The Republican higher-ups can hardly contain their horror and dismay. Enfant terrible Donald Trump, by embracing chauvinistic populism and garnering popular support in the race for the GOP nomination, has thrown “their” party into chaos. He has sucked up the available oxygen and left his lackluster opponents gasping for air.
Trump’s popularity, of course, is closely related to a demographic phenomenon: the growth of a new brand of alienated voter in the party. These voters, who apparently represent about a third of professed Republicans, happen to share much of the anti-establishment sentiment of the Tea Party. But, unlike the tea partiers, the new outsiders are not focused on the conservative truisms of liberty and small government. Instead, situated on a lower rung of the social ladder and having suffered much of the pain of the recent recession, these voters are driven by strong socioeconomic frustrations and resentments. Their main concerns have more to do with threats to their jobs and status, and perceived favoritism towards other ethnic and racial groups, than any longing for “republican virtue.” The xenophobic and often violent rhetoric they favor is more in line with that of right-wing European parties.
Because the rise of Trump could well affect the future of the GOP, many party conservatives have taken sides on the issue. The battle lines seem to be fairly well drawn. The anti-Trumpians are headed by party elders, office-holders, and strategists who shudder at Trump’s crude demagoguery and fear the effects of his nomination on their own interests and the party’s direction. They are joined by Chamber of Commerce types and corporate libertarians worried over Trump’s free market heresies, neo-cons turned off by his eccentric international posture, and Christian leaders unimpressed by his Christian credentials.
The Republican commentariat, meanwhile, makes no secret of its disapproval. Fearful that he will ruin the party brand, regulars George Will and Charles Krauthammer label Trump a counterfeit Republican and a know-nothing xenophobe, respectively. Over at National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Richard Lowry, so-called custodians of conservative orthodoxy, point out Trump’s errors, including his failure to talk up the virtues of freedom, faith, and constitution, or to properly condemn big government and deficits. Hardline blogger Eric Erickson, conservative entrepreneur Glenn Beck, and others join in the fray.
But the Trumpians also have their defenders. Among them are conservatives who see themselves in affective harmony with the vox populi, the aggrieved voice of the inchoate hinterland. They include the celebrity talk show hosts Limbaugh, Levin, Hannity and others, like Sarah Palin, who speak for the forgotten masses. As public pulse takers, they are moved far more by the sweet sounds of discontent than by any sort of party loyalty. Joining them on the periphery are those like anti-P.C. activist John Nolte at Breitbart.com and paleo-conservatives Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan at vdare.com who thrill at Trump’s rhetorical style and message. Even less savory characters with predilections for the white race, e.g. David Duke and the Stormfront crowd, cheer appreciatively in the background.
Fox News has mostly gone along with the new Trump phenomenon, apparently realizing its dangers but also taking due note of its popularity among the viewership. Roger Ailes is clearly playing a double game, wanting both to control and follow the contours of conservative opinion. Sometimes the two strategies come into conflict. When Megyn Kelly, one of Ailes’ star announcers, offended Trump with some aggressive questioning in an early debate (Fox’s attempt to bump him down a notch?), Trump threatened to boycott the station. Ailes found himself in an untenable position when it became clear that his viewers were on Trump’s side. Ailes lost face and essentially backed down. Licking its wounds, Fox has since retreated into a more submissive stance.
THE TRUMPENPROLETARIAT VS. THE BOURGEOISIE
While Fox is riding the Trump wave for the most part, a curious form of class warfare between pro and anti Trump elements has broken out elsewhere in the conservative media. In one such instance, Jonah Goldberg, a conservative watchdog frustrated by Trump’s growing popularity, referred to the Trump movement as the “Trumpenproletariat” (a cute play on Marx’s lumpenproletariat, a segment of the masses deemed unreliable). Goldberg sees the Trumpians as unreliable populists who are dangerous because, well, the people can be wrong. The result, he states, is a corruption of conservative ideology, a “bonfire of principles.”
John Nolte, a defender of Trump’s heterodoxy, swiftly responded, furious that Goldberg was looking down his nose at the conservative base. Goldberg, he claimed, was a member of the “anti-Trump bourgeoisie,” an intellectual elite seeking to exclude newcomers from the conservative club. Nolte argues for inclusion, praising the new movement for expanding the boundaries of conservatism and attempting to slay the dragon of political correctness.
While the Goldberg-Nolte flap is unusual for its public evoking of the class issue, class-related tension between the two sides is clear for all to see. Haughty disdain and angry resentment are in the air. Thus Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal sees Trump as a “loudmouth vulgarian appealing to quieter vulgarians.” Gerald Seib from the same newspaper reduces Trump to a facsimile of George Wallace. David Harsanyi of the Federalist views him as “porn for nativists.” Meanwhile, Ann Coulter and the talk show crowd rage against the elites and their perfidious influence. Rush Limbaugh admits to going easy on Trump, who is not a conservative, because Rush will have nothing to do with the elites who try to take him down.
The bitterness and angst brought on by the Trump campaign suggests there will be no easy resolution of the current party divisions, touched as they are by the odor of class animus. By saying loudly what many people thought but dared not express in polite circles, Trump broke a socially sensitive sound barrier.
Even if Trump eventually drops out of the primaries, as is quite probable, nothing will be quite the same again in the GOP. Indeed, it is increasingly unclear what it means to be a Republican. Extreme positions on immigration, identity issues, national security, and executive power are out of the bottle and no longer confined to Trump, as seen from the developing views of candidates Cruz, Christie, Fiorina, and even Rubio. Meanwhile the establishmentarians continue to search for a candidate who will repeat the old formulas, keep the angry class at bay, and deliver for the guys at the top. It will be an interesting campaign season.