The establishment still doesn’t understand Trump


Donald Trump's establishment
White House, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Sean Trende for RealClearPolitics

A few weeks ago, a “Morning Joe” panel concluded that if Donald Trump were to become the Republican nominee (spoiler alert: he will), Republicans would lose in the fall. This is by no means a unique sentiment: former House Speaker Paul Ryan expresses this idea here, journalist Bernard Goldberg wonders whether Trump is trying to lose here, and so on.

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As I read these analyses, I wonder if I have somehow been transported back to 2016, when such shots were coming strict. Here in 2024, we know that Donald Trump won in 2016 and came close to winning in 2020. He led Republican senators across the finish line in both years, and the GOP gained seats in the House in 2020, much to the surprise of the most election analysts.

And, at a comparable point in the election cycle, when he trailed Hillary Clinton by 4.5 points in the RCP average and Joe Biden by 5.6 points, Trump actually leads Biden by 1.9 points in national polls.

My goal here is not to rehash arguments about whether Trump can win: I think that’s pretty clear. Nor is it to make the case for Trump Should win; anyone who has followed me on Twitter for the last ten years knows my opinion on this matter That. Rather, it speaks to the continuing blindness of the old GOP power structure to Trump’s appeal.

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The bottom line is that Trump’s appeal is not aimed at college-educated white voters, which leaves us unable to grasp its basis. For decades, as Michael Barone has pointed out, the GOP was largely defined as the party that “the system” benefited from, while the Democrats were a collection of outsiders.

The situation began to change in 1992, when Bill Clinton began a frontal attack on Republican hegemony among the “victors.” Over time, the appeal of Democratic candidates has shifted increasingly toward that message, moving away from the old “outcasts” approach.

So, for decades, college-educated whites found themselves in a situation on which both parties largely focused their messages They. Yes, the Democrats had a more populist approach, and yes, the Republicans always had candidates with a somewhat patrician air, but overall the focus was on conquering the suburbs.

It’s a little jarring, then, to see a Republican candidate like Trump suddenly adapt his appeal to people who think the system doesn’t benefit them. This is an interesting strategic shift to largely disengage college-educated whites from the fight. It also has its advantages and disadvantages.

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One major advantage, and this one is overlooked by college-educated Republicans who believe the party’s message should still be aimed at them, is that Trump succeeded where the old GOP failed: winning Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and then a lot nearly winning them a second time in 2020. Iowa and Ohio were where the GOP’s dreams once ended; now they were solidly red.

This gets to the final point that I think the old Republican leader has not fully digested: the revolt of the former party base is not without rational basis. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the excuse for not fully implementing a conservative agenda was that Republicans had never controlled the House. Fair enough.

Then, in 2000, the GOP won the “trifecta” for the first time since the 1950s. That ended after a few months, when a Republican senator from Vermont – whom the GOP had supported in his 2000 re-election bid – switched parties. Republicans won the trifecta again in 2002 and expanded their majority in 2004.

Yet, at the end of the Bush years, what did Republicans have to prove? Expiring tax cuts, the GOP’s foreign policy reputation in tatters, No Child Left Behind, TARP, and an expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. This was not quite what the conservatives were promised.

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There was also the revolt against comprehensive immigration reform, which occurred again in 2013. The old GOP’s response? Go all-in for Jeb Bush, whose bona fides have been a commitment to immigration reform and an ability to modulate his Spanish accent depending on the audience.

Personally, I am in favor of immigration reform and I think TARP is one of the reasons why I light my home today with electricity and not candles. But the point of politics is that you have to appeal to a larger political system that may not always want the “best” policies. By 2015 it was more than obvious that the desires of the Republican political system were very different from those of the establishment, which at times seemed bent on winning the votes of three people in think tank cubicles (two of whom voted for libertarian Gary Johnson anyway ).

Whatever else can be said about Donald J. Trump (and there is a lot to be said), his appeal is fundamentally different than previous Republican candidates. But it’s not tight anymore.

All this to say that Donald Trump can obviously win again. More importantly, if the GOP establishment/the remaining NeverTrump portion of the GOP wants to have a say in Republican politics in the future, they really need to work to understand Why.

Sean Trende is a senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. It can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

Reprinted with permission from RealClearWire.

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