The top three candidates in national Republican presidential primary polls — Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina — have between them zero years of experience in government. It shows in their public pronouncements, which tend toward the absurd, uninformed and intensely polarizing. Trump has repeatedly called Mexican immigrants “criminals, drug dealers, rapists.” (Actually, first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than people born here.) Carson considers evolutionary biology the work of Satan, didn’t know the Baltic states are in NATO, and argues that a Muslim should not be president. Fiorina, the Associated Press reports, “has spent the last two weeks repeating an erroneous description of videos secretly recorded by antiabortion activists.”
Two months ago, when Trump was followed in the polls by more experienced public officials such as Jeb Bush and Scott Walker, one school of thought held that Trump’s appeal was limited to a minority of Republican voters; most, surely, preferred a more traditional politician. But Fiorina and Carson are just more Trump: political neophytes who compensate for a lack of detailed policy knowledge with pugnacious, but careless, rhetoric.
It’s time to consider the possibility that a very large swath of Republican voters do actually prefer flailing amateurs to qualified, serious candidates for the presidency. After all, this year is not an anomaly but rather the growth of a trend: In 2012, the Republican polls were led at various times by Donald Trump, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann. The 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” could not name a single newspaper or magazine she read and reportedly did not know why there are both North and South Koreas. Palin’s popularity only grew after she resigned as governor and starred in a reality TV show. Last year, Public Policy Polling found that among Republican primary voters, Palin had the highest favorability rating of any possible 2016 contender.
This is not just because the most charismatic candidates are always those with the least experience. Ben Carson’s performance in the debates can hardly be described as entertaining or even energetic. Nor is it entirely explained by the intensification of conservatism among Republican voters: Fiorina is no more conservative than the average Republican candidate, Trump’s views are idiosyncratic and even Palin had raised taxes on oil companies — an achievement she still touts.
The GOP’s increasing preference for callow, reckless candidates represents a culmination of the anti-government, anti-politics, anti-intellectual direction of the conservative movement. Although it overlaps with the GOP’s rightward shift, it presents a unique threat to American democracy because it espouses not mere preference for smaller government, but a visceral hatred of functioning government and the practice of politics. This mindset abhors concessions to objective reality, expertise or political adversaries domestic and foreign.
While it is unlikely that Trump, Fiorina or Carson will be the Republican nominee, their popularity matters because insurgent challengers rising to the top of the polls tell us something about what a party’s voters want. And they influence the ultimate nominee, often an establishment candidate who mimics the insurgents to co-opt their supporters. In 2012, for example, Mitt Romney, bowing to pressure from his right flank, renounced his prior acceptance of climate science.
Bernie Sanders is polling impressively in his left-wing challenge to Hillary Clinton and so she has responded to that threat (and pressure from grass-roots environmental activists) by coming out against oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean and the Keystone XL oil pipeline. It would be one thing if mainstream Republican candidates were being successfully challenged from the right by counterparts to Bernie Sanders — experienced public servants with legislative accomplishments and strong ideological convictions — and they were compelled to move right in response. Liberals might not like that, but it wouldn’t inherently threaten the functioning of American democracy. But what if the Republican insurgents who gain traction do so because they are provocateurs who reiterate demagogic falsehoods even when confronted by objective facts? What if Jeb Bush has to mimic that behavior to win the nomination and retain his base’s loyalty? How would that affect his governance?
Although it has yet to happen at the presidential level, Republicans have already nominated mini-Trumps and Carsons in congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial races. Think of Carl Paladino in New York or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Some of these candidates, like Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst — who argues that states can nullify federal laws — have gone on to win the general election. The general understanding of these events has been that it represents a conservative revolt against moderates. But the victims of these challenges are often loyal conservatives whose only sin is being a politician with any sense of pragmatism or comity. Compromising with Democrats, or even talking to them about potential compromise, is seen as a betrayal. Just ask former representative Bob Inglis (R-S.C.), a conservative who in 2010 lost to Tea Party challenger Trey Gowdy because he criticized Glenn Beck and voted to reprimand Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting “You lie!” at President Obama during a State of the Union address. (Obama was actually telling the truth when he said unauthorized immigrants would not be eligible for coverage under Obamacare.) The lesson to Republicans: You cannot treat Democrats with respect or admit to inconvenient facts. This makes bipartisan governance impossible.
When this happens in congressional elections, informed observers attribute it to gerrymandering. Republicans are concentrated in highly Republican districts and only the most conservative party stalwarts vote in midterm primaries, and so congressional Republicans are pulled far to the right. But national presidential field polls of Republican voters are taking a much wider, less conservative sample. The polls are currently telling us that Republicans lust not after conservatism — which they could have gotten plenty of from Scott Walker — but blowhard anti-government, anti-intellectual posturing.
Even if you believe that illegal immigration from Mexico is a huge problem, that taxes are stifling growth, that cutting carbon emissions would cost more than it is worth, that abortion is morally wrong, it isn’t in your interest to have your party dominated by voters who care less about these policies than about affecting anti-politics, anti-intellectual belligerence. The country still needs to pass budgets, raise the debt ceiling, staff agencies with competent bureaucrats and the federal bench with competent jurists, and to cooperate with other countries on everything from trade and immigration to nuclear non-proliferation. Republican voters are threatening these foundations of American prosperity and security, not as a byproduct of moral conviction but as a statement of inchoate resentment. The scariest thing of all: Warning them that even a conservative agenda, like the country as a whole, would be better served by competent candidates wouldn’t work. It’s just another liberal media lie. Or, even worse, they would agree and say that dysfunctionality is precisely the point.