The Republican front-runner is tapping the resentments of white working-class voters—and promising to use federal power to address them.
In April of 1986, Ronald Reagan spoke to the press before heading to the Illinois state fair to reassure struggling farmers. He blamed their economic problems, in part, on “government-imposed embargoes,” and touted new rules on grain exports. His message that day was simple: Instead of regulating trade, if government simply lowered barriers and got out of the way, prosperity would follow. He drove that point home with one of the best-remembered lines of his presidency: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”
Thirty years later, Michigan Republicans delivered their verdict on that idea. Donald Trump is running on a platform that calls for a more active role for government in nearly every sector of American life. And they’re for it.
“The Trump voter wants action,” one supporter recently wrote to The New York Times. And that’s precisely what their man promises. Trump does things. Big things. Impressive things. And now, he wants to do them for America.
A vote for Trump is a vote for action. For a wall along the southern border: 35 feet tall. No, 40 feet. Is Mexico complaining? Add another 10, and hand them the tab. There’s nothing cost-effective about megalithic structures, which is their whole point. There are cheaper ways to constrict the flow of migrants across the border. Instead, Trump backs a big-government project. Ayuuuuge government project. And the crowds are eating it up.
The contrast between Trump and his three remaining rivals was on stark display at the Republican debate on Thursday night. “I will fight anyone who wants to expand government,” Marco Rubio vowed. In Ohio, “We shrunk the government,” John Kasich boasted. “Government is the problem!” insisted Ted Cruz. “Here's my philosophy. The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity.”
Trump has his quarrels with the federal government. He’s repeatedly vowed to do away with the EPA and the Department of Education. When moderators ask him how he’ll pay for his expansive program of government initiatives, he repeats “waste, fraud, and abuse” like a magical incantation to ward them off. He’s promised to end Common Core, to put government services out to bid, and to overhaul the tax code. He’s decried the food stamp program for keeping half of recipients “on the dole for nearly a decade,” and blamed Obama for handing out “welfare goodies” in exchange for votes.
But on issue after issue, Trump vows to use government as a tool to improve the lot of his supporters, and address their anxieties. He’d interfere in free markets, imposing tariffs to punish companies that move factories offshore, and countries with abusive trade practices. He’s pledged to preserve Social Security. He’s proposed, at various times, registering Muslims and banning them from entering the country.
There’s a common theme dividing the government initiatives Trump supports from the ones he opposes. He’s speaking to his core supporters: working-class whites who identify not by ethnicity, but simply as American. And he’s promising to defend their interests. He’ll protect their jobs from spotted owls and immigrants and offshoring; he’ll keep them safe by keeping terrorists abroad, and troops at home; he’ll buffer them against shifting economic fortunes with robust social-insurance programs.
It seems unlikely that Trump has read the political-science tract, Us Against Them: The Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, but his campaign sometimes seems devoted to proving its authors correct. They used extensive polling data to argue that white, ethnocentric voters vigorously oppose means-tested programs they believe directly transfer wealth to racial minorities—food stamps, welfare, TANF. On the other hand, those same voters are also more likely to support universal social-insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare.
These are Trump’s voters. Some once were Democrats, but left the party for Nixon in 1972, or for Reagan in 1980—in search of a leader who would put the interests of the white working classes first. For decades, both their legitimate grievances and their racial resentments found outlet in the Republican program of smaller government. But it’s always been, at best, an alliance of convenience, and not just on obvious flashpoints like immigration. Libertarians and business conservatives share little of their affection for robust social-insurance programs, and none of their hostility to free trade.
Now, Trump promises to unite the two halves of their agenda—attacking government programs that threaten the interests of the white working class, as conservative Republicans have long promised, but also vigorously expanding those that favor them, as liberal Democrats have advocated. Even in the remarkably crowded Republican field that began this race, there was no candidate with a program remotely like his. His rivals kept trying to stop him by proving that he’s not a true conservative, just a big-government liberal in disguise. Their attacks, though, only strengthened Trump’s hand: His supporters didn’t want a true conservative—they wanted a champion. And they appear delighted that someone is promising to use government to address their resentments, and serve their interests.
There’s been some dispute as to how many of Trump’s supporters are really interested in his policy proposals, and how many are actually just giving vent to racial resentments. This misses the point. Call his core supporters ethnocentric, in the anodyne language of political science. Label them nationalists. Tag some as racists. By whatever name, Trump’s backers—whites without college degrees, concentrated in areas with deep-seated economic problems—see Trump’s policies as giving expression to their resentments. He’s not winning because of one or the other; he’s winning because they’re one and the same.
His rivals still struggle to comprehend this. In a February presidential debate, Ted Cruz accused Trump of equating a lack of support for government-run health care to letting people die in the streets. Trump was unapologetic. “We are going to take those people and those people are going to be serviced by doctors and hospitals,” he insisted. “We’re going to make great deals on it, but we’re not going to let them die in the streets.” Cruz was incredulous. “Who’s going to pay for it?” he demanded. It’s been a standard conservative attack on Obamacare: The country can’t afford it. Trump brushed it off. He’s not promoting socialism; he’s advocating social insurance. He’s a man of action. He’ll make deals. And he’ll take care of his voters.
For three decades, the Republican Party has promised white working-class voters that it will trim bureaucracy, pare back government, and allow markets to flourish—and that broad prosperity will follow. It has told them that government is a root cause of all that ails them. Grover Norquist famously vowed to “reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” Other GOP leaders have tapped the resentments of struggling white workers, blaming government for putting the interests of racial minorities ahead of their jobs and communities. Big government is the problem; less government is the solution.
And now? Along comes Trump, promising to make America great again by having government do big things again. By putting it to work in the defense of the white working class. He’s defying party orthodoxy. He’s not a true conservative. And here’s the rub. It’s possible that this is what a plurality of Republican primary voters wanted all along.
(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)