When he descended the Trump Tower escalator on June 15 last year to announce his run for the presidency, Donald Trump polled near the bottom of the Republican field. An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll taken from June 14 to 18 reported Trump was the first choice of 1 percent of Republican voters, behind Rick Perry, Carly Fiorina, and eight others. A RealClearPolitics graphic tracking an average of several polls illustrates the stunning speed of Trump’s rise. For most of June, Trump’s line slithered along the bottom of the 17-person field, then headed by Jeb Bush. Two weeks after his announcement, Trump stood at 6 percent. After that his support line began to shoot up vertically, pulling even with Bush by mid-July. Trump finished the month at 21 percent, comfortably ahead of Bush and Scott Walker at 12 and 13 percent respectively, a lead he would never relinquish.
His announcement was at first treated by the press as something of a curiosity. Many focused on his assertions of wealth. “I’m really rich,” he said at one point. Few focused initially on the notorious remarks about Mexico—“When Mexico sends its people they’re not sending their best … they’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us, they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” While factual, if one conceded that Trump was not speaking of all Mexican migrants, the words were clearly incendiary.
Still, it took several days for outrage to build. The first major move came from the Spanish-language TV channel Univision, which 10 days later announced it would sever ties to the Trump-owned Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants. NBC followed suit, dropping The Apprentice, and then Macy’s, which dropped a line of Trump-brand accessories. Soon liberal organizations Change.org and MoveOn.org were gathering signatures in support of boycotting Trump’s business interests. The PGA was pressured to drop scheduled tournaments at Trump golf courses. Within two to three weeks, Trump’s “calling Mexicans rapists and murderers” had become part of the national conversation.
But just as a political scandal is often governed more by the cover-up than by the crime, more significant than Trump’s words was the fact that he didn’t apologize for them, which he could easily have done. Instead, Trump held a large rally in Phoenix, where he was introduced by Arizona’s tough-on-the-border sheriff, Joe Arpaio, drawing a crowd far larger than any other candidate had mustered. Shortly after, in Las Vegas, he brought on stage the father of a young man who had been murdered by an illegal alien. He mocked NBC for dropping him while standing by Brian Williams, who had been caught lying on the air. This was the backdrop to Trump’s surge: a tough immigration and border-control message reinforced by a refusal to bend before what had become a massive barrage of liberal denunciation.
Within weeks, every prestige newspaper in America had published columns written by Republican neoconservative figures anathematizing Trump and warning that his success would “stain” the Republican Party. Republican voters, from that July through the following May, ignored them.
Trump’s victory in the primaries has elicited a great deal of establishment hand-wringing and wondering what more could have been done to stop him. Many blamed the press for giving Trump “free media”—which of course he benefited from only because he was unafraid of reporters, and viewers wanted to see and hear him. Some pointed to the unwieldy size of the initial GOP field or the failure of well-funded establishment super PACs to attack Trump early on. In fact, the GOP establishment campaign against Trump was massive: the pages and websites of National Review, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, the New York Times, and the Washington Post overflowed with anti-Trump polemics throughout the campaign season, and Trump was eventually bombarded with more than $70 million of negative TV advertising, three times more than he spent in his own campaign. Yet it seemed to make little difference.
Trump clearly has some gifts as a candidate—a good public performer, enormously energetic, courageous. His business success allows him the much appreciated talking point that he is independent of the D.C.-establishment lobbyists. But his weaknesses are obvious as well—a shallow grasp of policy, a tendency frequently to say things that are probably not true, an impulse to personalize conflicts and create unnecessary antagonisms. Few would describe his character as “presidential.”
Yet he managed to prevail—to mount the most astonishingly successful insurgent campaign against a party establishment in our lifetimes. For all of Trump’s talents, his victory probably owed as much to underlying political currents as to his brilliance as a leader and political tactician.
Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee because he won the GOP’s untapped residue of nationalist voters, in a system where the elites of both parties are, as if by rote, extreme globalists. He won the support of those who favored changing trade and immigration policies, which, it is increasingly obvious, do not favor the tangible interests of the average American. He won the backing of those alarmed by a new surge of political correctness, an informal national speech code that seeks to render many legitimate political opinions unsayable. He won the support of white working-class voters whose social and economic position had been declining for a generation. He won many who consciously or unconsciously identified with the pre-multicultural America that existed for most of the last century. And he won with backing from the growing group of Republicans who understand that the Iraq War was an unmitigated disaster.
