Republican leaders sweated as the Summer of Trump became the Autumn of Trump, and now are in full panic as we enter the Winter of Trump. But this year of Trump is the direct result of their own preferred political strategy — by refusing to tack to the center on either taxes or immigration, they are left with an amped-up form of white identity politics as the preferred path to a majority.
On one level, yes, Trump is an outlier. BuzzFeed's editor in chief sent a memo to his staff temporarily suspending the conventions of View From Nowhere journalism to say it's perfectly okay to call Trump a "mendacious racist" because "there's nothing partisan about accurately describing Donald Trump."
Smith's point is true in the most literal possible sense. Republican Party leaders would be angry if you called Jeb Bush's tax cut pitch dishonest but at this point have no qualms about the media bashing Trump — a figure they fear and can't control. But while Trump is now despised by DC conservative leaders, Trumpism reflects a deeply mainstream tendency within conservatism movement thinking.
As Brian Beutler put it in July, Trump is frightening Republicans in part because he's "showing them what it takes" to run and win as the party of disaffected white people in an increasingly nonwhite country. They don't like what they see, but as a movement they've committed to the kind of political strategy that he was pursuing — a strategy built around the notion that the 2012 election featured a pile of "missing" white voters who could be activated to push the GOP to victory without it needing to do anything to broaden its demographic appeal.
When this idea was initially being debated inside right-of-center circles, the smartest conservative thinkers specifically warned that attempting the "missing white voter" strategy without meaningful gestures of economic moderation would lead to something ugly. There has been no meaningful move to the center on economics, and — as predicted — the results are ugly.
The road not taken on immigration
The Republican Party elite, rightly or wrongly, came out of the 2012 presidential campaign with a key takeaway — Mitt Romney's policies and rhetoric on immigration had unduly alienated Hispanic voters in a way that made it difficult for the party to win a presidential election in a browning country.
The problem, as expressed in the Republican National Committee's official postmortem, was not about the details of immigration policy. It was about the presence of people of Latin American origin in the United States, and the role of Latino people in American society.
This is a nuanced point often lost on Anglo listeners, so it's worth quoting the exact analysis:
If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies. In the last election, Governor Romney received just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote. Other minority communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, also view the Party as unwelcoming. President Bush got 44 percent of the Asian vote in 2004; our presidential nominee received only 26 percent in 2012.
Latino voters are, by definition, not unauthorized immigrants. Most aren't immigrants at all. And many Latinos are of Puerto Rican or Cuban ancestry and have whole families that aren't particularly impacted by the details of immigration policy. The point is that many white Americans don't like the presence of a large Hispanic population in the United States (they complain about the Spanish-language signs, about the "press one for English" option on phone trees, etc.), and Latinos know it. The RNC's view was that Romney's self-deportation policy communicated that he is one of those white people, and that was toxic.
To win, the GOP needed to change that dynamic. And in practice, that meant signing on to something like the Gang of 8 immigration bill that Marco Rubio co-sponsored and Jeb Bush supported. But most conservatives didn't like that bill, so they needed a contrary political analysis. And though he himself is hardly an anti-immigration zealot, RealClearPolitics elections analyst Sean Trende presented salvation; as early as November 8 he identified missing white voters as the key to the puzzle. The growth in minority voting was real, he wrote, but also "dwarfed by the decline in the number of whites."
The missing white voters
Trende explains that when inquiring into who the missing white voters were, his "first instinct was that they might be conservative evangelicals turned off by Romney’s Mormonism or moderate past."
That makes sense. It's been long forgotten now, but for years there were serious doubts that devout evangelicals would embrace a Mormon candidate, and Romney certainly struggled with this demographic in the 2012 primary. Obviously conservative evangelicals weren't going to vote for Barack Obama. But stay home? Why not?
If the numbers had borne out this analysis, the GOP dilemma would have been solved in a flash. Don't tack left on immigration, just nominate a regular white Protestant fellow (or, in a pinch, a Catholic) and let the base come back home. But preliminary analysis suggested this was wrong, and more detailed analysis conducted in June 2013 suggested that it was actually badly wrong. The missing white voters, Trende reported, were "downscale, Northern, rural whites":
The drop in turnout occurs in a rough diagonal, stretching from northern Maine, across upstate New York (perhaps surprisingly, turnout in post-Sandy New York City dropped off relatively little), and down into New Mexico. Michigan and the non-swing state, non-Mormon Mountain West also stand out. Note also that turnout is surprisingly stable in the Deep South; Romney’s problem was not with the Republican base or evangelicals (who constituted a larger share of the electorate than they did in 2004).
