WASHINGTON – The Donald Trump phenomenon ranks as the great political story of 2015, and maybe 2016, but could it be just a subplot of a bigger story – what commentator and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum calls the Republican party’s “internal class war”? Yes, argues Frum. His thesis is laid out in engrossing detail in the January/February issue of The Atlantic, where he is a senior editor
To summarize his argument, Republicans have traditionally run on what he calls Conservatism Classic: tax cuts, budget cuts, deregulation, free trade. This was the essence of Mitt Romney’s 2012 agenda, and it’s what the party’s wealthy donors expected of the 2016 campaign. The problem: This platform is rejected by many of the party’s voters, who support “entitlement” spending (as in Social Security and Medicare), favor higher taxes on the rich and fear free trade.
To corroborate this, Frum cites a Gallup poll finding that nearly 30 percent of Republicans advocate “heavy” taxes on the wealthy. By contrast, only 21 percent endorse cuts in Medicare and just 17 percent want to cut Social Security.
There is an economic and social chasm between these Republicans and the party’s traditional elite, says Frum. The elite read The Wall Street Journal, and many make huge campaign contributions. Trump’s backers, meanwhile, are decidedly skewed toward the lower middle class (38 percent earned less than $50,000).
Beyond that, Frum writes: “Trump Republicans were not ideologically militant. Just 13 percent said they were very conservative … what set them apart from other Republicans was their economic insecurity and the intensity of their economic nationalism.”
Trying to force-feed this group a giant helping of Conservatism Classic produced political regurgitation. Particularly indigestible was any support for legalizing the status of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants – people whom many Trump backers regard as cheats, criminals or competitors for jobs and government benefits.
So there is a deep schism among Republicans. One defect of Frum’s account is that he attributes loyalty to Conservatism Classic to only a small number of wealthy donors. The reality is that these views reflect the attitudes of millions of traditional “mainstream” Republicans. There is a genuine clash of values and policies. Trump’s political genius was to recognize, either consciously or intuitively, that he could succeed politically without aping traditional Republican positions.
The larger story, it seems, is not Trump but the question of whether the Republican Party can survive this civil war. It is certainly true that, for decades, both the Democratic and Republican parties have overcome deep conflicts and contradictions among their various supporters. Democrats once harbored both liberals and segregationists; Republicans have long been splintered between economic and social conservatives. The quest for power has bred political pragmatism.
The result is a strong and durable two-party tradition. People cling to what’s familiar. Party identification often reflects the lesser evil more than the greater good. Doubts about one party are swamped by dislike of the other.
In politics, as in life, inertia is a powerful force. History suggests more of the same, but it is not a foregone conclusion. The fate of the Republican Party appears to hang in the balance.
Robert Samuelson’s column is distributed by The Washington Post Writers Group.