Trump fills a vac­uum left by the GOP

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eu­gene Robin­son

— The Don­ald Trump ram­page — still hard to be­lieve, af­ter nearly a year — is a symp­tom of some­thing deeper and more pro­found: the Repub­li­can Party’s slide into com­plete in­co­her­ence.

Rarely has a ma­jor party’s es­tab­lish­ment been so out of touch with its vot­ing base. Rarely have so many ex­pe­ri­enced politi­cians ( Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Ru­bio, Rick Perry et al.) been so thor­oughly em­bar­rassed, and so cru­elly dis­patched, by a po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte. Rarely have feel­ings been so raw that one lead­ing Repub­li­can ( John Boehner) would pub­licly de­scribe an­other ( Ted Cruz) as “Lu­cifer in the flesh.”

What does the GOP be­lieve in? There was a time when any­one with a pass­ing in­ter­est in pol­i­tics could have an­swered that ques­tion. To­day, who knows?

This ide­o­log­i­cal dis­in­te­gra­tion has been years in the mak­ing. I be­lieve one fun­da­men­tal cause is that af­ter win­ning the al­le­giance of mil­lions of “Reagan Democrats” — mostly white, blue- col­lar, South­ern or ru­ral — the party stub­bornly de­clined to take their eco­nomic in­ter­ests into ac­count.

Tra­di­tional Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy calls for small gov­ern­ment, low tax­a­tion, tight money, dereg­u­la­tion, free trade and cost- sav­ing re­forms to en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams. If I were in­de­pen­dently wealthy, that might seem an agree­able set of poli­cies. Ditto if I were one of the “small- busi­ness own­ers” to whom GOP can­di­dates sing lav­ish hymns of praise.

But most work­ing- class Repub­li­cans are, get ready for it, work­ing­class. They are more Sam’s Club than coun­try club. They don’t own the busi­ness, they earn wages or a salary; and trickle- down eco­nomics has not been kind to them. Their in­comes have been stag­nant for a good 20 years, they have seen man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs move over­seas and job se­cu­rity van­ish, they have less in re­tire­ment sav­ings and home eq­uity than they had hoped, and they see their young- adult chil­dren strug­gling to get a start in life.

This seg­ment in­cludes mil­i­tary fam­i­lies that have borne the aw­ful weight of more than a decade of war. Re­peated de­ploy­ments to Afghanistan and Iraq have caused tremen­dous strain; “wounded war­riors” have re­turned bear­ing griev­ous phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal scars.

What ad­just­ments did the GOP es­tab­lish­ment make for these vot­ers? None. Most of the gover­nors, sen­a­tors and for­mer- some­bod­ies who ran for the pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion, and failed, of­fered noth-

WASHINGTON

ing but flag- wav­ing pep talks and dem­a­goguery on so­cial is­sues — along with prom­ises to stick with trickle- down or­tho­doxy and in­ter­vene in trou­ble spots around the world. Only Rick San­to­rum and Mike Huck­abee, who were dis­missed as yes­ter­day’s news, seemed to re­al­ize that work­ing- class Repub­li­cans even ex­isted.

Did Trump cun­ningly craft a mes­sage for these or­phaned vot­ers, or did he stum­ble across his pop­ulist ap­peal by way of be­gin­ner’s luck? At this point, it hardly mat­ters. He of­fers poli­cies, how­ever far­fetched, that ad­dress their wants and needs. He rails against the free trade pacts that he says robbed the na­tion of man­u­fac­tur­ing jobs. He prom­ises not to cut en­ti­tle­ments and of­ten hints at boldly ex­pand­ing them. He pledges an “Amer­ica first” foreign pol­icy that with­draws from en­tan­gle­ments and es­chews in­ter­ven­tions.

Trump also plays on these vot­ers’ in­se­cu­ri­ties, re­sent­ments and fears. He makes His­panic im­mi­grants and Mus­lims his scape­goats. He goes be­yond at­tack­ing Pres­i­dent Obama’s poli­cies to also im­pugn his iden­tity — in ef­fect, por­tray­ing the pres­i­dent as the in­car­na­tion of de­mo­graphic change that many white Amer­i­cans fear. And Trump dele­git­imizes es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans by paint­ing them as cogs in a sys­tem that is rigged to fa­vor the rich and pow­er­ful. ( In this, he’s ba­si­cally right.)

Faced with Trump’s chal­lenge, GOP grandees have failed to re­act in any mean­ing­ful way. Trump’s clos­est challenger for the nom­i­na­tion is the least- liked Repub­li­can in the Se­nate, a man who be­lieves the party’s prob­lem is that its pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates haven’t been ortho­dox enough.

In no way do I min­i­mize the ugly side of Trump’s ap­peal — the naked chau­vin­ism, the au­thor­i­tar­ian streak, the cyn­i­cal ap­peal to his sup­port­ers’ worst in­stincts. But it is wrong — and, for the Repub­li­can Party, sui­ci­dal — to ig­nore the fact that he is do­ing more than merely rous­ing the rab­ble. Trump is filling a vac­uum left by years of inat­ten­tion to vot­ers who have been pa­tron­ized and taken for granted. The fis­sures he ex­posed in the GOP will not go away.

The party now seems on the verge of anoint­ing a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee who does not sub­scribe to many of the party’s core be­liefs — yet who has ab­sconded with much of the party’s base. Post- Trump, Repub­li­cans will have a choice: They can de­velop new poli­cies or look for new vot­ers.

Eu­gene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@ wash­post. com.

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