As an American studying abroad this term, following the past month of presidential primaries has felt like watching the culmination of a long, slow-burning dumpster fire. Despite months of polls and pundits claiming Donald Trump could not and would not win the Republican nominations, the recent concessions of the two remaining candidates – Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Governor John Kasich of Ohio – have made the impossible a reality. While I’m thousands of miles away from the flames, returning to such a fraught national political scene is far from appetizing. As with all things Trump, though, I found myself quickly rationalizing my dismay: Trump’s string of decisive victories, coupled with officials’ and voters’ hatred of Cruz, made this largely inevitable, and honestly, how much worse is he really than “Lucifer in the flesh”? Once the shock wore off, the logical question arose: what does a Trump nomination mean for the future of American politics?
Now, it’s important to divorce the lessons of a nomination from the consequences of an electoral victory. A Trump election could have potentially disastrous consequences: his desire to impose sweeping tariffs on China, if implemented, would reverse decades of American foreign economic policy and potentially begin a trade war with the nation’s largest economic partner. That’s to say nothing about his ludicrous immigration proposals to ban all Muslims and build a wall at the Mexican border; in fact, he appears to be moving away from the former statement as he pivots to the center for the general election. However, while those and other ridiculous Trump sound bites dominate social media, such as his Cinco de Mayo taco bowl and pejorative nicknames for other candidates (“Lyin’ Ted” and “Crooked Hillary”), conversations with actual voters reveal a very different perception of the candidate. Their rationales provide the most important lesson of the Trump nomination: Republican voters are changing, and the Grand Old Party (GOP) establishment’s reaction will determine their party’s future.
The Indiana primary quite literally decided the Republican nomination; right after Trump’s victory there, Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the race. Guardian columnists John Harris and John Domokos followed the Trump campaign right before that decisive win and noted that Trump’s stump speeches made no mention of Muslims or the wall. Rather, he focused on criticizing free trade deals that have hurt many US industries as companies move abroad for cheaper labor. He then fed that story into a broader sense of national decline felt across a country that has seen military adventures, financial bubbles and crashes, and an economy that continues to grow slowly. His many xenophobic and nativist ideas also tap into another driver of that same sentiment: the diminishing percentages of whites in America. A June 2015 U.S. Census Bureau report reveals that a majority of American children under the age of 5 are now racial and ethnic minorities – a.k.a. not white – for the first time in U.S. history. Within just thirty years, today’s majority white population will become a minority. While that date is still quite far, middle-class white Americans are strongly pessimistic about the nation’s trajectory, and they want to return to a time when life was better for them. They would love to “make America great again.” Trump’s foundational
proposals tap into this unique intersection of demographic, economic, and cultural trends. Much as another anti-establishment candidate – Bernie Sanders – has galvanized young voters, Trump has done the same for middle-class white men. Their economic and racial fears have converged to carry the Trump campaign to new heights.
Unfortunately for the Republican Party, the array of establishment candidates that were thrown at Trump – Kasich, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and even the anti-establishment Tea Party leader Cruz, simply could not catch the same wave. For one, principles of classic conservatism touted by the traditional Republicans simply did not jive with the segment of the population voting for Trump. Free trade, immigration, and an involved role in foreign affairs have been bastions of American conservatism for decades. The above Establishment candidates all reflect that legacy. But as those Indiana Trump voters indicated, widespread polling confirms that Donald’s voters are decidedly opposed to such policies. Indeed, for many traditional conservatives, Hillary Clinton appears to align with their values far more than Trump.
Ideologically, that seems to signal the end of Trump’s general election dreams. However, statistics from the most recent primaries show that Trump has tapped into an entirely new voter base. In several states, the number of Establishment voters – those who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 and either of the remaining Establishment candidates, Kasich and Rubio, in this electoral cycle – slightly increased between the cycles. But Trump still handily won those primaries. Rather than taking voters from the other candidates, he encouraged millions of disenchanted voters to actually participate in Republican politics. For the GOP to stay relevant, it must balance the values that have underpinned it for a generation with those that now animate Middle America. That balancing act is perilous, and navigating it will be extremely tricky. Managing Trump’s pivot to the middle will help provide a much-needed test run. In addition to likely deciding the upcoming election, it could decide the dominant ideological issues of the next generation of American politics.