So, another week goes by with Donald Trump at the head of the Republican pack and another round of pundits predicting his imminent demise.
Yes, once again Trump said something Republicans are not allowed to say, which has the whole establishment aquiver with indignation. And maybe, just maybe, this time it will spell his doom. But if he didn't lose altitude after saying of POW icon John McCain, "He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured" it's hard to imagine that his fans are going to be upset that he pointed out that George W. Bush was president on 9/11. Saying what no one else will say is what they like about him.
But that isn't enough to explain Trump's enduring popularity with a large faction of the Republican Party. Yes, they enjoy his frankness and his larger-than-life personality. And poking away at the feckless party establishment as well as the hated opposition is a feel-good exercise to which many Democrats can certainly relate. (They've been doing that for a couple of decades.) But there is more to this phenomenon, and people are starting to take a more academic approach to understanding it.
In yesterday's Washington Post, EJ Dionne posited that this is a group feeling the squeeze from both the top and the bottom, meaning they feel stuck while the rich get richer and the government only helps the poor. That fits a certain standard definition of populism, which in America, it seems to me, fairly neatly divides itself along party lines: The right chooses to focus on those below as the source of their problems, in this case immigrant workers, and the left chooses to focus on those above (Wall street, banks etc). Sure, the Tea Party right pays lip service to a loathing for "the bailouts," but that's not where Trump gets his mojo -- it's all about the immigrants and foreigners screwing hard-working Americans. The populist left is not worried about immigrant workers because they knew that the real problem lies with the absurd fact that a brand name in a suit can become a billionaire while everybody else is spinning their wheels.
Obviously, the populist strain on the right draws much of its potency from bigotry, in the form of racism and nativism. The left's version is class-based. And all that economic and social angst is no doubt part of what's driving the Trump phenomenon. (And the Sanders phenomenon on the Democratic side, by the way.) There is a strong sense of economic alienation in our society and it is finding expression, as it should, in our politics. But it doesn't really explain Trump's popularity entirely. After all, this man is anything but a populist and doesn't even try to pretend that he is one. His answer to everything is to "get good deals," as if negotiating his "Apprentice" contract or licensing his "brand name" to a golf course is the equivalent of brokering the Camp David accords. Indeed, much like a European nobleman of the 17th century, Trump simply wears his wealth as the ultimate demonstration of his superiority and behaves as if that says all anyone needs to know about him. And the GOP serfs and peasants love him for it.
As it turns out it is mostly those working-class Republicans who love him. The National Journal's Ron Brownstein reported this week:
Both national and state polls show Trump opening a substantial lead among Republican voters without a college education almost everywhere. And in almost all cases, Trump is winning more support from noncollege Republicans than any candidate is attracting from Republican voters with at least a four-year education.
He also gets a fair number of college-educated voters too, but the majority of them are fragmented among the other candidates. Brownstein says that unless and until the "anti-Trump" is able to consolidate the college-educated, Trump could win enough delegates with this group to win the nomination.
The question remains, though. Why do these people love him so much? I doubt the answer lies in ideology. Rather, this is an emotional attachment and an expression of primal rage. And if you look at the other Republican circus -- the House speakership battle -- you can see what it might be. Both the Trump voter, the Tea Party regular, the talk-radio crowd and the Freedom Caucus are all saying the same thing: They've been lied to by the Republican Party and they're not going to take it anymore.
For years, they have been loyal foot soldiers for the GOP, putting up with candidates like Mitt Romney, a milquetoast campaigner who changed his political stripes as often as he changed his underwear. They watched George W. Bush screw the pooch in Iraq, embarrassing the party and the US of A in the eyes of the whole world. They waited and waited for the Republicans to fulfill their promises to overturn Obamacare, ban abortion, outlaw gay marriage, eliminate the deficit and kick in the teeth of any tin-horned terrorist who dared to take the name of America in vain. These were all the promises the Republicans ran on. And yet nothing happened. And they don't understand why.
The only thing they see as a positive is that when the Republicans lose their minds and storm townhalls or shut down the government, as they did in 2010 and 2014, they win big at the ballot box, thereby proving that the entire country agrees that this agenda must be immediately adopted in its entirety without compromise.
This is truly what they believe.
Here's Giant Slayer David Brat, the Freedom Caucus member who took down the second most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor, last year:
CHUCK TODD:Congressman Brat, let me start with you. You're a member of the Freedom Caucus. What is it that you want, and what is it that Speaker Boehner, Kevin McCarthy, and Eric Cantor haven't delivered?
REP. DAVE BRAT: Right. Well, they all ran on a pledge to America. And just like your 72% of the folks out there in the real world, say, "We make these promises when we run, but then when we get up here, we're called 'unrealistic' by the Washington establishment and the bubble up here." What we want is what the American people want.
You'll notice his conceit (or delusion) -- that he represents "the American people" as a whole -- when in fact he is just one of 435 representatives who represent their own districts. He seems not to recognize that many of his fellow representatives' constituents have very different agendas than his do. Why, even within his own district 40 percent of the people voted for his opponent.
And you'll also notice that he also doesn't seem to recognize that our system of government requires that the president sign legislation or notice that the president is of the opposing party. Indeed, he doesn't seem to understand our system of government at all. Or, as Republican congressman Charlie Dent said about the Freedom Caucus, “they seem to have a problem with James Madison."
While there's no direct evidence (that I'm aware of) that ties these Tea Party radicals to the Donald Trump phenomenon, it's easy to see a relationship between the two. Rather than recognizing that our system of government cannot deliver their agenda by fiat, they are lashing out in anger at those who fail to do that and turning to a megalomaniac whose grandiose promises of deliverance are no longer even political, much less achievable. He is simply promising that he will, by sheer force of personality, deport all the "bad people", bring "so many victories they'll be coming out of your ears," and Make America Great Again. He doesn't have an agenda. He is offering a utopian revelation. And after all the disappointments from their more earthly leaders, it's what they need to hear.
The expectation among most sage observers is that the Republicans have to hit bottom before they will be able to sober up and face the fact that they must move back to center and find a way to appeal to more people. They're not there yet. But if, for some reason, Trump is revealed to be a false prophet, there is one man who is standing by ready to lead them down a different path.
He's a politician, but he's also a fire-and-brimstone conservative who's ready to lead them back to politics by way of revolution:
SEN. TED CRUZ: Listen, if-- if you're looking for a candidate who the career politicians in Washington will embrace, I'm not your guy. Washington's broken. People are frustrated outta their minds. Everyone in the Republican primary is standing up saying, "Vote for me because I will stand up and fight Washington."
Two weeks ago, we had an epic, knock down, drag out fight on exactly this.
Millions of conservatives rose up, said, "defund Planned Parenthood." Again I was proud to lead that fight. And where were the other candidates? It's-- it was like they were in the witness protection plan. Can you imagine how different that fight would have played out if all 11 Republican presidential candidates had descended on Washington and said in one voice, "Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, don't send five hundred million dollars of taxpayer funds to Planned Parenthood?"
He's no Donald Trump. But he might just do in a pinch. And he will go down fighting, which may, be the best they can hope for. In the end maybe that's all they really want.