Sunday, February 28, 2016

How do you account for the rise and popularity of Donald Trump?

That was the question posed to me in an email from my younger brother Dave. 

A good place to start an explanation is the off year election in Nebraska in 2014. This solidly safe conservative Republican midwestern state appeared to do something normally associated with liberal Democrats.  The 2014 mid-term election result in Nebraska saw the state overwhelmingly re-elect their Republican Governor and Senator and deliver two out of three Congressional districts to the Republicans (one Omaha based district went barely Democrat). However, Nebraskans also voted by a margin of 59 to 41 percent in a referendum to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $8.00. By varying margins four other conservative Republican states did the same. Back in Washington at the same time the Congressional Republicans were rejecting efforts by President Obama to raise the federal minimum wage.

Much of the Republican base is blue collar white working class, but have generally elected Republicans who only paid attention to the economic interests of their billionaire donors and country club suburban voters. With the blue collar base (primarily in the southern, plains and border states) they cultivated its social conservatism and racism. So it should not be surprising that given the chance many of these same voters would directly support a higher minimum wage even as their Washington representatives voted the opposite way. This speaks directly to the internal tensions and contradictions that have long been at the heart of the Republican Party.

Part of Trump's appeal is an economically populist pitch. For example, this quote is from the conservative columnist Byron Yorke of the National Review who, like the rest of his ilk, is appalled by Trump:
In a nearly one-hour speech, Trump railed against pharmaceutical companies. He railed against oil companies. And insurance companies. And defense contractors. And he set himself against a political system that he said allows big-money corporate "bloodsuckers" to control the government with campaign contributions.
"Whether it's the insurance companies, or the drug companies, or the oil companies, it's all the same thing," Trump said. "We're never going to get our country back if we keep doing this."
Trump promised to allow the government to negotiate drug prices — a common position among Democrats but rarely heard at nominally Republican events. He said he would not raise military spending, arguing that the nation's defenses can be improved without increasing its already huge Pentagon budget. He promised tough sanctions on American companies that move jobs overseas.
Trump has attacked one dearly held elite Republican belief after another, including international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the so-called TPP, which has been signed by Canada as well as the United States, although neither country has yet formally ratified the deal. Another Trump quote, this time from liberal New York columnist Jonathan Chait, concerning Trump's professed affinity with Bernie Sanders, who also opposes the TPP:
"The one thing we very much agree on is trade. We both agree that we are getting ripped off by China, by Japan, by Mexico, everyone we do business with," Trump said.
However, at the core of Trump's appeal is his outspoken pitch to the intolerance that is characteristic of the Republican party's lower income base - his anti-Muslim and anti-immigration rhetoric, capped by his idiotic proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border that Mexico will allegedly pay for. Trump's bombastic speaking style befits this longtime TV huckster. The important thing about Trump's words is that they have typically gone far beyond the code words and euphemisms about race and immigration that most Republicans have utilized.

Appeals to racism have been a key part of Republican strategy since Nixon concocted his "Southern strategy" in 1968 with former Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond. But the coalition is coming apart at the seams. This is well described in a Nation article by William Greider who notes:
At the heart of this intramural conflict is the fact that society has changed dramatically in recent decades, but the GOP has refused to change with it. Americans are rapidly shifting toward more tolerant understandings of personal behavior and social values, but the Republican Party sticks with retrograde social taboos and hard-edged prejudices about race, gender, sexual freedom, immigration, and religion.
He quotes from a recent article by "Scott Lilly, a liberal Democrat who for many years was the sagacious staff director of the House Appropriations Committee". Lilly wrote the following:
Ever since Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority 46 years ago, there has been a serious flaw in the contract that holds the party together. Today’s GOP is made up of two groups that are polar opposites among White Americans. The traditional wing of the party is not simply pro-business but represents a large majority of the country’s corporate leadership, financiers, and investors. Some call these the “country club” Republicans, and while they are a small fraction of the voting population, they have enormous resources to influence the voting behavior of those not privileged to hold a country club membership.
At the opposite end of the economic and educational spectrum of White America is a group that was welcomed into the Republican fold by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972. Their numbers make the Republicans a formidable national party. The problem is that this latter group has almost nothing in common with the country club wing of the party. Country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion, and immigration (i.e. restricting their own ability to hire illegal aliens).
On the other hand, the largely poor, rural, church-going whites who have swelled the party’s electoral turnout don’t care about marginal tax rates, capital formation, or government subsidies to large corporations, such as those provided through the Export-Import Bank. If they ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for those policies, they would be in open rebellion.
In that last sentence we see the connection to the vote on the minimum wage in Nebraska.

The demographic reality that made the "Southern strategy" effective is rapidly changing. The core racism and intolerance of Republican voters explain Trump's appeal, which is made that much more attractive to the base by his economic populism and nationalism. Trump has brilliantly synthesized an appeal that combines a pitch to the Republican rural and blue collar voters' racial and religious intolerance, while simultaneously offering solace to their economic frustrations triggered by stagnating income amid growing inequality.

Many of the southern Evangelical Christians assiduously courted by Trump might have been thought to be offended by stories of his prior support for liberal positions on issues such as abortion, gun control and legalizing drugs. That has not proven to be the case, and part of the reason is the weakening of religion among these Christians who have joined others in reducing their church attendance. Consider the following:
It has long been accepted wisdom that less-educated, working-class white Americans are the nation’s most faithful churchgoers. However, a study released Sunday at the American Sociological Association’s annual convention dispels that widely-held perception. 
Over the past four decades, monthly church attendance by moderately educated whites – defined as those with high school diplomas and maybe some college – has declined to 37 percent from 50 percent, according to the study co-authored by sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia and Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. 
Church attendance by the least educated whites – defined as those lacking high school diplomas – fell to 23 percent from 38 percent.
It appears as the blogger Digby wrote "that a lot of these white conservative working class types identify as evangelical as much for tribal reasons as religious commitment." This simply makes them open to his economic nationalist message combined with the intolerance.  They easily overlook his 'liberal' past.