For those with long memories, this stands out as the heart of the "Perot coalition." That coalition was strongest with secular, blue-collar, often rural voters who were turned off by Bill Clinton’s perceived liberalism and George H.W. Bush’s elitism. They were largely concentrated in the North and Mountain West: Perot’s worst 10 national showings occurred in Southern and border states. His best showings? Maine, Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Minnesota.
These voters didn't like Obama, but they were also relatively disconnected from the political system as a whole and perhaps turned off by Mitt Romney's elitist demeanor.
Conservative writers like Byron York of the Washington Examiner were quick to embrace the argument. Talk radio superstar Rush Limbaugh was especially enthusiastic. "If the 'white vote' had shown up in the same percentage and voted for Romney in 2012 as it voted for McCain in 2008, Romney would have won," Limbaugh enthused. "Obama got many fewer votes in 2012 than he got in 2008. The difference-maker was, a lot of white voters stayed home." (This is arguably true, though the real story is more that turnout was lower across the board than that white voters in particular stayed home.)
These days, of course, these "missing" Perot voters are whom we now call the Trump voters: a group that is not all that deeply invested in the broad spectrum of conservative ideology but who embrace a Perot-like anger with entrenched political elites and Perot-like distrust of immigration and foreign trade. David Brady and Douglas Rivers characterize the demographics of Trumpism as "a bit older, less educated and earn less than the average Republican."
The road not taken on taxes
Back in August 2013, Ross Douthat wrote a blog post defending the missing white voters thesis against liberal critics who warned that its logic would lead to something like Trumpism with the argument that such an approach would be self-defeating:
If the G.O.P. misreads Trende’s argument and falls for the idea that it can win working-class whites, especially in non-southern states, without moving toward the center (or a center, more aptly) on economic policy, then it will fail miserably and probably see its coalition shrink rather than grow. No matter which way white voters are trending, there is simply no way to build a national majority on the basis of opposition to immigration reform, support for voter ID laws and the G.O.P.’s 2012 economic platform, and if the Republican Party takes that path it will be deservedly defeated again and again — which, in turn, will eventually inspire a right-of-center rethink that shakes up the current trend toward racial polarization.
This sounds logical enough. Rather than move to the center on immigration in the hopes of wooing affluent Latinos and Asians, move to the center on economics to woo secular working-class whites. But given the aging of the population and the natural demand that creates for more spending on highly popular retirement programs, there's simply no way to move to the center on economics without showing some restraint on the tax-cutting front.
This, however, is precisely what conservatives are most reluctant to do. Indeed, the entire party is moving in the opposite direction of moderation on taxes. Jeb Bush, the most electability-oriented candidate in the race, is offering a tax cut that is four times as big as his brother's, while more conservative contenders like Ted Cruz offer plans that are even more extreme.
The endurance of Trumpism
When you rule out — as conservatives have — moving to the center on taxes and on immigration, you are essentially left with Trumpism as the only viable strategy.
Of course, that doesn't mean that Trump himself is a strong candidate or that he represents a viable path to general election victory. But recall that right before Trump made his case for broad exclusion of all Muslim immigrants from the United States, the GOP leadership was excited about its success in boxing Obama and the Democratic leadership into a corner over the Syrian refugee issue. Republicans, in other words, are disagreeing with Trump about how to leverage voter fear of Muslim immigrants into electoral advantage, not whether to do so. They had a nice, politically savvy plan that attracted broad consensus, and then Trump messed it up by saying something crass. But the broad intention was to follow the path he has been blazing since summertime, both on Islam and on immigration more broadly.
- Jeb Bush is talking about anchor babies.
- Marco Rubio wants the government to be more aggressive about shutting down certain mosques and other gathering places.
- Chris Christie thinks we need to track immigrants like FedEx packages.
- Ben Carson has analogized Syrian refugees to dogs.
- Ted Cruz ups the ante on the Syrian refugee issue by repeatedly referring to "Syrian Muslim refugees" as the problem.
- Rand Paul says Trump's proposal to bar all Muslim immigrants is a mistake, but that he's "called for something similar" that could accomplish the same goals.
And, of course, the entire universe of Republican politicians has been lambasting Obama for failing to use the phrase "radical Islam."
The basic strategy of playing to white anxieties and xenophobia can be done artfully (think Richard Nixon) or clumsily (think George Wallace), and Trump thus far has shown himself to be on the clumsy side of the ledger. But make no mistake, it's his party these days. And not because his standing in the polls has forced other Republicans to lean in his direction — because the party's decision to be uncompromising on taxes and immigration has left it with no other choice.