A long and highly detailed article in the New York Times called “How the GOP Elite Lost Its Most Faithful Voters to Donald Trump” attempts to show how the Republican Party’s leaders had every reason to know a Trump was coming from six years of warning signs but was too comfortable or too elitist or too wrapped up in its own dramas to see it. Nick Confessore lays out the case meticulously, and in his piece basically confirms the line of Trump-sympathetic conservatives: While the party’s base was stewing over trade and immigration, its elites were having fancy parties in the Beresford apartment building and refusing to listen to business owners who were telling them that jobs were going to China. And here we are.
The piece is a mainstream-media filtering of the classic “if only they’d listened to me” line always bandied about by those who say they saw the trainwreck coming. Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t. Actually, I’m pretty sure no one but the smart and wild and nutsy Roger Stone saw the revolutionary potential of Donald Trump specifically. Moreover, the notion that Trump has prevailed because he represents a series of ideas or problems ignored by the GOP leadership rather than because he has become the personal representative of some of the worst qualities in the American body politic is still suspect.
Let’s take one of the two leading claims in the piece, that Trump is voicing a populist rage against trade.
If elected Republican officials ignored trade as an issue, it’s because among the issues Americans have claimed to care about the most, trade has ranked at the bottom for at least the past decade. Yes, the economy is viewed as the most important issue, and yes, trade is an important element of the economy. But if you’re a Republican official poring over polling in, say, the aftermath of the 2012 election, you would have been insane to focus on the idea that “we’re losing to China” because there was no indication in any data or indeed in any part of the general conversation that Americans were making political choices based on the idea that we’re losing to China.
Now, it is true that Republicans have grown less enthusiastic about trade under Barack Obama, but that tracks with their lack of enthusiasm for any and all Obama initiatives and the effect does actually seems less pronounced when it comes to trade. Indeed, before the 2o16 campaign began, more than half of Republicans said they viewed trade as an opportunity rather than a cost. And if you look at the most recent Gallup numbers on the most important problems facing the country, trade literally doesn’t register as an issue.
You know what registered as an issue among Republicans from 2009 onward? Health care. That is to say, Obamacare. Here is the polling chart on the general public view of Obamacare. Republican politicians aren’t stupid. They dwelled on Obamacare because their voters wanted them to dwell on Obamacare. It was the leading public-policy issue in America for four years at least.
But the term “health care” appears once in Confessore’s piece. Here’s the context: “Republicans read Tea Party anger over Mr. Obama’s health care law as a principled rejection of social welfare programs, despite evidence that those voters broadly supported spending they believed they deserved, like Social Security and Medicare.”
There was reason to believe the Tea Party was rejecting the expansion of social welfare since that is what its activists said time and again. Moreover, I expect many if not most Trump Republicans continue to reject many social-welfare programs, like any and every dollar spent on illegal immigrants. What Confessore has done here is an act of conflation on a very high scale, since it is part of the American social compact now precisely not to think of Social Security and Medicare as welfare programs but as insurance programs to which taxpayers must contribute 14 cents of every dollar every week they receive in every paycheck. They don’t think they’re for social welfare. They think they’re paying in for their retirement.
It’s long been clear that the best way to provide most middle-income earners genuine tax relief would be to do something to relieve the payroll-tax burden. But of course, if you even mention doing a thing about payroll taxes you are instantly accused of trying to destroy Social Security and Medicare. COMMENTARY contributor James Pethokoukis gets at a core problem here when he says in Confessore’s piece about GOP leaders, “They figured, ‘These are conservative voters, anti-Obama voters. We’ll give them the same policies we’ve always given them. High-earner tax cuts, which people are skeptical of; business tax cuts, even though these businesses seem to be doing great.’ It didn’t resonate with the problems in their lives.”
There’s the rub.
Republican thinkers and policymakers have been grappling with designing policies that “resonate with the problems” in the lives of many less-well-off GOP voters—the ones Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam called “Sam’s Club Republicans” in their prescient 2007 book. The “reformocons” led by Yuval Levin have been working tirelessly for years to come up with exactly these kinds of policies. They involve tax credits here and specific tax abatements there and various kinds of subsidies for other things. They’re really detailed and really nerdy and really specific and taken as a whole they might make a difference—and Marco Rubio tried to make them a centerpiece of his campaign. Look where that got him. These policies are substantive. But they’re not sexy. They’re small-ball. They’re efforts to solve specific problems that might be woven together into a new kind of safety net—one that doesn’t enmesh recipients in it but allows them to spring upward from it. But face it. They don’t “resonate,” and they don’t because they’re not emotive.
Pethokoukis is right that many Republicans are proposing the “same old policies.” But those same old policies are usually proposed as part of a larger framework in which the overall goal is to speed up economic growth. It’s unimaginative, perhaps, and it might not have the desired effect, but it’s not purposeless or simply to please “donors.” For his part, Trump proposes little but a trade war but says he’ll make America great again. Maybe it resonates, although the key evidence Confessore adduces for its resonance isn’t from suffering poorly-educated workers but from two wealthy men who claim their businesses failed because of Chinese currency manipulation. Do we know this to be true? Maybe it is, maybe they believe it to be—or maybe it’s not.
Which brings up the salient problem trying to fit Trump into a framework in which his rise is due to a failure on the part of the GOP to tailor policies it should have known were on voters’s minds. Take immigration, for example. They knew. Oh, how they knew. Immigration has dominated the public-policy discussion among Republicans for years. A populist revolt doomed the Gang of Eight bill championed by, among others, Marco Rubio—and his support for that bill was probably the key factor in explaining his inability to be the breakout candidate for 2016 many of us thought he would be.
That wasn’t invisible to Republican elites. They abandoned the Gang of Eight approach too. The problem is that they were and are fearful of the very real costs of an anti-immigration line; they worried and worry that the pursuit of hardline immigration policies would and will doom the GOP as a national party. The 2013 party “autopsy” warned that alienating the growing Hispanic vote in the United States was a recipe for party suicide.
That autopsy has been subjected to enormous derision over the past couple of months because of the rise of Trump and the concomitant toughening of Ted Cruz’s rhetoric on the matter to march in lockstep with the frontrunner. But it sure hasn’t been proved wrong yet.
The autopsy wasn’t designed to provide candidates with a roadmap to winning the GOP nomination; it was an effort to discern what had gone wrong in 2012 in November and to avoid making the same mistakes in 2016. Right now, it’s hard to see the GOP candidate in November, whoever he might be, getting more than 10-15 percent of the Hispanic vote. Romney got 27 percent. Bye-bye, GOP.
Maybe I’m wrong. But if I’m right, and we’ll know in November, then the autopsy was right, and Republicans will have decided to reject its findings because they are so enraged by immigration they don’t care about losing and giving Hillary Clinton an even freer hand than Barack Obama had.
The GOP elites didn’t see Trump coming because they didn’t see Trump coming.
They didn’t see trade coming because nobody saw trade coming; Trump seems single-handedly to have brought trade to the fore as a major issue for the first time in decades. But they sure did see immigration coming, and tried to argue the party’s way out of falling into what they believe to be a black electoral hole.
Moreover, 60 percent of Republicans are looking for ways to prevent his nomination. The GOP has been a low-tax, free-trade party for nearly 40 years. Trump is going in another direction, and the idea that everyone is following him like the Pied Piper is not borne out by the results so far. His rise is an amazing story, but he hasn’t taken over the party yet, and as enjoyable in a finger-pointing way as autopsies like Confessore’s might be, they aren’t telling the tale right.