March 14, 2016

FORKEN | Dormant Populists Emerge From the Republican Party

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The candidate in line to become the Republican nominee for president is not a Republican. From policy positions to party affiliation, it appears businessman Donald Trump is more RINO (Republican-In-Name-Only), than Ronald Reagan incarnate. While this isn’t breaking news and Trump may still fail to capture the nomination, the underlying factors empowering Trump suggest a deeper schism between establishment Republicans and the rest of the party.

Question: If Donald Trump isn’t a Republican — nor is he pretending to be one — how is he the front-runner for the Republican nomination?

Answer: A significant bloc of voters, who typically identify as Republicans, are also RINOs.

For years, Republican voters aligned behind the mantra of free markets over intervention, state policy over federal policy and trickle-down economics as the prescription to broad economic woes. In a rational context, a vote represents an endorsement of sorts regarding a given candidate and their platform, which usually closely mirrors that of their party. In the real word, a Republican voter may be so because the unemployment rate isn’t the lowest it’s been in eight years and President Barack Obama is an evil Kenyan attempting to sabotage America. A vote out of opposition to one party isn’t necessarily an allegiance to another.

Conservative politicians have traditionally consolidated support and energized their bases by claiming any and all economic downturns are the result of liberal spending, taxes, and welfare and that the remedies are less government and lower taxes. Under a Democratic administration, the success of this strategy stems from subtly propping up economic fear and uncertainty (a tactic Trump has exploited and accelerated to all facets of policy to extraordinary returns). But again, if Republican voters supported politicians out of an opposition to Democrats, rather than an adherence to policy, then loyalty can be assigned to whomever opposes Democrats to the greatest degree.

While prescribing Democratic-opposition as the key to success with a so-called Republican electorate may seem like an over-simplification of policy, think about the components of mainstream Republicanism; birtherism, Fox News, Breitbart and other right-wing sites all harbor an impressively intense hatred of President Obama and liberal policy with little in the way of substance.

Such a media environment has primed voters to hostility and cultivated a natural voting bloc for Trump to appeal. Trump offers a promise to Make America Great Again and to make government really, really good for the people. And that’s all they want. After years of perceiving government to only work for the poor, or minorities, or the LGBT, or foreign countries, of course voters are susceptible to an anti-government message. But when they are told that same government can be put to work for them, then government is acceptable — there is no faithfulness to conservative principles. There is no abstract objection to an active government. Look at the current battle over Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat; the constituencies driving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) and his colleagues to prevent a hearing nomination are not originalists or textualists or any other kind of constitutionalists. Perhaps they are best described as anti-Obamaists.

Perhaps before Florida falls to Trump today and before Jeb! folded to Donald, there existed optimism, a shining glimmer of hope receding into the distance, that the way to win was to be a ‘true conservative’ and that eventually the conservative base would come home. But that notion rested on the premise that there existed a conservative base large enough to power a candidate to victory, an assumption that Trump is rapidly proving false. Trump is not a conservative and neither are his voters.

Trump is a candidate that, in the midst of a Republican primary debate, accused President George W. Bush of lying to the American people about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A candidate that previously supported universal healthcare and is currently relatively sympathetic to Planned Parenthood. A candidate that opposes free trade, manufactures his products out of country and brags about utilizing an immigration visa system harmful to American workers. Trump is a populist candidate riding a wave of populist support that was bred by conservative programming and dormant within the Republican party, now emerging to destroy the host from the inside out.

The schism between populist and traditional Republicans can no longer be mended by blocking a Trump nomination. Even if Trump were to vanish, the pluralities fueling his campaign retain too much leverage in future elections to bridge the gap; another smooth-talking populist lacking shame will arise to stoke the fear and loathing of the once-Republicans.

Jake Forken is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. He may be reached at jrf285@cornell.edu. My Forken Opin­ion appears alternate Fridays this semester. 

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