When one examines Trump’s main opponents— Bush and Rubio then, Hillary Clinton now—on the critical issues of immigration (legal and illegal), trade, and Iraq and other military interventions, one finds no substantial differences between them. In foreign policy, the liberal interventionists who would staff a Hillary administration line up seamlessly with neoconservatives in support of continued American “hegemony.” A recently published Center for a New American Security report, produced by charter members of both groups, makes this unambiguously clear. With some tweaking on social issues and the Second Amendment, Hillary Clinton could have run interchangeably with Bush and Rubio in the Republican field, and vice versa.
Opposition to this establishment consensus has been advancing, by fits and starts, and is now too large to be ignored. Michael Lind of the New America Foundation argues that the 2016 election ratifies a party realignment that began in 1968, when white working-class voters started moving towards the GOP. The core of Trump’s supporters are the political descendants of what had been the backbone of the Democratic New Deal coalition: working-class whites, politically strongest in the South and flyover states. On the triad of trade, immigration, and foreign policy these voters are nationalist, not globalist—they would limit America’s intervention in foreign conflicts and subject the importation of products and people from the rest of the world to a more rigorous is-it-good-for-us test. (And by “us” they mean themselves, not the Fortune 500.) By nominating Trump, the Republican Party has finally been forced to come to terms with these sentiments, choosing a candidate who is largely disdainful of the globalist consensus of GOP donors, pundits, and think-tank experts. For Trump and his voters, the “Reaganite” basket of so-called “conservative” issues—free trade, high immigration, tax cuts for those with high incomes and entitlement cuts for the middle class—was irrelevant or actually undesirable.
Meanwhile the Democrats under Hillary Clinton have solidified their identity as a party of America’s top and bottom, revolving around the dual axis of urban coastal elites who benefit from their ties to a global economy and poorer ethnic minorities. The Clinton wing of the Democrats defends the free trade deals and has now joined much of the hard left in opposing meaningful enforcement of America’s immigration laws. (Before his campaign started, Bernie Sanders assailed open-borders advocacy as a right-wing “Koch Brothers” argument, but the logic of his party’s politics drove him to embrace amnesty and non-enforcement.) On the left, the argument that national boundaries are themselves, like racism or sexism, an arbitrary and unjust form of discrimination is made with growing frequency. During their debates, both Clinton and Sanders expressed support for an amnesty-based immigration reform and opposed the deportation of migrants who had not committed crimes here.
While neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have fully jelled as nationalist or globalist parties, that is the clear direction of their evolution. Lind suggests that “border wars” have replaced “culture wars” as the critical dividing line between the parties. That the most violent of recent anti-Trump rallies have featured Mexican flags would seem to confirm his analysis.
In one form or another, this nationalist-versus-globalist division is being reproduced in almost every country in the West facing the pressure of working-class decline and mass immigration. Given the opportunity, most European voters have consistently resisted ceding greater powers to the EU, but their votes have had little impact. Marine Le Pen, the National Front leader who now heads most French presidential polls, mocks France’s President Hollande by referring to him as Angela Merkel’s vice chancellor, a functionary permitted to administer “the province of France.” Throughout Europe, right-wing nationalist parties are rising in the polls against establishment coalitions unable to preserve either the economic gains won by past generations or public safety in migrant-dominated urban areas.
Trump is obviously part of this pan-Western nationalist/populist wave, and may be the first to break through in a major Western country. But even if he loses, he will have transformed the Republican Party. Because the Democratic coalition, perhaps now best exemplified by the twin poles of Goldman Sachs and Black Lives Matter, is inherently unstable, there is every likelihood that a more conventional politician, making use of Trump’s basket of issues, will again win the GOP nomination and eventually the presidency.
Rereading the first two essays of Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites, published just after his death 22 years ago, confirms that the issues that have elevated Trump are not particularly new. Lasch described an American establishment increasingly contemptuous of Middle America, a “new aristocracy of brains [who] tend to congregate on the coast, turning their back on the heartland and cultivating ties with the international market in fast-moving money, glamour, fashion and popular culture. It is a question whether they think of themselves as American at all.” For Lasch, this “global bazaar” of multiculturalism, which could be savored without meaningful social obligation or commitment, suited the new elites to perfection.
Pat Buchanan’s two Republican campaigns in the 1990s, as well as Ross Perot’s bids, emerged in reaction to this globalist-oriented elite. But Buchanan, though far better versed on the issues than Trump, did not ever come close to capturing the GOP nomination, and some of the differences between the two are instructive. Support for traditionalist views on abortion and gay rights were critical to Buchanan’s efforts, which placed as much emphasis on the “culture war” as the “border war.” But by the 1990s, the culture war may have already have been lost to the right.
