing in the Republican Party for decades.
Yes, the wild force tearing through the Republican White House race is a reflection of the grass roots’ current fury at government and a revolt against establishment party leaders that has already swept away the likes of former House Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenant, Eric Cantor.
And it’s at least partly an individual phenomenon based on the charismatic appeal of Trump himself. The billionaire’s brash television virtuosity and mastery of social media has connected with an angry swath of Republican voters in a way no other candidate has managed and will be put to the test again in the final GOP debate of the year, on CNN from Las Vegas on Tuesday night.
But the Trump tempest has long been building. GOP critics argue the party has brought his destabilizing intervention on itself by not squelching controversies like claims he helped fuel that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States or explosive rhetoric about illegal immigrants. This contentious atmosphere has detracted from the debate on the nature of authentic conservatism that many partisans had expected in the 2016 race.
Several conservative commentators have rejected the notion that the GOP is itself responsible for Trump’s appeal. They reason, for instance, that the real estate mogul is not a true believer but has merely hijacked the party to reach a community of mainly white, blue-collar voters resistant to the tide of change in Obama’s America. And they have a point: The anti-establishment heat that he is exacerbating does predate Trump’s arrival on the political scene.
The Republican Party’s current trauma stretches back at least to the 1990s, if not earlier. It lies in a transformation that turned the GOP from a party of consensus government that produced presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush into a party of rebellion in which the rank and file are consumed with anger at party leaders who they believe habitually maneuver to block true conservatives from winning the nomination.
Gingrich starts a revolution
The catalyst for the anti-establishment dominance in the party may have been another brash Republican with a flair for bomb-throwing rhetoric and a disdain of party elites.
Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich led an insurgency against the GOP House leadership, determined to dispense with the coziness that encompassed both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress for decades. Gingrich not only took over his party; in 1994, he led the GOP to take over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years and became speaker in a backlash against struggling Democratic President Bill Clinton. His coup went down in history as the “Republican Revolution.”
The next tipping point came six years later, when many activists believed George W. Bush would install authentic conservative governance in the White House. But the 43rd president turned out to be a deep disappointment to many conservative voters around the country, fueling the fury at GOP elites that has crested in Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Bush backed an ultimately unsuccessful immigration compromise that opponents derided as amnesty for illegal immigrants, ballooned debt through unpaid-for wars that also prompted a massive expansion of the government and presided over a financial crisis that saw billions of dollars funneled to save banks while ordinary Americans lost their jobs and houses.
Add in two failed presidential campaigns by nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney — whom many conservatives saw as dinosaurs of the Republican establishment — an industry of political revolt fueled by social media and super PACS that enabled individuals to challenge party bosses, the echo chamber of right-wing talk radio and partisan television programing, and the stage was set for pent up grass-roots ire to erupt.
Into that roiling cauldron stepped a black President, a culture that increasingly embraced liberal social values and a GOP-controlled Congress unable to stop massive legislation such as Obamacare and White House actions seen as dangerous executive overreach on crucial national issues.
Today, furious rank-and-file Republicans don’t trust their leaders or government, splitting the party between, on one side, activists who believe compromise on political principles leads only to Democratic victories and should be scorned even if it that threatens to drive the economy over a fiscal cliff and, on the other, conservatives in Washington who see compromise as a necessary evil to keep the country running. The latter group wants to implement at least the modest Republican goals that are possible in a divided government and worry that Trump’s rhetoric and policies will sink the GOP.
In fact, the anti-establishment sentiment stoked by the upstart Gingrich and congressmen who embraced the tea party that surged during Obama’s presidency rather than face defeat in primaries has resulted in a GOP constituency that doesn’t particularly care about the party itself, certainly not when compared to its allegiance to Trump.
Voters furious at the GOP
“For them to go out and backstab him like this, you know what? I’m done with the Republican party,” Paula Yoel Johnson from New Hampshire told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday, demanding more respect for Trump from establishment leaders.
Steve Stepanek, a local lawmaker who chairs Trump’s campaign in the Granite State, said that people were fed up with those in the party establishment trying to dictate the terms of the presidential race.
“I think Donald Trump in his success and his popularity is an example that people are sick and tired of the political machines in both parties,” Stepanek told CNN.”
Trump’s advance rides on the fact that he is not offering these voters detailed plans or promises about what he will do. Instead, he has simply positioned himself as the most vocal, outspoken vehicle for the grievances of this block of voters — who believe he dares to propose action, like imposing an entry ban on Muslims in the United States that they also support, but no conventional politician will risk uttering.
Indeed, the divide between the GOP’s two factions is exacerbated by many establishment figures’ feeling that Trump is not a true conservative at all but has simply hijacked the Republican primary to exploit a seam of angry, white, blue-collar, aging and less well-educated voters who have taken up residence in the party’s base.
While Trump may have once been seen as a joke inside the party, the humor has faded. With his call to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S., among other controversies he has ignited, the front-runner threatens to inflict deep harm on the party’s chance of winning its first presidential election in 12 years — perhaps why it triggered such unusually broad condemnation from across a Republican Party often wary of calling him out.
Some candidates, however, have increasingly been willing to do so. One-time establishment favorite Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, has called Trump “unhinged,” while another candidate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, branded him a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” who could “go to hell.” Some Republican officials and right-leaning analysts have even suggested that the man leading the GOP polls displays fascist tendencies.
Still, the constituency that Trump is making use of is one that the Republican Party itself created, according to Heather Cox Richardson, a Boston College professor who wrote a history of the GOP titled “To Make Men Free.”
Trump succeeded, she said, by discovering it.
