In order to understand how Donald Trump continues to dominate the Republican field despite openly promoting tax hikes on wealthy hedge fund managers, hinting support for universal healthcare and other wildly iconoclastic positions hostile to decades of Republican dogma, it’s important to note the that the Republican Party was teetering on the edge of a dramatic change no matter whether Trump had entered the race or not.
Demographers and political scientists have long been predicting that the Republican Party is due for a realignment. A realignment is the sort of tectonic political shift that occurs when one of the two parties either takes a courageous political stand or falls into danger of becoming a permanent minority, shifting the demographics and constituencies that sort each party. The last big realignment in American politics is generally considered to have occurred in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, when Democratic support for civil rights legislation moved racially resentful, mostly Southern whites into the arms of the Republicans while picking up support from women and minorities. Republicans, of course, hastened this process through their use of the Southern strategy to maximize conservative white fears and resentments. It is arguable that the Democratic shift toward conservative and neoliberal economics beginning the late 1970s as a response to the increasing power of money in elections and the rise of Reagan was also a minor realignment that moved many wealthy social liberals out of the Republican fold at the expense of blue-collar Democratic workers.
Conventional wisdom has argued that demographic trends showing the rise of Latino and Asian voters would spell the need for another GOP realignment–this time away from minority-bashing Southern Strategy politics, toward a more ecumenical, corporate-friendly fiscal libertarianism and militaristic foreign policy that would in theory attract conservative-leaning voters across the racial spectrum who had previously felt unwelcome in the Republican fold due to its racial politics. Republican leaders are well aware that every election year the voting public becomes more diverse, and that permanently losing the Latino and Asian votes the way Republicans have the African-American vote would mean a permanent disaster for their party. The Blue Wall becomes more formidable for the GOP with every presidential election cycle, largely due to demographic change.
At no point did this become more clear than after the 2012 election. Most Republicans insiders had expected an easy Romney victory based on the standard indicators. But when the strength of the Democratic constituency became apparent, GOP leaders knew they had to act to pass immigration reform and begin the hard work of appealing to minority voters. This is the Koch Brothers agenda: the corporate agenda with a diverse, smiling face.
But then something interesting happened: base Republican voters said no. Tea Partiers continued to sweep establishment Republicans out of office. Eric Cantor, once considered heir apparent to Speaker John Boehner, suddenly found himself tossed out of Congress on the strength of an anti-immigrant intra-party challenge. Immigration reform stalled due to a near revolt by the conservative base. Meanwhile, the continued ability of Republicans to make gains in midterm elections due to weak Democratic turnout, and to lock down the House of Representatives due to the Big Sort and intentional gerrymandering, meant that Republican legislators saw no upside in enraging their base.
The rise of Donald Trump should come as no surprise in this context: it was presaged well in advance. Pundits who assumed Trump would flame out quickly were as misguided as those who assumed that Eric Cantor would safely hold his seat. After decades of stirring up their primary voters into a froth of paranoia and hatred of various “others” in society, Republican voters were not about to be led by the nose to a multi-racial corporatist utopia. After telling the religious right for decades that they would ban abortion and force women back into traditional gender roles, it’s no surprise that those voters continued to choose candidates like Todd Akin who could not stop themselves from alienating most women voters.
But the Republican Party does have to change. After all, it cannot continue to survive on its present course. Presidential elections are only getting tougher, and the GOP lock on the House will not survive the 2020 census if all else remains unchanged.
That’s where Donald Trump’s brand of politics comes in. Reminiscent of European far right parties that meld anti-immigrant furor with a broader anti-elite sentiment and greater favor to the welfare state, Donald Trump does away with sops to diversity and polite niceties in the service of an unfaltering plutocratic agenda. He is openly bashing women and minorities in the sort of rude way that millions of Republican voters do behind closed doors but not in polite society, while also giving them hope that they can keep their healthcare and social security in the bargain.
It’s important to remember that hardcore conservative Republican voters of today are only a generation removed from the coalition that supported FDR. These are voters who, despite having been hardened against socialist appeals by decades of Fox News style propaganda, nevertheless supported FDR and other Democrats well into the Reagan era. These are voters who don’t actually hate the welfare state and social spending, so much as they hate the idea that their tax dollars are going to social spending for the wrong people. It’s not so much that they don’t like government healthcare: after all, in many poor Republican counties most conservative voters are being taken care of by Medicaid, Medicare and the VA. It’s that they don’t like the idea that poor minorities and “loose” women might be getting free healthcare “on their backs.”
As for Wall Street? Most Republican voters can’t stand them. The majority of the Republican base sees the financial sector as crony capitalist, corrupt liberal New Yorkers who got a bailout. Most GOP voters won’t shed a tear if Trump raises taxes on the hedge fund crowd.
Donald Trump reassures these voters that the “wrong kind of people” won’t be getting any freebies on his watch. That’s all they really care about–so if Trump supports universal healthcare it’s simply not that big a deal.
And this ultimately is what the real GOP realignment is going to look like: less racially diverse corporatism, and more socialism for white people. It stands to reason. Blue-collar white GOP voters aren’t about to forget decades of fear-based propaganda, and their economic position remains precarious enough that they still need the welfare state help.