Conventional wisdom attributes much of Donald Trump’s unexpected success in the GOP primary to his stance on immigration.
It’s hard to find an article that doesn’t claim he’s tapped into a deep vein of voter “anger” on the subject, with the more cynical takes darkly accusing him of appealing to racism among the people Barack Obama famously dismissed as “bitter clingers.”
Immigration is an important issue, but it’s only part of the problem for Trump’s adversaries, because that issue reflects a general sense of distrust for the GOP leadership. Trump’s voters have lost faith in the Republican Party, the media, the federal government, long-standing assumptions about the economy… and, most unfortunately, many of their fellow citizens.
That loss of faith has been building for a long time, across an entire generation and several presidencies. Its echoes can be heard among some Democrat constituencies as well, although they tend to blame different elements of the old order for breaking faith with the people.
On the Republican side, the loss of faith in the GOP Establishment is palpable, building into an avalanche of distrust over the past three elections. It’s so obvious that it’s amazing even the clueless stiffs of the Establishment hierarchy didn’t see it. They’re so out-of-touch with their own base that they didn’t even realize how out-of-touch they were.
The immigration issue resonates because it’s such an obvious example of the Establishment holding a radically different position than voters… and relentlessly trying to shove it down their throats, year after year, no matter how much they protest. It’s like the customer in the Monty Python skit trying to order a meal without spam, from a restaurant that insists on cramming spam into every single menu item. No matter how loudly they object, Republican voters can’t get their party leadership to take immigration seriously.
The central premise of open-borders ideology is that people who are not American citizens have needs the U.S. government must prioritize above the needs of Americans. Big Republican donors want cheap labor at the expense of American workers. On both sides of the aisle, our elite lost faith in us, long before we lost faith in them.
However flexible he might be on the specifics, as seen from the current flap over his “everything’s negotiable” remarks, Trump at least took immigration seriously and spoke about it bluntly, at a time early in the campaign when none of the other Republican candidates were talking that way. Most of them attacked him for daring to speak up, and the GOP leadership performed its usual tut-tut aerobics… while a great number of GOP voters found Trump talking they way they do, addressing concerns their party big shots refuse to consider.
It wouldn’t have worked out so well for Trump, if faith in the Party leadership wasn’t at such an all-time low, on immigration in particular. Many Trump supporters have been listening to the old amnesty-first, security-later shuck-and-jive for their entire lives. They were children when the first big amnesty deal was made, with copious promises of enhanced border security to prevent another mass amnesty from ever being necessary, and Congress passed the first law requiring the construction of the border fence that never actually gets built.
The GOP leadership, and even many conservative pundits who should have known better, simply refuse to believe how angry and disappointed Republican voters are with Senator Marco Rubio over the Gang of Eight fiasco. During the crucial early months of the 2016 primary, they acted like it was a trifle that could be waved aside, because the base would be bowled over by Rubio’s other positions and political gifts, and polls showed him performing exceptionally well against Hillary Clinton.
The message was, and even today remains: “You guys aren’t seriously thinking about throwing the election to Clinton by supporting someone other than Rubio, are you?”
Do you GOP power brokers finally understand, on this momentous Tuesday, how absolutely sick and tired your voters are of that formulation? We’re horribly disappointing, and we knuckle under to Democrats on countless issues… but we’re the only alternative, so vote for us!
In order for that lousy strategy to work, at least a shred of faith in the Party must remain. Republican fumbles and stumbles finally eroded the last of that faith, in a long letdown that began with the GOP elite attacking the Tea Party voters who gave them the House, and concluding with the leadership’s failure to do anything with the Senate majority it asked for.
It’s very bad news when a critical mass of people believes anything would be better than the status quo. None of the other true “outsiders” in 2016 ever seemed to have a plausible chance of winning either the primary or general election, and they never captured the attitude of the GOP base the way Trump did.
This is about far more than just illegal immigration.