“He is above all a salesman and he sells to a constituency — a set of customers, if you will. He is simply able to read them incredibly well,” said Richardson. “He has built this enormous following that adores him because he says what they have been thinking but what more mainstream Republican leaders have been dancing around.”
Trump’s coalition rests on an angry 25 percent to 35 percent of the GOP electorate that has proven to be more resilient and faithful to him than many political pundits predicted.
The fury is evident in polls that reflect the mood of voters who have turned to “outsider” candidates like Trump and neurosurgeon Ben Carson this election season. Only 11 percent of Republicans and voters who lean Republican said experience was the most important factor in choosing a presidential candidate, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published last month. Some 52 percent said bringing change to Washington was more important. So faithful is Trump’s army that 68 percent of his backers would vote for him if he mounted a third-party run, according to a USA Today/Suffolk University poll.
GOP critics believe Trump’s controversial tirades against Mexicans, Muslims and several prominent women is a case of the GOP reaping what it sowed after fomenting a rebellion that led to two consecutive midterm election triumphs in 2010 and 2014. Those wins helped the party clog up the Obama presidency but then stymied the Republican Party leadership itself, with the new members of Congress proving impossible to control once they reached Washington.
Some liberals also argue that the GOP’s tolerance of “birtherism” — claims by Trump and others that Barack Obama was not born in America — and a “Southern strategy” that uses race as a cudgel to preserve GOP dominance among white voters in conservative states fed Trump’s explosive political momentum.
Republicans point to Obama
Conservatives reject such a narrative, and see Obama’s own governing style and agenda as largely driving the grass-roots’ frustration — though many in the GOP base think it is the party’s failure, despite controlling Congess, to thwart Obama that is as much the problem. Either way, there is certainly some evidence that Trump has latched onto the anti-Washington fervor of the tea party and the issues that animate members of a group at first assumed to be preoccupied with economic concerns but shown by political scientists to represent a wider set of beliefs.
For instance, his decision to make opposition to illegal immigration a foundation of his campaign looks particularly shrewd and has helped him to connect with the visceral discontent electrifying the conservative movement.
A study by three Harvard scholars in 2011 found that immigration — was almost as much of a motivating force for tea party voters as deficits and spending. Some 80 percent of tea party voters said illegal immigration was a “very serious problem.”
The study by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol and John Coggin also identified that the societal change in America epitomized by Obama — intoxicating to his supporters — is deeply troubling and almost frightening to tea party voters.
Trump’s stump speech, the soft rock 1980s soundtrack that pumps through his rallies and his vows to “make America great again” seem to hark back to a simpler, less diverse, more traditional nation, before blue-collar jobs migrated to China and American power was feared in the world.
“I think the best explanation (for Trump’s popularity) is this change and this disequilibrium that we are seeing in American society,” said Dan Shea, a professor of political science at Maine’s Colby College, who has studied the polarization of the electorate.
Shea said Trump’s rise was a natural extension of the upheaval of the tea party era, born in the dislocation of the Great Recession, the fallout of two wars and sweeping change on issues like gay rights.
“At the same time that the tea party rises up, we have a woman speaker of the House (Nancy Pelosi), an openly gay chairman of a major congressional committee (Barney Frank) and an African-American in the White House with an odd-sounding name.”
He continued, “There is a last-ditch attempt to bring back something that they once had. Then this leads into Trump, who is a true outsider.”
In this reading of America’s shifting culture, Trump’s ascent is seen by some conservative commentators as outside the movement itself. As such, he begins to look more of an opportunist and a classic populist than a candidate motivated by a core ideology.
“Trumpism has nothing to do with conservatism. He is not a conservative. Most of the most prominent public positions he has advocated go against conservative orthodoxy,” said Matt Lewis, a conservative commentator and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (And How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative roots),” due to be published next month.
“What we have right now is that the white working class is very scared and upset,” he continued. “I think that has to do with the bad economy and I think it has to do with technological change and globalization, the rise of ISIS and terrorism.”
He concluded, “There is a phenomenon that is taking place that has nothing to do with conservatism other than the fact that the Republican Party has essentially become the de facto home of working-class whites.”
Roots in the New Deal
Richardson, the Boston College professor, traces the roots of Trump’s rise to well before the 1990s. She goes back to a breach in the Republican Party that first opened over New Deal social programs after World War II.
Republicans like President Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller realized that such social legislation was popular and accepted it, while an opposite, more conservative wing of the GOP rejected the programs and also opposed the New Deal’s regulation of businesses, establishing an anti-government creed that stretched from 1964 Republican nominee Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan to the George W. Bush of the 2000 campaign and into the modern conservative movement.
She said that supporters of President Richard Nixon, meanwhile, opened the door to rhetoric critical of minorities, women and anyone perceived as getting a “handout” from the government — charges that are familiar in the 2016 race.
“Trump is the logical extension of that. We have been moving down that road,” Richardson said.
Whatever role the party itself played in fostering Trumpism, its elites are now flummoxed at the prospect that the dynamic could doom them in 2016.
Republican leaders fear that Trump’s fiery stances could push independents and even moderate Republicans into the arms of probable Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. At the same time, the billionaire businessman has threatened to mount an independent presidential bid if he is not treated with “respect” by the party.
The GOP can ill afford to lose the Trump coalition, especially with the 2016 election likely to be close.
But the presence of Trump inside the party also threatens to drive away voters turned off by his rhetoric and antics.
“With Trump in the whole way, I cannot come up with a scenario where the Republicans can get through this,” said Shea. “Either he bails and he takes his supporters with him. Or he stays and ruins the brand.”