The GOP sowed the wind, and Donald Trump is reaping the whirlwind. Much to the horror of the Republican Establishment, Trump has a message that connects with the party’s base, and makes no bones about it. With his in-your-face style, Trump is simply saying what the Republican rank-and-file think. Period, full stop.
Obama’s wasn’t born here, check. And, of course, a hard line on immigration.
“I love the Mexican people … I respect Mexico … but the problem we have is that their leaders are much sharper, smarter and more cunning than our leaders, and they’re killing us at the border,” Trump said. “They’re taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.”
Trump was also late in calling for South Carolina to shelve the Confederate Flag, which is no surprise. A whopping 78 percent of Republicans still view the flag as a legitimate form of Southern pride, and two-thirds say it’s OK for states to fly it.
Like him or not, The Donald is one of the few Republicans to internalize the facts that the white working- and middle class are the heart of the Republican Party, and that older Americans now trend Republican. He connects, unlike Mitt Romney, who in 2012 craved the votes of white non-college graduates, but could not break through.
But Trump is not Mitt. On Saturday, at the Phoenix Convention Center, Trump drew a crowd of 4,000 to hear him denounce illegal immigration in raw terms, with lines forming before sunrise.
According to Trump, “The word is getting out that we have to stop illegal immigration. …We have a situation that is absolutely out of control. … We’re getting taken apart piece-by-piece slowly.”
For good measure, Trump even invoked the ghost of Richard Nixon by announcing as he left the stage, “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back.”
Ahead of the event Trump was described by Arizona Senator Jeff Flake as “coarse, ill-informed and inaccurate,” and by McCain as “offensive.”
Trump also introduced Jamiel Shaw to the audience, whose son was shot and killed by an illegal immigrant. Shaw painted a grim and vivid picture: “Think about your child laying in the street dead. … We were not designed for that.” Harsh words for sure, but less clumsy than a mid-debate plea for “self-deportation.”
The P.T. Barnum of this election cycle, Trump understands that politics is transactional, and that the electorate must be offered something in return for their votes. By contrast, almost everyone else in the Republican field seems fixated on the donor base, broadening the GOP at the expense of its core, or talking about faith, even as they would pickpocket the voters of what is theirs.
Unlike Trump, the rest of the presidential hopefuls parade around with outstretched arms and upturned palms, echoing their patrons’ sentiments. Bush, Cruz, Rubio, Christie, and Walker have each called for seniors to take a hit for the greater good of America’s bondholders, but hey, at least they love God, and will let you know.
With apologies to the Good Book, man can’t live on faith alone, and Trump understands at least that much. Rather, he’s taking the “you paid for it, it’s yours” approach to older Americans.
Speaking to CPAC back in 2013 Trump declared, “It’s not unreasonable for people who paid into a system for decades to expect to get their money’s worth—that’s not an ‘entitlement,’ that’s honoring a deal.” Trump sounds like someone in touch with reality, or at least like someone who wants to win.
In the face of this Trumpmentum, the party’s establishment is powerless—unable to admit that Trump is in sync with GOP voters, so they say simply that Trump is “bad.” They risk coming off as tone-deaf or, worse, mean.
For example, over at The New York Times, Peter Wehner, a Bush 43 White House alum, took Trump to task for sticking up for the elderly. According to Wehner, Trump committed the unpardonable sin of accusing Republican contenders of “‘attacking’ Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
This nod toward the social safety net (and political realism) led Wehner to ask, somewhat peevishly, “Why would conservatives find him the least bit appealing?”
For starters, it might have to do with Republicans being older. That’s a fact, plain and simple. In the last presidential election, Republicans won among voters 45 and up. Seniors haven’t voted Democratic since 1992. And while Wehner may have forgotten that George W. Bush’s call for Social Security privatization preceded the 2008 stock market crash and Great Recession, older voters haven’t.
No, Trump’s rants will not help the Republicans come November 2016. But Trump’s stance is doing wonders for him in the here and now. According the latest Economist/Yougov Poll, Trump leads the GOP pack, and for the first time is viewed favorably by a plurality of the party faithful.
And no, Trump almost certainly won’t win the nomination, but Republicans are rightfully concerned that today’s rhetoric will haunt them a year from now. America’s changing demographics further weigh against them, so simply beating up on Trump will leave the challenges posed by his candidacy unanswered. Resistance to immigration is not just about culture or ethnicity (although they are certainly factors), it’s also about economics, something Trump with his bar-stool political rhetoric understands.
Prospective Republican nominees must be able to say how they will re-ignite 3 percent-plus growth, while spurring wages upward. (For the record, since 2006 annual GDP growth has been below 3 percent. The 4 percent growth promised by Jeb was last seen in 2000, the final year of Bill Clinton’s presidency.)
Meanwhile, employee compensation as a percentage of GDP remains near an all-time low. Working-class Americans understand this in their gut and feel it in their wallet, so they can’t be blamed for thinking that liberalized immigration helps no one but illegal immigrants, their families, and employers across the board. Those are not only Trump’s people; they’re the Republican base.
So while Trump’s take is tart, he has a hit a nerve in this prolonged era of economic insecurity and froth. Labeling Trump a villain, or calling on Americans to labor for longer hours misses the mark. Rather, getting out from Trump’s shadow will require the Republican nominee to make America’s workers an offer they won’t want to refuse. As Trump would say, it’s all part of “the art of the deal.”