By Alex Knepper
The indispensable Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics.com has repeatedly challenged my belief that Trump is the product of a base in revolt by pointing out that a surprisingly large portion of his support comes from self-described ‘moderate’ Republicans. The idea that Trump was attracting disproportionate support from supposedly moderate people made little sense to me, but I was not sure how to account for it. One popular argument used to be that Trump’s success across all Republican factions was due mostly to his name ID and media domination. But Jeb Bush and Chris Christie for a very long time had much higher name ID than Ben Carson — and Carson was still frequently tying or defeating the former candidates among Republicans overall. Among conservatives, a less-covered, less-known conservative could beat more-covered, more-known ‘center-right’ candidates, so we would expect at least that these supposed ‘moderates’ would disproportionately break for Bush and Christie. But no: they liked Trump as much as anyone else.
I have come to a different conclusion: that ‘moderate’ Republicans since Reagan’s presidency have never really been ‘moderates’ at all. Many if not most of them really are basically secular people who, just as much as self-described conservatives, have understood Reaganism — a mixture of pro-business and libertarian economics, religious advocacy, and a muscular foreign policy, with a nice helping of civic mythology — to be the foundation of the modern Republican Party. They call themselves ‘moderate’ because they de-emphasize issues like abortion, religion in public life, and same-sex marriage. They score only two out of three on the Reagan test, and they know it. Lest we forget beneath the recent torrent of positive coverage about homosexuality and feminism: the Religious Right was prominent and influential in the 1990s and through the early 2000s, during the ‘culture war.’ In polls, many secular Republicans will sooner identify as ‘moderate’ than ‘conservative,’ and ‘somewhat conservative’ sooner than ‘very conservative.’ But they are still tethered in Reaganism’s assumptions and attitudes.
There’s little that’s ‘moderate’ about the modern Republican Party in the sense we ordinarily take that word. The truly centrist wing of the party abandoned it little by little in the 90s and the 00s, recognizing it was not welcome any longer — and now we can count their numbers in Congress using our hands. They were replaced by Jacksonian former Democrats, especially from the South, and Evangelicals new to politics. Reagan pushed out the old guard of moderate establishmentarians and brought in the populists. Reagan was not a populist himself, but he found room for them and promised them that his agenda would make them freer and more prosperous — and that it would take our down their enemies at home and abroad. And they accepted that.
Trump understood all this, but he also understood further: he wrote in his Art of the Deal that Reagan was a smooth talker who never delivered the goods. And he’s right: Reagan didn’t. Big Government kept growing. Christianity kept receding. ‘Reaganomics’ boosted growth, but, decades on, is no longer effective. Nobody feels freer for having elected Republicans. Even the revered Reagan could not reverse the intrinsic logic of liberal democracy. And what is worse: it turns out Reaganism is not actually very good at winning presidential elections. The nation as a whole was willing to send Reagan to Washington as a response to the excesses of liberalism in the 60s and 70s, but Reaganism as a positive ideology has never since been very popular, and Republicans have only won the popular vote once since Reagan’s vice-president was elected in 1988 — and even that was during wartime, three years after the only attack on the American homeland since Pearl Harbor.
About a quarter-century after the publication of Trump’s book, the many political children Reagan fathered have caught on to the fact that two Bushes, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, and others have repeatedly failed to deliver the goods — and are revolting. Many of them are intent on doubling-down on Reaganism and want to nominate a Reaganite with a radical temperament: Ted Cruz. Sen. Cruz, while taking on the ‘establishment,’ is still saying basically the same things conservatives have been saying for 40 years. But Trump is doing something different: he is implying their decades of ineffectiveness are the direct result of their dogmatic attachment to right-wing ideology. Siding mindlessly with elite business interests inevitably leads to acceptance or tolerance of policies like amnesty, unfettered free trade, and ‘political correctness.’ Hence Trump’s Sanders-like attacks on Cruz’s loans from Goldman-Sachs and his game-playing during the 2013-2014 immigration reform debate. Trump suggests, in essence: ‘The aim is not to be a good disciple of someone else’s belief system, but to deliver the goods to the people. The deals we should be making are deals where we get something we really want — not where we get only scraps while in the big picture our country keeps going to hell.’ It seems there are more people open to this message than who are receptive to Cruz’s message that what we really need is someone who really means it. Trump’s shrewdness beats Cruz’s sincerity. Reaganism as a doctrine is now in question.
Trump’s attacks against his opponents, from Jeb Bush to Rich Lowry to Charles Krauthammer, are basically all the same, which is why they’ve all worked: ‘Why should you listen to them? They’re the same people who want to make a deal on amnesty. They’re the same people who want you to shut your mouth about Islam while more Americans die. They don’t want to admit that, so they criticize my tone, just like people criticize yours when you’ve tried to talk about these things honestly and have been called a bigot and a racist. We’re not bigots or racists. We’re good people who are going through hard times and nobody seems to care. I’m not gonna put up with the old guard’s crap anymore, and neither should you. And the beauty of me is: I’m very rich. Unlike these other guys you’ve elected, I cannot be bought. I already have everything. I do not need anything they could give me, and I’m gonna change things. If you need proof, look at what’s happened already.’
It seems the only way Trump can now lose the nomination is if his supporters fail to show up to vote. He made an audacious decision to make a play for the most alienated factions of the Republican Party. But even if he loses, there is no going back: the post-Trump Republican Party is not going to look like it did in May 2015.