If You Think Rubio or Kasich Won The Debate, You Do Not Understand the GOP Base

Go to almost any major media outlet, and you’ll see the same gaggle of “expert” opinions on the Republican debate: Marco Rubio won, John Kasich impressed, and Donald Trump came off as a buffoon. CNN says so. So does Politico. Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post mostly agrees. Almost every single establishment Republican outlet is bashing Trump while praising Rubio, Walker and even Bobby Jindal, crediting them with strong debate performances.

But do those traditional media assessments of the debate aftermath actually jibe with the reality of the GOP base? Probably not. Traditional analysis of the debate would suggest that while no one seriously damaged Trump and he didn’t do himself much damage, other candidates seemed far more presidential and therefore attractive to seriously-minded Republican voters. But these are not normal times.

As I said two weeks ago, base Republican voters are not choosing a president. They’re choosing a rebel leader who will lead an insurgent war against what they view as an increasingly dominant liberal consensus aided and abetted by establishment Republicans.

Now, that seems like crazy talk to progressives who are pulling their hair out over government inaction in the face of existential crises like record wealth inequality, climate change and the reality of technological unemployment. But to the Republican base, the world seems to be spinning ever more off kilter: a black man was elected and re-elected to the Oval Office, a hated woman seems likely to follow him, gays can marry in the Deep South even as Confederate flags are coming down, the Middle East continues to be a problem no matter how many bombs we drop on it, the urbanization and secularization of America continues apace, and the country is only getting browner and more liberal with each and every passing day. And just like progressives, conservative blue-collar voters are keenly aware of the shrinking of the middle class–they just choose to scapegoat immigrants and “regulations,” rather than question their just-world-fallacy value system by actually looking at where all the money went.

For Republicans, this is an existential identity crisis and threat to their entire way of life. And they’re reacting in kind, by supporting the loudest, angriest, most virile and belligerent voice in the room. Right now, that’s Donald Trump.

The Republican base isn’t looking for specific policy fixes. They’re looking for a cultural warrior and savior who will put the last 60 years of progress back in a bottle and give them their country back.

Right now that man is Donald Trump. Nor is there any particular reason to believe, despite all the predictions of pundits near and far that Trump’s “bubble” will burst, that that will change in the near future. It doesn’t matter that Trump has flip flopped on major issues. It doesn’t matter that Trump doesn’t have a coherent vision for how to deal with foreign policy or the economy. What matters is that he clearly despises immigrants, women and “soft” men, that he’ll throw punches at anyone and everyone, that he’ll put business interests first ahead of all those do-gooder social justice types, and that he despises the Republican establishment with the same gusto as he does the Democratic one.

All that plays very well with GOP base today, and will continue to do so tomorrow. Ezra Klein understands this better than any other pundit out there. All you need to do is look at the comments sections on any major conservative blog or forum. That’s who the GOP base really is, and Trump is their man.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.