The recent victory of the right-populist National Front in France and Donald Trumps' continued lead in the polls for the Republican nomination are exposing a hole in Western politics. A significant fraction of our population feels left out of our discussion and feels like its interests are being ignored. Seeing no viable alternative in either the mainstream right or the mainstream left, these voters are turning to strange combinations of left and right. Feeling ignored by free market, constitutionalist nationalism, voters are turning to more statist nationalisms. It doesn't have to be this way.
The allegedly “far right” French National Front are to the left of that country's mainstream right on size and scope of government issues. Many Republican-leaning nationalists have rallied around a recent supporter of single-payer health care and eminent domain abuse.
Trump's support is drawn disproportionately from working-class whites. These are the voters that Henry Olsen described as caring more about family and stability than about upward mobility. They worry about potential perverse incentives in government programs, but also feel that they need a government backstop in case of disaster. They are suspicious of free trade, and don't see the need for increased low-skill immigration.
Perhaps the best symbol of the estrangement between business elites and these alienated, working-class voters is Mitt Romney's infamous 47 percent comment, but, for a moment, let us focus on the wealthy donors who were talking to Romney in (what they believed to be) a private environment.
The transcript, shows that the donors don't come across as heartless, post-nationalists who are interested only in the bottom line. They care about the future of the United States. They worry about national bankruptcy and America's declining international influence. They worry that the alliance of big government and powerful interests is making it difficult for people of modest backgrounds to rise.
Above all, they worry that they (and the candidates they support) cannot make themselves understood to the majority of their fellow Americans. More than any other issue, the donors return again and again to concerns that women, college students, Hispanics, and the “typical American” aren't going to understand the message of limited, fiscally prudent government.
The Romney donors have the problem exactly backwards. The problem is that the donors don't understand (and seem to take no interest in) the perspective of the working-class swing voters they need. It was Romney who made the 47 percent comment, but it never seems to have occurred to anyone in the room that many working-class voters are more fearful of their family's bankruptcy than the country's. These voters might be brought to care about both, but only if American politicians first take an interest in policies that deal with the concerns of those voters.
The post-2012 Republican Party seems to have gone out of its way to alienate these voters. The Republican National Committee's “autopsy” contained many technical suggestions for how to reach voters, but it ignored the party's weakness in addressing the economic concerns of wage-earners. This might have been forgivable if the RNC had avoided policy issues altogether, but the RNC's autopsy also included a call for “comprehensive immigration reform” (a euphemism for upfront amnesty and increased low-skill immigration). Jeb Bush began his campaign by bragging that he was willing to “lose the primary” (ignore atavistic and nativist Republican primary voters) in order to win the general election. The party's elites are doing at least half of the work of recruiting people to support Trump.
Trump's campaign is—has always been—a combination of statism and surrealism. Eleven million illegal aliens (and whatever American-born minors might be in their families) would be expeditiously deported. Muslim terrorists would be banned from entering the United States by the expedient of asking applicants if they are Muslim and refusing all who answer “yes.”
Trump's advantage is that he doesn't come across as if he believes that his wage-earning supporters are obstacles and burdens. The elite right is genuinely nationalist, but it often seems to consider its working class supporters as more like difficult tenants or semi-competent hirelings than true fellow citizens. This hubris has opened the way for Trump to act as Nemesis.
The most that Trump's white, working-class supporters can hope for is a little catharsis and entertainment. Aside from his vices and ill-considered proposals, Trump's brand of nationalism is too narrow for the American nation. He alienates too many foreign-born and second generation Americans who might be supportive of a limited government and constitutionalist nationalism.
But if Trump's nationalism is too narrow, then so is that of the Republican elites. The elites' lack of interest in the priorities and struggles of wage-earners created the conditions for Trump's insurgency. We are going to have some kind of nationalism in our politics. It is up to the rising generation of conservative statesmen to craft a nationalism that upholds limited government and addresses the concerns of American wage-earners of all ethnicities.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.
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