Where does Donald Trump’s support come from? The answer is easy to know but hard for the members of the Republican old guard to accept. For those who have the courage to embrace reality and let change happen, it begins with a two-word prescription for the GOP moving forward: BE REAL.
The appeal of Trump with conservative voters is replete with ironies and irrational conflicts too numerous to list here, but it is a reaction to a real problem — a critical breakdown of trust that exists between Republican party elites and its true base.
Trump’s supporters aren’t a canary in the coalmine — that bird died long ago, keeling over from exhaustion after chirping angrily for several consecutive election cycles at heedless party leaders.
(This ingredient in the cocktail of Trump’s appeal surfaces in a survey conducted by the RAND Corporation on the 2016 presidential election. The RAND survey found that the largest determining factor of a person’s intention to vote for Trump was a feeling of alienation or not having a voice. Respondents who agreed with the statement “people like me don’t have any say” were 86% more likely to prefer Trump.)
Some still contend the rift doesn’t exist; others confirm its existence but try to invalidate its legitimacy. Those who have spent time in both worlds within the GOP, however, know the divide is real and growing.
Because ignoring the sentiments of voters is always a losing strategy, the time is now to view the precipice of a Trump nomination as a last chance to accept that cultural and structural changes inside the GOP are now matter of survival. The change starts with breaking out of a dysfunctional cycle in which voter loyalty is taken for granted far too much.
When elected officials fail to live up to expectations, some voters shrug, some turn cynical, and others get angry. Smart politicians are careful to minimize those conflicts with voters. If they aren’t careful (or are careless), then voter anger leads to removing them from office through elections. It can, and does, happen, but voters have learned that unseating a bad politician is no guarantee of replacing them with a good one.
It’s clear what Trump’s support indicates: voters have lost so much faith in the system that they’re willing to crown an anti-Republican hero to savage the party that has failed them. Their animus is visceral and it’s real. Apart from the vicious and angry tone, dog whistle racism, and absence of candor by Trump, real is exactly what the Republican party needs more of.
It’s time to recognize that the party machine that recruits and supports candidates, trains politicians on how to deploy talking points and manage appearances, has failed. It’s time to admit that Congress functions in a way that values deal-making more than keeping promises to voters, not to mention upholding the promises made to the nation by its founders.
It’s a matter of survival because Trump voters are only a militant subgroup of voters who have come to see Republican politics as unresponsive and disinterested. They have given up believing that there a culture capable of radically resetting its standards will spontaneously grow inside of Republican leadership. They know that in the giddy atmosphere of election season, that status quo will flip the switch on its dusty conveyor belt, sending candidates forth to deliver passionate promises to fearlessly fight to change how Washington, D.C. works. Above all, candidates will promise to be different.
“Forget all of the others,” Candidate X purrs. “I’m the only one who listens to and understands you, baby.”
Voters haven’t ever been naïve in their decisions to tie the metaphorical knot and bond to a candidate. Intellectually, they know the ephemeral nature of campaign promises and they have faith that an ongoing dialogue on the issues will keep elected officials focused on representing their interests. Some voters even believe — perhaps more irrationally — that they can count on politicians to support their deeply held beliefs, even those not specified in the fine print of the political nuptials.
It’s like the opening act on a Nicholas Sparks-esque pragmatic political romance, but too often Stephen King takes over to author the conclusion and the reality shift is entirely responsible for voter disillusionment. Yes, the romantic swashbuckler still has sparkling teeth and mesmerizing eyes, but the voter realizes a bit too late that they forgot to carefully vet the candidate as having any tolerance for political risk. To make matters worse, the candidate’s affection for voters has morphed into a languid infatuation with holding office.
There is a trail of micro- and macro-betrayals that animates much of Trump’s base. Despite wishful protestations by some pundits, those perceptions do have some rational basis, even if Trump’s campaign is doing nothing more than courting them into the mother of all bad relationships.
There certainly isn’t a single political event that spawned the outbreak of Trumpism, but it’s obvious to most political observers that a trail of controversial actions (to be fair, most of them orchestrated by Pres. Obama and the Democrats to create wedges within the GOP) added to friction inside the base.
In 2010, voters gave the Republicans a majority in the U.S. House. Did those voters have a warm feeling about the 2011 budget sequestration compromise in which two core universal Republican values, fiscal discipline and strong national defense, collided head-on and national defense lost? It’s inarguable that the sequester deal forced Democrats to accept a reduction in deficit spending, but the mandated cuts to defense spending given up by Republicans accelerated a gutting of the U.S. military. Most Americans have the perception that the world is becoming a less safe place. Do Americans believe the size and scope of the federal government is shrinking? It’s hard to imagine that a storyline like that doesn’t benefit to Trump with fed-up voters.
Other warmed-over “wins” such as the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank or the mystifying maneuver by Republicans in the Senate to define as an executive order what by all definitions would be a treaty with Iran on nuclear weapons.
The problem is that to far too many political insiders, the outrage over any of these transgressions is perceived as an overreaction or extremism and an organization that moves to invalidate the emotional response of its base is courting disaster, particularly when the damage is multiplied through millions of voters, each of whom has scars to bear from a sucker punch, or two, or ten. When enough voters carry enough scars, an impulse for punishment of the perceived assailant — or in the case of the GOP, a group some feel hasn’t done enough to actively restrain the assailant — is inevitable.
Trump leverages these psychic woundings with devastating effect like a Lothario lurking in the bar down the street from divorce court. It may be the single strategic reason behind his campaign’s stubborn lack of specifics, a void that translates as an absence of commitment. It could also be the reason that his incivility, crassness and an almost total lack of civic knowledge don’t seem to diminish his appeal.
It’s too simple to say that his crudeness is enjoyed just because it’s a rejection of unpopular modes of politically correct speech. It seems more possible that all of the hot talk between Trump and his army about the border, and RINOs, and making America great again is just rhetorical heavy petting on the way to a misguided, heated and emotional act of vengeance? After all, if you’re a voter who feels they’ve been abused by smart, prepared and polished politicians (grrrrr), a natural instinct is to seek the exact opposite. Trump is the exact opposite of smart, prepared and polished.
As with most hate-inspired flings, the one who comes away more harmed is usually the one who went in already wounded. In the case of Trump, if his supporters are successful in handing him the nomination, it will be all of us who have to make the walk of shame.
A great deal of goodwill could be restored by allowing Republicans to simply be real. The appetite that disaffected voters have for anything different doesn’t have to be fed by anyone who figures out the right buttons to push to get votes. It could be someone of substance and credibility, but they have to pass the authenticity sniff test in order to be palatable.
For once, maybe a politician says they’re sorry for breaking our political hearts, or owns up to a bad vote. That kind of honesty is a start toward restoring the amount of faith necessary to avoid sending spurned voters running into the arms of a Trump.
On the local level, being real has had some encouraging results, but Republicans should exercise caution in thinking the Trump effect is only a national phenomenon. In many state legislatures across the country, such here in Washington state, Republicans have been made enormous progress toward restoring faith with voters. But it doesn’t take much for that goodwill to be squandered by careless votes or positions dictated by special interests.
There’s a thirst for change, it’s reaching a critical mass, and those who want it have very little patience for anyone who will avoid taking the fight to Democrats on core issues. Republicans might even forgive our team for losing a good battle, as long as they see clearly that one is being fought.
[Editor’s note: This article has been substantially edited for content since first publication, but no factual elements have been changed.]
[Image used under Creative Commons license: DonkeyHotey]