The French writer Charles Péguy once said that “one must always say what one sees. Above all, which is more difficult, one must always see what one sees.”
While it may seem odd to begin an analysis of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy with a reference to a French intellectual, it is, in this case, à propos. Because, with respect to Trump, the greatest challenge facing Republicans is not to say what they see, but to see what they see. And the failure of the GOP establishment (and even of many conservatives outside it) to see what they see — their blindness to the infuriated alienation of their middle- and working-class voters — explains a great deal about the Trump phenomenon.
Trump, despite all his vulgarity and boorishness, has, along with fellow anti-establishment candidates such as Ted Cruz and Ben Carson, given these voters a voice that has not recently been heard. The Beltway GOP believes its voters are having a temper tantrum. But it would be more accurate to say that they are responding with understandable anger to a party that has failed over several election cycles to address their legitimate fears and concerns.
This failure manifests itself not just in support for Trump, but in the fact that among those expressing a candidate preference in the most recent polling averages, 85 percent of likely GOP-presidential-primary voters support candidates who either have never held office or have come to power during or after the 2010 tea-party revolt. This despite the fact that out of 17 serious candidates who originally began the race for the Republican nomination, eleven did not fit that profile.
The failure to “see what one sees” has never been more apparent than during passage of the budget omnibus bill in December, pushed by Speaker Paul Ryan. Its provision on H-2B visas, which allowed for the import of tens of thousands of low-skilled foreign workers to fill jobs for which there are “labor shortages,” was a frontal assault on American workers, made for the sake of big business. The tone-deafness of such a move in the midst of the Trump surge was simply breathtaking.
Ryan may be many things, but he is not primarily a creature of K Street. In this particular moment, he is just a man who cannot see what he sees. Perhaps he could take a cue from Rich Lowry, the editor of these pages, who recently said, “The next time I hear a Republican strategist or a Republican politician say that there are jobs that Americans won’t do, that person should be shot, he should be hanged, he should be wrapped in a carpet and thrown in the Potomac River.”
In many ways, the Trumpenproletariat (to use Jonah Goldberg’s felicitous term) is the inheritor of the constituency of Ross Perot — and, more recently, of Sarah Palin, the last person to inspire similar loathing among GOP donors and consultants.
As for the man himself, Trump is far more “crazy like a fox” than simply crazy. He is a master showman who, beneath all the bluster, is as calculating as any conventional politician. His effusions, even the most offensive of them, seem designed to move the Overton window — the range of politically acceptable discourse on any given issue — in precisely the way that benefits him. Nonetheless, despite Trump’s continued demonstrations of staying power, most journalists and GOP strategists are convinced, not without reason, that he will inevitably fade. While this may be true, it is also irrelevant to the GOP’s victory strategy. For the Trump supporters are exactly whom the GOP needs to bring into its coalition if it wants to win in 2016. It is reasonable to argue that Trump supporters are a constituency in demographic decline and that the way that Trump is pursuing them will hurt the party’s brand, but the GOP cannot win in 2016 without them. That’s not politics: That’s math.
Consider the typical Trump voter. According to a recent analysis in the New York Times, Trump’s “very best voters are self-identified Republicans who nonetheless are registered as Democrats.” In the least educated constituencies, Trump takes 37 percent of the GOP vote — compared with just 25 percent of those with the highest levels of education. He also — unsurprisingly, given his focus on immigration — does very well with white middle- and working-class voters whose economic insecurity derives in no small part from competition with immigrant labor. As NBC election analyst Chuck Todd recently noted, “Republicans don’t win general elections without Donald Trump’s voters. . . .We used to call them Reagan Democrats.”
To illustrate the necessity of these voters to the Republican coalition, we can look at the results of election-simulation models from RealClearPolitics (RCP) and the political-data site fivethirtyeight.com. These models allow users to plug in certain turnout and voting assumptions for various demographic groups and predict their effect on the race at the national and state levels.