Voters lost all faith in the Republican Party’s political skills – and why not? They watched the GOP donor class pour an incredible, irreplaceable amount of money into the doomed campaign of Jeb Bush, who clearly never had a chance. He never gave the slightest indication he was the sort of candidate who could rise above the burden of his last name, and the forfeiture of the “dynasty” argument against Hillary Clinton. He was the worst of the lot at insulting the Republican base, implying that only selfish cruelty could explain opposition to the “act of love” performed by immigration scofflaws.
Bush did absolutely nothing with those campaign millions except conduct a kamikaze campaign against Rubio… the guy who turned out to be the Establishment’s last hope against Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, who they hate even more than Trump. Tasty pick, gentlemen! Great political strategy you had there!
It might sound funny today, but Bush went into this campaign with a “shock and awe” strategy designed to lock up so many Party elders and campaign piggy banks that no other candidate from the Republican gentry could sustain a campaign against him. It worked, because people like Rick Perry and Scott Walker flamed out early, after posting humdrum debate performances and, in Walker’s case, managing campaign resources poorly. The Party apparatus could have rallied behind one of those candidates, and helped them step up their game in numerous ways, but they overestimated Bush and underestimated Trump until it was too late.
The Republican base doesn’t even trust its Party leadership to win elections any more, so they’re tuning out the warnings about how Trump can’t win in the general election. They’ve already seen Trump defy over a dozen confident predictions of his imminent demise. He tap-dances on “third rails” that should reduce him to a cinder.
The Obama years have convinced many voters that Washington is both utterly corrupt and completely immune to reform, so they’re tuning out erudite lectures about how the American system is supposed to work, and embracing the guy who says he’ll fight for their interests under the dirty new rules of engagement. That’s one reason Trump did so well with the evangelical voters who were supposed to be repelled by his personal history, or passionately devoted to Cruz. Those folks have good reason to feel they’re under attack. They have prioritized effective defense over academic victory.
Faith in our economic system is at a low point, too.
That’s the point of convergence between Trump and the Bernie Sanders insurgency on the Democrat side. Supporters of both feel the system is rigged against them. Frustrated free-trade advocates are stunned by their inability to shoot down Trump’s protectionist ideas. It’s because so many people have lost faith in the assurance that free trade creates jobs and lowers consumer prices in a net-positive way. They know other nations aren’t playing by those rules, any more than they embrace the American notion of open-borders immigration policy. Decades of American “leadership” have failed to transform the rest of the world into the Wall Street Journal editorial board.
Saddest of all, the American people have lost a crucial degree of faith in each other. That’s not surprising, because they’ve been blasted with messages – and billion-dollar programs – for the past seven years, based on the idea that only the biggest Big Government in history can protect us from each other. Middle Americans see armies of Social Justice Warriors lined up against them. People who have been told they have no moral right to organize politically understand how that leaves them defenseless against a rapacious political culture. Nominally conservative big-money interests turned out to be very willing to cut deals with Big Government.
The value of persuasion has been reduced, because socialism is compulsive – it’s not a debate, it’s Thunderdome. The losers are punished and looted. No one gets to sit on the sidelines.
Can we persuade the Left to rediscover the value of free speech… or must we send Trump to show them how it feels to be on the wrong side of their tactics? Can we persuade the Left to remember the importance of limited government and the separation of powers… or must we replace their beloved “benevolent dictator” with Trump, to frighten them back into constitutional government?
For many people, the answers to such questions are clear. The Republican base has lost confidence in their Party’s ability, or desire, to change the system. They are embracing a candidate who they think will either burn it down, or leash its muscle to their interests for a change. If nothing else, some are motivated by the simple desire to let the GOP Establishment know they will never be taken for granted again.
It’s a melancholy turn of events for dedicated conservative activists, but it shouldn’t really have been a complete surprise. It did surprise them, so now a great deal of the Republican base has lost confidence in them, too.