Donald Trump's fiercest critics have hoped that his outlandish statements will eventually undo him. Their mistake is that Trump is a creation of America's (and the Republican Party's) political elites. The Trump phenomenon exists because Republican elites scorned large segments of their own electorate, and those scorned voters are now taking their revenge. The key to defeating (and what is more important) marginalizing Trump is to recognize that Trump's power is based on the alienation of his supporters.
These voters did not get this alienated by accident. Republican elites had to work at it to bring us the Trump phenomenon. It started immediately after Romney lost the 2012 election when well-regarded Republican political consultant Mike Murphy wrote an article for Time.
Murphy wrote that Republicans had to choose between the “purists” who offer “steadfast opposition to emerging social trends like multiculturalism and secularization” and “pragmatists” who favor a “more secular and modernizing conservatism that eschews most social issues.” Having caricatured and dismissed religious and social conservatives, Murphy then moved on to insult the “nativists” who were so repulsive as to oppose upfront legalization of the country's unauthorized immigrants. Murphy counseled Republicans to listen to the “hardheaded business types” and focus on upward mobility. They should ignore the alleged nativists and the lame social conservatives.
Unfortunately—but also usefully as an experiment—the institutional Republican Party tried it Murphy's way. The Republican National Committee's “autopsy” of the 2012 cycle provided a more polite version of Murphy's admirably blunt political analysis. Marco Rubio, the party's most promising young orator, joined with the Democrats to support upfront amnesty and increased future immigration. Jeb Bush was initially marketed as being willing to lose the extremist-infected primaries in order to win the all-important general election. (This strategy was especially unfortunate for Bush, as his record on most social issues is about as good as conservatives could reasonably expect from a prospective president.)
Then a funny thing happened. All those nativists who don't want upfront amnesty—all those social conservatives who still care about their principles—all those working-class moderates who don't mindlessly defer to the preferences and priorities of “hardheaded” Republican donors . . . they didn't go away and die. They are still out there, and they are in open revolt.
Trump is the most obvious outcome of this revolt. According to the Real Clear Politics average of national polls, Trump is far in the lead with 35 percent. But that isn't the number that should scare Republican elites.
The number that should scare Republican elites is the sum of the support of Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson. Trump is an obvious demagogue, as even his supporters should recognize. Cruz is the Tea Party senator who is most despised by Republican senators. Carson is an accomplished man outside of politics and beloved by some social conservatives, but seems entirely unfamiliar with swaths of public policy. Trump, Cruz, and Carson have the support of 63 percent of poll respondents.
The problem with the “pragmatic” politics of Mike Murphy and the Republican elites is that their pragmatism and their support for inclusion was a sham. They didn't want inclusion. Their entire model assumed that a large fraction (a large majority as it turned out) of their voter base would either shut up or go away or both. The Republican elites assumed that what they wanted was also what the general public wanted.
They are wrong, and they seemingly can't help themselves from being ever-more-wrong. Many conservatives criticized the most recent spending bill passed by the Republican Congress. One of the reasons for the criticism was that the bill continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, but there were pragmatic reasons for Republican surrender. The Senate Republicans didn't have the votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster. The president would have vetoed any budget that eliminated funding to Planned Parenthood. One must be pragmatic and think about how the general public sees things. And then . . .
The congressional Republicans voted to expand a low-skill guest worker program. This sure doesn't seem terribly pragmatic. Only 15 percent of the public favors increasing immigration. To the extent that the public favors immigration, the American people (Democrats and Republicans) favor increasing high-skill immigration.
This is why the Republican establishment attacks on Trump have proven so ineffective. They imagine a crackpot mathematics where they can win elections without the mass of their own voters. They claim the mantle of pragmatism even as they adopt wildly unpopular policies. They openly despise their own voters, and then demand deference. Donald Trump is the product of the delusions and arrogance of the self-proclaimed pragmatists.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.