There is a chasm that separates right-leaning voters (a group that is larger than the conservative “base”) and the Republican Party's establishment. A grotesque figure who had supported single-payer health care and a recent supporter of Planned Parenthood is leading the polls for the Republican nomination. A famed surgeon who has no experience of elective office is running second, while the Republican senator most hated by the Republican senatorial conference is running third. These polls are a terrible predictor of the next Republican presidential nominee, but they still tell us something important.
Donald Trump's current support is remarkably broad. Trump's coalition contains social conservatives despite his socially liberal policies. It includes fiscal conservatives despite Trump's history of crony capitalism and support of socialized medicine. Above all, the billionaire's support is disproportionately drawn from ideologically heterodox, Republican-leaning whites who have completed less than four years of college. The Republican establishment is facing revolts from both the populist right and the centrist, working-class segment of the Republican center.
The Party's establishment has forfeited the trust of so many kinds of Republicans because of choices it made in the aftermath of the GOP's defeat in the 2012 election. The Republican establishment could have acted as a broker within the party. The leaders could have sought common ground within the factions of their coalition, while trying to reach persuadable votes. That would have been statesmanship. Instead, the Republican establishment chose to act as a faction that advanced the interests and priorities of the donor and lobbyist classes.
The key mistakes date from the Republican National Committee's “autopsy”. This document produced a political strategy that has managed to alienate social conservatives, working-class whites, and tea partiers (these are obviously partially overlapping categories). The autopsy took passive-aggressive shots at social conservatives by suggesting that Republicans watch their “tone” on social issues (commentary on the tone of Mitt Romney and his 47 percent gaffe was avoided). The autopsy authors also came out in favor of “comprehensive immigration reform”—a Washington euphemism for a combination of increasing low-skill immigration and granting legal status to current unauthorized immigrants prior to the implementation of enforcement measures.
The asymmetry of criticism aimed at social conservatives vs. business interests implied that social conservatives should speak more softly and be happy with what (if anything) they get. Also, they should continue to vote Republican for some reason or another.
The autopsy's immigration approach managed to alienate populist conservatives and Republican-leaning, working-class whites who opposedupfront legalization. All this for a combination of immigration policies that are supported by perhaps one-third of the American public. No matter. The immigration policies had the support of the donor class, and Republican elites find it distasteful to advance conservative social policies—even when it is politically advantageous.
At the state level, Republican officeholders have been able to pass abortion bans and restrict funds to Planned Parenthood. But at the federal level, Republicans have given social conservatives plenty of reasons for skepticism. An attempt by the House of Representatives to pass an overwhelmingly popular ban on late-term abortion was temporarily scrapped when some House Republicans came to the horrible realization that they might actually have to follow through on their campaign promises. (A version of the bill eventually passed the House.) Ohio governor John Kasich (a standby candidate of the Republican establishment) made it clear that he believed Republicans talked too much about abortion. This would come as something of a surprise to pro-lifers who remember the Romney general election campaign. Abortion was mentioned in one sentence of Romney's Republican National Convention speech. Apparently, that is too much for some people.
The Republican establishment has gone much farther in alienating voters on immigration policy. A majority of Senate Republicans voted for upfront legalization and increased low-skill immigration, but that only tells part of the story. If you want to know why Republican poll respondents seem willing to make fools of themselves by supporting Trump, you should look at how the Republican party's establishment candidates have tried to make fools of Republican voters.
Marco Rubio ran as an opponent of “comprehensive immigration reform” in 2010, but he flip-flopped after the 2012 election. Then, when the later bill failed in the House of Representatives and the conservative backlash became too severe, Rubio said he would have voted against the reform bill if he had to do it over again. A similar process seems at work with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. In a 2013 interview, Walker seemed to argue that improved immigration enforcement would be unnecessary if the US merely allowed more immigration. He also supported upfront amnesty. Walker has since become an enthusiastic supporter of improving border and internal immigration enforcement before any other immigration reforms. It should be noted that none of these Republican missteps on abortion and immigration are, in any way, the fault of the Democrats. These are entirely self-inflicted wounds.
This is how social conservatives end up supporting fantasy candidates like Donald Trump. The Republican establishment has created a sense among many members of the Party's coalition that it doesn't matter what politicians say during election season, and it doesn't matter which politician wins. Even if Republicans win, the office holders will always find some excuse to deemphasize social issues and push the donor class's preferred immigration policy.
Why are so many social conservatives, tea partiers, and working-class moderates supporting Trump? How is it that so many Republican-leaners are willing to say that they support someone who plays a belligerent monster on television? Maybe it is because the RNC, and the Republican congressional leadership (among others), have convinced much of the public that the Republican establishment is composed of slimy, unctuous weasels. Perhaps the Republican establishment should try statesmanship for a change.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.