In the RCP simulator, if a GOP candidate can win white voters at Reagan’s 1984 vote-share percentage of 66 percent (i.e., bringing in the Reagan Democrats) and at George W. Bush’s 2004 turnout levels (67 percent), and if African-American turnout returns to its pre-Obama level and partisan breakdown, the GOP could retake the presidency without winning a single Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, or Arab vote. It’s a staggering result. And if, as will certainly happen, the Republican nominee wins at least some significant number of minority votes, the party will not have to achieve Reagan percentages among whites to win. The converse is equally staggering: Assuming that white and black turnout and voting patterns stay the same as in 2012, even if the GOP won an unthinkable 53 percent of the non-black minority vote (“Hispanics” and “Asians and other”), the Democrats would win the presidency.
In fivethirtyeight.com’s simulation, moving the turnout of non-college-educated whites halfway between their 2012 turnout and the (higher) 2012 turnout of college-educated-whites while bumping their party preference a few points toward the GOP — and assuming that black turnout and Democratic voting percentages return to their historic averages — gives the GOP an electoral landslide. Trump intuitively understands this; most of his rivals do not.
In short, while the Republican party almost certainly cannot retake the presidency in 2016 with Trump as its nominee, given his high negatives and poor head-to-head poll numbers against Hillary Clinton, it also cannot win without Trump’s supporters. Any tactic that alienates them is a sure loser, no matter how many “emerging constituency” voters the party rallies under its banner. This is not to deny that the GOP should aggressively try to win all demographic groups, but simply to point out that any strategy, such as amnesty, that does so by alienating or discouraging working- and middle-class white voters will lead to certain defeat.
Among all the other candidates, only Ted Cruz — who has gone out of his way to avoid alienating Trump’s supporters, while declining to embrace Trump’s toxic rhetoric — seems to understand this. (It is no coincidence that Cruz has by far the best data operation of any candidate in the race.) Meanwhile, many a Republican Candidate Ahab seems to be haplessly chasing the great Hispanic whale, which, even if miraculously caught, wouldn’t do much to improve the party’s 2016 electoral prospects.
Apart from Trump’s vulgarity, his dissents from GOP policy orthodoxy upset not only K Street lobbyists but also sincere and thoughtful conservative policy analysts and writers. On issues such as eminent domain, trade, and judicial appointments, to name just a few, Trump would certainly be a disaster for conservatives. But his other dissents merit a more serious look: Trump’s reluctance to intervene in foreign civil wars (a reluctance that Cruz shares) has much to recommend it when compared with the overreach of some of the GOP’s nation-building superhawks. And his refusal to frontally assault Medicare and Social Security shows more political sense than does the major-surgery crowd — it is a stance designed to win the “Sam’s Club Republicans” and Reagan Democrats the GOP needs in its camp.
Strong establishments take insurgencies’ best issues and co-opt them. Weak establishments don’t. Right now, the GOP establishment is showing weakness.
Rather than attempting to present a forward-looking agenda that would appeal to a large number of Trump supporters and draw them into the Republican coalition, the establishment is seemingly working overtime to alienate them.
Rather than pursuing an immigration policy that would protect vulnerable American workers and bring in skilled immigrants while disavowing Trump’s divisive tone and his impractical and overbroad prescriptions, it is promoting a quasi-open-borders policy that will perhaps keep maid service cheap for GOP donors — while electing a generation of Obamas.
Rather than thinking through what a strong 21st-century Reaganite American patriotic foreign policy would look like, too many candidates have embraced a hyper-
militaristic nation-building strategy of which GOP voters have wearied, and that a national electorate decisively rejected in 2008 and 2012.
For all his failings, his vulgarities, and his hypocrisy, Donald Trump is a man who sees what he sees — and says so. For the sake of the future of the Grand Old Party, let us hope that, with a more optimistic tone and a better set of policy prescriptions, more of us do likewise.
– Mr. Carl is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.