The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Elites are horrified by Donald Trump. What if Republican voters don’t agree?

Reuters/Chris Keane

With anxiety about Donald Trump rising among GOP elites and conservatives, we’re seeing more and more efforts from right-leaning writers to explain the ugliness of Trumpism — its bigotry, its authoritarianism — as a way of dissuading Republican elected officials and GOP voters in coming primaries from supporting him.

Which gives rise to a question: Are the Republican candidates running against Trump making anything close to this same case?

Today’s new Washington Post/ABC News poll contains some clues to what is driving Trump’s support:

Overall, Americans remain deeply pessimistic about the federal government. Two in 3 offer negative reactions, including about a fifth who describe themselves as angry; Trump has tapped into that mood. The more dissatisfied that people are with the federal government, the more they are likely to support his candidacy.
A similarly strong majority see the political system today as dysfunctional, even slightly more so than in the fall. Trump does best among those who feel most strongly about the way the system works….
A similar pattern holds for two of Trump’s most controversial ideas — deporting all of the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States and temporarily banning Muslims from entering the country as a security precaution. Overall, Americans oppose both, while more Republicans favor than oppose them. Trump has big leads among those who support those policies, but those leads disappear among opponents.

Trump holds big leads among those who favor proactive, stepped up mass deportations and temporarily banning Muslims from the United States, and there is a strong correlation between support for Trump and dissatisfaction with the federal government and a conviction that the political system is failing.

This tracks with what I’ve suggested. Trump’s appeal is rooted in his vow to crush the dark forces that are making a lot of Republican voters feel economically and physically threatened (our poll shows Trump backers support harsh measures against immigrants and Muslims), and in his vow to bash heads among the stupid, weak, corrupt elites who are cheating you blind with wage-depressing trade policies that benefit multinational corporations, China and Mexico (our poll shows Trump backers feel the government and the system are failing them).

All of that is fairly obvious, and center-right writers are taking stock of Trumpism in similar terms. Here’s David Brooks today:

He offers to use government on behalf of the American working class, but in negative and defensive ways: to build walls, to close trade, to ban outside groups, to smash enemies. According to him, America’s problems aren’t caused by deep structural shifts. They’re caused by morons and parasites. The Great Leader will take them down.

And here’s Philip Klein:

Denying Trump the nomination at the convention would be about taking a stand, saying that the GOP isn’t the party of open-ended government entitlements, socialized medicine, partial birth abortion, gun control, private property seizures, trade protectionism, authoritarianism, vulgarity, mindless policy pronouncements, celebrity worship and white male resentment.

But how much of this sort of thing is being said by Trump’s Republican rivals? As best as I can determine, the people who are trying to reach the actual voters in key states that will be voting soon — the other GOP candidates, GOP Super PACs spending big on TV ads — are mostly focused on Trump’s murky business dealings and his clownish, wretched personal conduct. Those are valid targets, obviously, and hitting them could conceivably prove enough to derail him eventually.

But it’s hard not to notice that those forces who are directly involved in political combat with Trump are not seriously challenging him on a number of the very things that make some of these opinion-makers most uneasy. They are not really attacking Trump for refusing to touch entitlements or for criticizing bad free trade deals. They are not seriously mounting an expansive moral case against Trump’s promise of mass deportations and a Muslim ban, or his cynical efforts to profit off of white backlash. Trump’s rivals say mass deportations and a Muslim ban are impractical, but there is not a lot of outrage directed towards them.

It’s true that some criticism has been directed at Trump for supporting Obamacare, abortion, gun control, and private property seizures. But those criticisms remain comfortably within the boundaries of GOP orthodoxy. Trump’s rivals seem to believe there is some risk, or at least nothing to gain, in hitting him for vowing not to touch the entitlements of aging Republicans, for attacking free trade deals as bad for workers, and for vowing a very hard line on immigrants and Muslims — as if such attacks would not win over Republican voters, or might even alienate them.

All the high-minded criticism from right-leaning writers could dissuade Republican politicians from supporting Trump, by warning them what a disaster he’d be for the country (and for conservatism and the GOP), thus persuading them not to act on short-term political expediency if he keeps winning. That’s a noble goal and could make a difference. But the fact that some of these criticisms of Trumpism are not being targeted towards Republican voters in any serious or sustained way tells us a lot about why Trump is succeeding.