They call it the summer of Trump.
Only a year ago everyone expected the 2016 presidential election to be a clash of dynasties, with Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush enjoying coronations by the Democrats and Republicans. But Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont, is proving to be a formidable challenge to Clinton. Even more disruptive, on the Republican side, has been Donald Trump.
While Sanders represents the left wing of a common progressivism he shares with Hillary Clinton, Trump is challenging conservative orthodoxy itself by giving voice to a robust right-wing populism. Populists love outsiders, can-do executives and simple policy panaceas, and Trump, a billionaire real estate developer and veteran reality television star, gives the people what they want.
Here is Trump on ending illegal immigration from Mexico: ‘I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.’ While most business class Republicans want to enlarge the pool of low-wage labor by granting an amnesty to illegal immigrants and enlarging guest-worker programs, Trump calls for deporting all illegal immigrants.
On taxes, Trump is also a populist, not a traditional conservative. He defends progressive taxation and has called for Wall Street hedge fund managers to pay higher taxes on capital gains: ‘The hedge fund guys didn’t build this country… But a lot of them — they are paper-pushers. They make a fortune. They pay no tax. It’s ridiculous, ok?’
Orthodox American conservatives want to cut Social Security and replace Medicare, America’s single-payer public health insurance system for the elderly, with vouchers. Trump defends both programs. While he criticises the Affordable Care Act (aka ‘Obamacare’), he favors universal health insurance and has praised Canada’s single-payer system.
According to Trump, his deal-making genius as a businessman will compensate for his lack of political and policy experience in dealing with countries like China: ‘We need a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.’ Like the last billionaire populist to run for President, Ross Perot, Trump argues that he has integrity because unlike other candidates he does not depend on support from rich donors: ‘I don’t need anybody’s money. I’ll use my own money. I’m really rich.’
The free-marketeers among the Republican donor elite are horrified by the protectionism and nativism of Trump, who has built his brand as a developer and television star by knowing what blue collar Americans want and giving it to them. Former king-makers among conservative pundits, used to imposing ideological tests on candidates, also watch in panic as their followers desert them for a maverick whom nobody can control. Denouncing Trump’s ideological heresies, the right-wing radio host Glenn Beck in a Facebook post also pointed out that ‘the First Lady [Trump’s third wife Melania, a Slovenian-American model] would be the first to have posed nude in lesbian porno shots.’
The rise of Trump has shocked pundits and political strategists who interpreted the Tea Party movement on the Republican right with anti-statist libertarianism. But Tea Partiers have always been more populist than libertarian. The movement first coalesced in 2009 in opposition to U.S. government bail-outs of Wall Street bankers in the wake of the Great Recession. Tea Partiers oppose means-tested welfare programs like the subsidies for the poor provided by the Affordable Care Act (‘Obamacare’) while supporting welfare for the middle class. According to a Marist poll in April 2011, majorities of self-described Tea Party supporters opposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid (70 percent), favored raising taxes on those who make more than $250,000 (53 percent) and wanted to balance the budget in part by cutting military spending (66 percent).
Trump’s formula — a combination of generous government social programs for the natives with immigration restriction — is familiar in Europe. Think of Ukip or Marine Le Pen. Although such nationalist populism also attracts many American voters, both parties and the mainstream media have ensured that it remained unrepresented and undiscussed until it found a billionaire tribune wearing a red hat emblazoned with the campaign motto: ‘Make America Great Again.’
Trump is no more likely than Sanders to be the eventual nominee of his party. Trump enjoys a plurality only because the GOP field is divided among a baker’s dozen of candidates. As contenders drop out following poor showings in early state primaries and caucuses, a candidate like George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney who enjoys the support both of the moderate establishment and of conservatives who don’t want to waste their votes on a protest candidate is likely to emerge as the front runner.
A safe but not certain bet is that the Republican presidential nominee will be a governor: former Florida governor Jeb Bush, present Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, or former governor John Kasich of Ohio. All three have proven that they can win in predominantly-Democratic or divided states which are critical battlegrounds for both parties in presidential years. (Walker has dropped in the polls since he tried to one-up Trump by saying he would consider a wall on the Canadian border, too, a remark that has been widely ridiculed).
It remains to be seen whether Trump, unable to win the GOP presidential nomination, runs as a self-financed independent candidate like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996. If he does, Republican strategists fear that by splitting the Republican vote he could ensure continued Democratic control of the executive branch. This may be a real danger. Outside of the Republican party, Trump’s favorability has risen to the point that in a mid-August poll of likely 2016 voters he was only 6 points below Hillary Clinton.
But even if he does not run as an independent, Trump has already damaged the Republican party in two ways. To begin with, he has subjected all of his rivals, including the eventual likely nominee, to withering mockery. Jeb Bush in particular has been wounded by the scorn of Trump, who has called him ‘dumb’ and ‘low energy’: ‘For him to get things done is hard. He’s very low energy.’
Of more consequence, perhaps, Trump has exposed the deep disagreements on immigration and trade policy between the Republican Party’s donor elite and its white working class base. Until recently Republican conservative politicians ignored the economic nationalism and protectionism of their voters, seeking to placate them on social issues by proposing to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage. But now that Trump has awakened the slumbering Kraken of European-style national populism in the U.S., Republicans may have trouble changing the subject away from trade protectionism and immigration restriction and back to ‘God, guns and gays.’
The summer of Trump and Sanders notwithstanding, the U.S. presidential election of 2016 is likely to match familiar faces identified with party establishments. But resentment of a political system in which both parties are more attentive to their donors than their voters will continue to simmer and perhaps burst out in new and surprising ways in the future. In the words of Antonio Gramsci, ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’
Michael Lind is a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the author of ‘Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States’.