We’re in a clarifying moment. Since Super Tuesday and Trump’s successes in a number of states, the Republican Party establishment is mounting an all-out effort to discredit him and to prevent him from becoming the GOP nominee. If these efforts succeed, something like the standard politics of the last generation will continue. If they fail, all bets are off.
It’s long been establishment dogma that there’s nothing to be done about immigration. Our economy needs low-cost labor. Native-born Americans are too lazy and spoiled by the safety net to do tough, low-paying jobs (something usually said sotto voce, but sometime out loud). In any event, we’re often told the Republican Party needs to adjust to the new multicultural realities, not just in America, but globally.
These assumptions exercise a powerful grip on political leaders on both sides of the aisle. Ted Cruz might have challenged this consensus as a way to gain leverage over Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush. But Trump’s hyperbolic and aggressive language has exploded the delicate Republican effort to be both pro-and anti-immigration at the same time.
Another very powerful conservative dogma: Our economic problems will be solved by an ever-greater market freedom. This means lower taxes for the rich, those pushing the economy forward. It also means continuing the liberalization of global markets with free trade agreements, as well as de-regulation and the end of government supports for businesses (for example, the Import-Export Bank, subsidies for green power, and other market-distorting initiatives.)
In rejecting this dogma, Trump is unique among Republican primary candidates. He doesn’t outline anything coherent enough to qualify as economic policy. Instead, he lobs grenades at the dogma that market freedom is a cure-all. He criticizes NAFTA. He threatens to force Apple to make iPhones in America, another repudiation of free-market principles.
Trump is saying, in effect, that the hollowing out of the American middle class will not be solved by still more economic freedom. This is at odds with a core commitment of conservatism, perhaps the core commitment, since Ronald Reagan. And Trump wins Republican primaries while trumpeting this heresy! I can’t imagine a more fundamental threat to the Republican establishment, which has made this dogma non-negotiable.
Trump’s cultural significance is more difficult to describe. Perhaps the best description is gauche, adolescent, and rebellious. This also threatens the Republican establishment, because the Republicans have largely accepted the rules of political correctness.
In the last couple of years, it has become obvious that this acceptance has real-world consequences. Jan Brewer vetoed a religious freedom bill in Arizona, as did Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas. This week, South Dakota governor Dennis Daugaard in South Dakota vetoed a bill designed to stymie the most radical efforts of transgender activists. And, of course, there was the national spectacle of outrage over the Indiana religious freedom law. These setbacks did not come about because of left-wing outrage. It was the result of key elements of the Republican establishment joining forces with Democrats to support the agenda of the Human Rights Campaign.
Trump has said nothing about gay rights to indicate he would do otherwise. But his habit of ignoring political correctness—and in some instances fighting back and winning—seems to inspire frustrated voters. They feel defenseless against the relentless re-characterizations of their concerns as moral failings—xenophobia, racism, populist rancor, gullibility, and more. They may not regard Trump as someone who agrees with them on every issue. But they’re gratified that he is not cowed.
Moreover, voters seem to be making a connection. The same corporate titans who champion the free flow of labor, capital, and goods are the ones who strong-arm Republican governors to conform to the dictates of political correctness. Trump's supporters like him because he threatens today’s economic elites—who are also our cultural elites—promising to bring them to heel just as often as he promises to strong-arm the Mexican government.
And then there’s something still more intangible. Over the last generation, our political culture has become very thin. Campaigns are conducted like bombing raids at 30,000 feet. Big money makes big TV ad buys and pays for operatives who set up in local store fronts for a few short months, at the longest. Public issues of consequences are debated on shows taped in Washington, D.C., or talked about by nationally syndicated radio personalities. In this abstracted public realm, the arrival of a figure like Trump who draws tens of thousands to rallies (as does Sanders) can inspire feelings of real participation in politics. People feel themselves making a candidate rather than being sold one manufactured by party professionals.
I regard Trump as a dangerous figure in our public life. A man who is so quick to threaten to sue his critics may, if empowered, do a great deal of harm to our already weakened political culture. But he chastens me.
For a long time I was indifferent to debates about immigration, in part because my Christian faith made me think that I should favor the downtrodden, which is certainly what most illegal immigrants are, even as I recognized the harm illegal immigration does to the rule of law. So I’ve largely said nothing.
The same goes for globalization and ever-freer markets, something I’ve long thought is our best option as a nation. I half-recognized the real costs to ordinary people, but I affirmed the homeopathic dogma that still more economic freedom is the best remedy. About political correctness I’ve always had less sympathy. But there too I’ve thought a certain care and gentleness in public discourse necessary in our increasingly pluralistic society. I’m not sure I fully realized how political correctness humiliates and silences ordinary people.
In each instance Trump’s successes at the polls have forced me to acknowledge a degree of blindness. A great number of people in America no longer feel at home, a greater number than I imagined. They’ve been pushed aside by our global economy. A liberalized immigration regime has changed their hometowns. When they express their sense of loss, liberals denounce them as racists, which is equivalent to saying that they have no moral standing in our society. Increasingly, conservative leaders let those charges go unanswered or even agree. Then, when they cheer the idea of making America great again, they’re written off as crude nationalists rather than recognized as fellow citizens who want to do something.
The Republican establishment is in trouble. Its lack of connection to the political reality of its own voters created the possibility of someone like Donald Trump. Now, to defeat him, Republican leaders risk provoking even more profound alienation by insisting still more strongly on their catechism of ever-greater economic freedom.
What if the Republican establishment fails to prevent Trump’s nomination? Then its impotence will be obvious to all, which means the power structures, donor networks, and unofficial but potent enforcement of party dogmas will collapse. Perhaps that’s already happening.
Such an outcome fills me with foreboding. As a religious believer, I need an effective Republican Party, if only to block the ascendancy of an increasingly hostile Democratic Party. But it’s also an outcome I’d welcome. Trump is exposing a failing establishment. It needs to collapse so that it can be rebuilt on sounder foundations.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.