While those on the centre and left have been appalled by Trump, so too have shrewd Republican analysts and strategists who are terrified of what he might do to the party's prospects. While Trump appears to be highly intelligent and tactically agile, he has actually conducted a campaign based on winging it, and is wholly unprepared to be President. As Elizabeth Drew has pointed out:
One has the sense that Trump hasn’t made a special effort to bone up on specific issues, that he gets his information from television talk shows and Time. He counts on bluster to propel him. And he adjusts. After the Republican debate preceding the South Carolina primary descended into an out-of-control screaming match, with candidates calling each other liars—John Kasich, who has insisted on a positive campaign, didn’t partake—Trump toned himself down; he also swore off swearing, because it wouldn’t go down well, he was told, with the good people of South Carolina, which has an even higher proportion of Evangelical voters than Iowa. If Trump is the nominee, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he toned down further, studied up on some issues, and projected an earnestness that would have reporters rhapsodizing about the “New Trump.” What’s astonishing is that someone so intellectually and temperamentally unsuited for the presidency has gotten so close to it.
The question this raises is: how close? Some time ago Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC talk show host who is horrified by Trump, was saying that even if he looked like he would probably lose the election if nominated, she remained anxious because, as she kept repeating, "you never know" what might happen during a campaign to produce an unanticipated outcome.

On the face of it Trump is likely to lose.  As Nate Silver has  pointed out, he is the most unpopular of all the presidential candidates, when you take the opinions of those who view him favourably minus those who have an unfavourable view. But it is not just opinions of the moment that we should consider. Trump and the Republican Party appeal primarily to white voters in a country where demographics are quickly making it more diverse.

In 2012 Obama was re-elected despite getting the "smallest share of white voters of any presidential candidate in history." Blogger Digby quoted from an article by Ron Brownstein that is behind a paywall:
...The key ques­tion fa­cing the GOP is wheth­er Obama’s 2012 per­form­ance rep­res­ents a struc­tur­al Demo­crat­ic de­cline among whites that could deep­en even fur­ther in the years ahead — or a floor from which the next Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee is likely to im­prove.
In re­cent months, a chor­us of con­ser­vat­ive ana­lysts has bet on the first op­tion. They in­sist that Re­pub­lic­ans, by im­prov­ing both turnout and already-gap­ing mar­gins among whites, can re­cap­ture the White House in 2016 without re­for­mu­lat­ing their agenda to at­tract more minor­ity voters — most prom­in­ently by passing im­mig­ra­tion-re­form le­gis­la­tion that in­cludes a path­way to cit­izen­ship for those here il­leg­ally.
On the oth­er side is an ar­ray of Re­pub­lic­an strategists who view minor­ity out­reach and im­mig­ra­tion re­form as crit­ic­al to restor­ing the party’s com­pet­it­ive­ness — and con­sider it sui­cid­al for the GOP to bet its fu­ture on the pro­spect that it can squeeze even lar­ger ad­vant­ages out of the di­min­ish­ing pool of white voters. Karl Rove, the chief strategist for George W. Bush’s two pres­id­en­tial vic­tor­ies, has noted that re­ly­ing en­tirely on whites would soon re­quire Re­pub­lic­ans to reg­u­larly match the tower­ing ad­vant­age Re­agan re­cor­ded among them when he lost only a single state in his 1984 reelec­tion. “It’s un­reas­on­able to ex­pect Re­pub­lic­ans to routinely pull num­bers that last oc­curred in a 49-state sweep,” Rove said at the As­pen Ideas Fest­iv­al this sum­mer.
No presidential candidate has so clearly articulated his rationale for a whites-only strategy as Donald Trump. Rachel Maddow is right - you never know what unusual event might happen mid-election to propel a Trump into the White House. That qualification aside if Trump wins the nomination the Republican Party is headed for its worst electoral result since 1964. It won't be nearly as bad as 1964 given the gerrymandering of districts in the House of Representatives and the increasingly ideological polarization of the United States as illustratated in this Pew Research graphic:

However, compared to any election since then it is likely to produce worst possible outcome for the Republicans.

And Trump's success to date is due in no small part to his weak opponents.  Evangelical Christian Ted Cruz has a self-defined limit to his appeal while none of the establishment or so-called moderate Republicans including Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have demonstrated strong political skills. When an unlikely candidate does unexpectedly well, a closer examination of the contest can reveal simply the absence of real competition.

Since their last truly terrible electoral defeat in 1964, more recent Republican losses have been much narrower and can be explained away. Meanwhile the forces in the Republican party opposed to Trump have grown increasingly desperate. The New York Times reported on February 27, the day of the Democratic primary in South Carolina that appeared to confirm that Hillary Clinton would be the party's nominee, they found real despair among the upper echelons of the Republicans:
In dozens of interviews, elected officials, political strategists and donors described a frantic, last-ditch campaign to block Mr. Trump — and the agonizing reasons that many of them have become convinced it will fail. Behind the scenes, a desperate mission to save the party sputtered and stalled at every turn.
The bleak mood of these strategists is entirely justified. Trump's triumph is internal to the Republican Party; it does not extend beyond it.