How Donald Trump’s Army Is Transforming the GOP - Populist agenda trumps traditional conservative ideologies for the new breed of Republican voter
Amid all the odd changes unfolding in this election cycle, the most startling may be the way the Republican Party is transforming right before our eyes.
Whether Donald Trump is responsible for this transformation, or merely the beneficiary of it, is a chicken-and-egg question for history to decide. But the change now has been unleashed regardless of his electoral fate.
Through balloting in three states, it appears that a new set of voters is driving the GOP now. Their agenda is more populist and less ideological than has been the case for Republican voters in the past. They are prepared to break with the party’s traditional positions on a number of fronts, particularly on issues important to the Republicans’ core business constituency. They have little respect, and to some degree outright antipathy, for the party’s leaders.
Some of these voters appear new to the GOP, but many have been bouncing around in the party, lured in over the years by their differences with Democrats on cultural issues. The difference now is that they are energized, as opposed to apathetic, and united behind a single candidate. They are driving the primary process and changing the party in the process.
The voters Mr. Trump has pulled together in winning New Hampshire and South Carolina and coming in second in Iowa is a coalition of the economically and culturally alienated, voters who look angry but also a bit frightened. It is a far cry from the traditional GOP winners’ coalition.
In each of the first three states that have voted, Mr. Trump has carried by a wide margin Republican voters with a high-school education or less, according to polls of voters. In New Hampshire, he won almost half of such voters. In South Carolina, he also won 40% of those with some college education but not a college degree.
He also has won in each of the first three states among ideologically moderate Republicans and among those who consider themselves politically independent. He does better among older voters than younger ones; in both New Hampshire and South Carolina, he won among those age 65 and older. He does better among those on the lower half of the income scale than those on the upper half.
It’s important to note that Mr. Trump is drawing votes from across a broad spectrum of Republican voters; he fishes in every pond. But his core voters are in this new populist alignment.
To some extent, the Trump core looks like the voters who propelled Pat Buchanan, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum in earlier Republican election cycles. But not exactly: Their coalitions were more heavily tinged with evangelical voters, who are part of but not the heart of the Trump crowd. And those earlier contenders eventually became marginal candidates, not front-runners.
To some extent, this coalition also is a descendent of the tea-party movement that sprang to life in 2010, largely in response to the health-care law of President Barack Obama and his Democratic Party. Yet this coalition is different from that as well. Tea-party adherents were, by and large, ideologically conservative. The Trump coalition isn’t conservative in the traditional sense, or ideological at all.
This isn’t the country club, Wall Street, Chamber of Commerce or religious-conservative set within the GOP. It isn’t the deficit-hawk coalition, either, for Mr. Trump has proposed a tax plan that, according to outside analysts, would blow the biggest hole in the side of the budget. And he’s the GOP candidate most outspoken about not cutting benefits for Medicare and Social Security recipients.
Nor is this the coalition of neo-conservatives on security policy, for Mr. Trump has blasted the Iraq war those neo-cons inspired, and has kind words to say about Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader they abhor.
Ronald Reagan used to define the Republican Party as a three-legged stool made up of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and national-security conservatives. The Trump coalition isn’t precisely any of those three.
This is a populist coalition, and Mr. Trump has won its support in part by breaking defiantly with traditional Republican economic policies. He mocks free-trade agreements that have had broad support within the party, and particularly within its normally powerful business wing. He has shredded the more open Reagan philosophy on immigration. He can sound more like a Democratic populist than a Republican one when talking about taxing hedge funds and private-equity firms.
He has openly ridiculed the last three presidential contenders of the Republican Party: Sen. John McCain, former President George W. Bush and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He is critical of his party’s leaders in Congress and mocks his party’s donor base.
The voters drawn to these apostasies have moved from the GOP fringes to its heart—and other candidates trying to catch Mr. Trump ignore them at their peril.