Let the reader beware: I am penning these lines before the outcome of the contest for the Republican nomination is known. Things change quickly in the course of an election cycle, especially a cycle as bizarre as this one, which means what I write today may prove outdated, silly, or prescient by the time this essay sees the light of day. Nevertheless, two things seem clear: first, Donald Trump is the “presumptive” Republican nominee, and, second, panicked fear has broken out among the Republican establishment. Just recently Mitt Romney, who only four years ago dismissed 47 percent of Americans as undiscerning voters, has led the charge against Trump, telling his party they must not let voters nominate the real-estate mogul under any circumstances. The editors of National Review have started debating the best strategies for forcing a contested convention; William Kristol of The Weekly Standard has suggested establishing a third-party candidate in the event Trump wins the nomination. Never in our lifetime has the GOP appeared so out of touch with its own electorate and so close to self-destructing. What in heaven’s name is going on?
There are many explanations on offer for Trump’s rise, and varied though they be, all share a deep disdain for Trump’s supporters. Trump, they say, appeals to a swath of American voters who are angry and racist. Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein, the culmination of long-standing Republican obstructionism which has taught voters not to care about political institutions. Or, they say, Trump has gotten a free pass from the media, which has diluted the line between news and entertainment, enabling a charlatan like Trump to dupe unsophisticated voters who cannot tell the difference between reality television and a presidential debate. Sadly enough, each of these explanations may contain an element of truth, and yet all of them fall short. Even granting for the sake of argument that Trump is a demagogue (and he certainly employs many of the tactics of the demagogue), one must recognize that every demagogue exploits authentic grievances. What authentic grievances are motivating those who vote for Donald Trump?
Reconstructing the mindset of a bloc of voters inevitably involves speculation. That said, everyone recognizes in Trump’s rise a popular protest of some sort. For a while, conservative pundits explained it by saying that the Republican base was angry at a party which had failed to live up to its conservative principles, but that interpretation has more or less been trampled under the advance of the Trump Express. Trump, who emphatically expresses more respect for Planned Parenthood than George W. Bush, is hardly a principled conservative. His supporters just don’t care. What has stumped the GOP about Trump may be less his demagoguery and more the fact that they cannot appeal to his supporters. Trump’s voters self-identify as moderate and tend to be working class. Rather than angry cultural conservatives or ideological Republicans, they appear more closely to resemble a group once referred to as the “Reagan Democrats.” A lot of what has stumped the GOP about Trump, then, is the fact that he is upending the Reagan coalition. Indeed, Trump appears to be effecting a major realignment of the Republican Party.
Political coalitions in
the United States, as many have noted, form prior to elections, within
political parties. In parliamentary systems, by contrast, coalitions are formed
after elections, when smaller parties representing more narrow constituencies
agree to form a government. Thus coalitions in parliamentary systems tend to be
more tentative and short-lived than in the United States. The US has a
two-party system. The two parties vie with each other for access to power, and
when in power, distribute privilege to their constituencies. This means once a
coalition has been formed, the members of that coalition have a strong
incentive to stick with the party, even as they grow dissatisfied with it.
Outside the party, there is no political patronage and no hope of influencing
policy. Better, then, to stay in than to jump ship, even if the considerations
which first made the coalition attractive no longer apply. The tenacity of American coalitions means that the two parties also tend to stagnate and calcify over time, growing unresponsive to changes in society and the political environment. That unresponsiveness does, however, produce reactions, which eventually become the cause of party realignments within what remains a two-party system.
Nor are party realignments rare in American history. Many historians periodize US political history into distinct “party systems.” The first consisted of Federalists and Anti-Federalists, which gave way to the “second party system,” consisting of Democrats and Whigs, and so on throughout history. Each party system is characterized by a distinct alignment of issues and interests within what remains a two-party system. The transition from one alignment system to another can take place more or less smoothly; thus, for example, Goldwater and Reagan flipped the South to the Republican party without upending the political institutions of their day. But at other times, party realignments are attended by significant upheaval. The Whig Party, crippled by the challenge posed by slavery, collapsed in the 1850s and gave rise to the Republican Party. Later again, Teddy Roosevelt temporarily split the Republican Party, helping to usher in the Progressive Era.
Our current political alignment dates back, arguably, to Ronald Reagan. The Party of Reagan rests on a three-part coalition: business Republicans (who favor lower taxes, fewer regulations, and free market principles), cultural and movement conservatives (who are motivated by “value” issues and support muscular foreign policy), and the traditional working class (who tend to be non-ideological, supportive of Social Security and other entitlements, but skeptical of further government expansions). Over the years, the backbone of the Reagan coalition has become the cultural and movement conservatives, who are highly motivated, well organized, and overrepresented among pundits. The tag-along in the coalition has been the working class. This third coalition partner is politically unorganized and easy to overlook. Indeed, both parties have been overlooking them for at least a generation.
The Democrats haven’t been the party of labor within living memory. President Clinton supported NAFTA and enthusiastically pushed globalization, even though it meant outsourcing American jobs. Obama bailed out investment bankers but never got around to helping average mortgage holders. His signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, extended coverage by raising deductibles and out of pocket expenses to a point where many middle-class families worry that, even with health insurance, a major illness could bankrupt them. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the GOP has been telling workers for decades that lower taxes on investment and business income will stimulate the economy, create new jobs, and lead to higher wages. They keep saying a rising tide lifts all boats, but working-class voters, struggling to balance their checkbooks year to year, have noticed that it doesn’t seem to be true. They also resent the push for immigration reform, understanding on the basis of experience that a steady flow of foreign labor keeps wages down and pushes them toward unemployment.
If these are Trump’s supporters, we can begin to see that the strength of his support draws on something more than hatred and bigotry. Trump’s core constituency may have concluded, reasonably enough, that its fortunes are not likely to improve with either a Republican or Democratic President. Insofar as working-class voters have deliberated about the candidates within the horizon of their own self-interest (and which political constituency doesn’t deliberate this way?), why wouldn’t they vote for Trump? Whatever his flaws, he is not likely to make things any worse for them than the establishment candidates. He might even make things better. At the very least, by sticking with Trump in the face of desperate admonishments from the enlightened classes, those long suffering voters appear to be working a transformation of the American political landscape. Even if Trump should fail, others, seeing what he has done, are likely to follow and seek to reconstruct his coalition. Come to think of it, maybe Trump’s supporters aren’t so stupid after all. Right now, they seem to be driving the cart.
None of this, however, should be taken as an endorsement of Donald Trump. Without a doubt, he is the most terrifying figure to appear on the American political scene since Andrew Jackson. Had I lived in Jackson’s day, I would have been a Whig. So too, today, I’ll do what I can to keep Donald Trump from reaching the White House. Yet let us not forget the turmoil we face is neither historically unprecedented nor a sign of Armageddon. It is, rather, simply our misfortune to live in interesting times.
H. David Baer is Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.