Trump, while embracing nationalist positions on trade and immigration, has remained subdued on social issues. During the campaign Ted Cruz hoped to take advantage of this, assailing Trump for holding “New York values,” but failed to profit. Trump succeeded in business as a minority WASP in the heavily Jewish milieu of New York real estate, and his daughter Ivanka, his closest advisor by most accounts, has married and converted into Orthodox Judaism. This diffuse connection with “New York values”—attitudinal and ethnic—may well have given Trump some inoculation against the kind of It Can’t Happen Here abuse heaped upon Buchanan, and thus more political room to run as an unapologetic America First nationalist than a conservative Catholic like Buchanan could muster.
At every level of American life, the elite versus Middle America split is more pronounced than in Lasch’s time. The funneling of an ever greater share of national income to the top 1 percent has gone beyond anything imagined in Revolt of the Elites. Political correctness existed in the 1990s; speech codes were a growing, if often mocked, phenomenon on campuses. But no one could have anticipated its explosion in the last few years. The concept of “white privilege”—whose emergence has taken the education world by storm—seeks essentially to hold responsible all whites, whatever their own views or personal conduct, for the legacy of racism. But of course this has double-edged effects. Writing in The Federalist, David Marcus goes so far as to claim that the growing use of anti-“white privilege” pedagogical techniques—such as films, teaching exercises, mandatory confession, and other measures—has had the unintended result of making many white students, and their appalled parents, more conscious of having an inescapable and defining white identity. Trump is probably quite sincere in his assertion that he himself is “the least racist person” in politics, but there is little doubt his campaign has benefited from a white reaction to an emerging liberal cultural and educational discourse that depicts whites, and especially white males, as more dangerous and immoral than any other people.
In the 1990s, Americans had not yet experienced the downside of having a foreign-policy elite that faced no rival superpower. The first Gulf War was perceived as a glowing success, the five-day victory with precision air strikes and few American casualties heralding what neoconservatives rushed to herald as “the unipolar moment,” or “benevolent global hegemony.” It was followed by a relatively costless (to Americans) conflict with Serbia. For the past 15 years, however, the United States has engaged in seemingly permanent and unwinnable wars—the ground troops supplied largely by the white working class—in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Trump’s sallies against the folly of military intervention thus resonate far more than Buchanan’s ever could. Trump’s foreign-policy assertions may have been all over the map, but he is plainly less biased in favor of military intervention than Hillary Clinton. Recent American policies—the overthrow of Libya’s Gaddafi, for instance—reinforce another of Trump’s arguments: intervention unleashes waves of non-Western refugees. As Trump advisor Stephen Miller put it, “Hillary’s platform is, I want to start wars in the Middle East, and then import all the refugees into the United States without knowing who they are.” In the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the Cologne sexual assaults, with the endless columns of refugees now trying to enter Europe perhaps the most dramatic visual news story of the past year, this is a powerful argument.
It is unlikely that Donald Trump believes with certainty that negotiating better trade deals, or slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, will be a panacea for the American economy or that building a wall will ensure an immigration policy that broadly benefits our citizens. But variants of these two policies, protectionism and immigration restriction, have been tried before and succeeded. America experienced its greatest era of industrial growth behind protective tariffs; its extraordinary success in assimilating a huge and diverse group of immigrants was accomplished only after the restrictive legislation of the 1920s. It would be peculiar indeed, after a generation of middle- and working-class income stagnation and growing inequality, if such tried-and-true remedies could not even be considered because a bipartisan establishment opposed them. However surprising it might be that real-estate tycoon and promoter Donald Trump was the man who figured this out and acted successfully upon it, the truth remains that he did.
Everything that has happened in the past 20 years has widened the opportunity for the nationalist persuasion in American politics. Pat Buchanan cracked open the door in the GOP; Perot widened it further, as did, in idiosyncratic ways, Ron Paul. But Trump, with a unique blend of showmanship, independent means, and sheer nerve, has blown this door wide open. It remains open because globalist policies have failed a growing number of Americans. Trump’s weaknesses as a candidate, well known to everyone, may keep him from winning. But his run will change the nature of the GOP, and it is very hard to see how the old GOP elites and neoconservative establishment will put the lid on the aspirations Trump has unleashed, in this election cycle or those to come.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.