The past few months have revealed what a successful third party might look like in American politics. Not the milquetoast, deficit-cutting third party of elder statesmen's dreams but something very different.
A third party that makes waves in American politics would look a lot like Donald Trump — which is no doubt why he keeps talking about it.
A new poll indicates that 68% of my supporters would vote for me if I departed the GOP & ran as an independent. https://t.co/ztP5d2ctZl— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 8, 2015
Trump himself is probably a bit too much of an outlandish character to be a successful third-party candidate, but at this point he's shown enough staying power that we should assume he'd have some real traction.
But beyond Trump himsef, Trumpism is what a winning third party would have to sound like to get traction in America — a grab bag of issue positions that appeal to a substantial minority of the electorate but that neither party wants to wholeheartedly embrace because the ideas are too toxic in the elite circles that fund campaigns.
Like Unity '08, but the opposite.
When big shots in the worlds of politics, business, and media muse about alternatives to partisan politics, they tend to come up with an agenda cherry-picked from the establishment wings of both parties — an agenda that adds up to a globalization-oriented, business-friendly platform watered down with light dollops of concern for the indigent, the global poor, and the environment.
The politics of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg — not coincidently, a man who was simultaneously a titan of business, politics, and the media — are an excellent template. He was liberalish on social issues but deferential to the police and armed forces; open to tax hikes to reduce the deficit and to government spending on infrastructure and basic research but fundamentally skeptical of the welfare state; friendly to the aims of environmental groups but hostile in practice to noisy green activists; disdainful of labor unions (especially in the public sector) but admiring of immigrants.
These were also the politics of the Simpson-Bowles Commission and its fabled "grand bargain" on long-term deficit reduction. Before that, they were the politics of No Labels and Unity '08, two brainchildren of graybeard politicians and semi-high-minded political consultants who wanted to heal partisan wounds by having elites join hands across the aisle.
Trumpism is like the opposite of that. And with good reason. It consists of ideas that are endorsed by substantial blocs of the electorate but that lack representation in high-level US politics.
Bloombergism is precisely backward. It makes for fun elite discussion because it is popular among elites. But precisely because it is so popular among elites, both parties' agendas already bear its fingerprints, and the space for it to power a third party is limited.
Economic nationalism is a vote getter
Recently Donald Trump's main theme has been the evils of Muslim immigrants on national security grounds, but he started out talking about the peril of immigration from Mexico on economic grounds. In this overall skepticism of immigration, he speaks for the nearly 40 percent of people who tell pollsters there are too many immigrants in America.
For such a widely held view, "we should reduce immigration levels" attracts surprisingly little attention in big-time politics. Prominent Democrats almost unanimously endorse more lenient treatment of people who've already immigrated to the United States without legal permission, and they are joined by many prominent Republicans — including the party's 2008 nominee, John McCain, and current establishment favorite Marco Rubio.
Similarly, polls show that huge swaths of the electorate believe free trade agreements reduce Americans' wages, kill jobs, and even slow economic growth.
But though these concerns are shared by most congressional Democrats, every president — and virtually every major party nominee — for generations has been a proponent of free trade agreements.
Trump, however, has warned that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will "send even more jobs overseas," and favors steep tariffs on imports from China, Mexico, and other countries.
Welfare for the elderly
Trump is nominally positioned as a kind of conservative Republican, but as a recent Republican leadership summit in New Hampshire, he criticized other Republicans — including Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and Jeb Bush — who want to "do a big number" on Social Security and Medicare. Trump objected to cutting those programs, saying, "It’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years."
Trump instead suggests that by minimizing outsourcing and increasing the number of American jobs, the budget issue with Medicare would "take care of itself."
Here, too, Trump is in sync with the voters who love expensive retirement programs for the elderly even while remaining somewhat skeptical of means-tested social assistance programs for the poor.
But the Trump worldview isn't just a grab bag of popular issues. It holds together. Political scientists Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam have shown that Medicare and Social Security are more popular among highly "ethnocentric" white voters, while anti-poverty spending is less popular among this demographic. Those "ethnocentric" whites are precisely the ones who are most hostile to immigrants and likely the ones who are friendliest to the anti-Obama "birther" messages that made Trump a political sensation in the first place.
Trumpism needs a rich candidate
Of course, this confluence of popular positions hasn't gone underexploited in American politics for no reason. It punches beneath its weight in the national discourse for the exact same reason that Bloombergism punches above its weight — money.
To get ahead in American politics you need to appeal to donors as well as to voters, and the constituency for conservatism minus entitlement cuts and free trade while doubling down on racism and xenophobia does not include a ton of rich people.
Which is to say that what Trumpism needs to be politically viable is exactly what Trump can offer — a self-financed campaign driven more by egomania and lust for the spotlight than any concrete notion of economic advantage.