Following his decisive victory over senator Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary, Donald Trump is king of all he surveys, now the undisputed Republican nominee for President.
A new conventional wisdom has already settled on this stunning turn of events, noting that, while Trump has no chance of victory – like the Barry Goldwater conservative insurgency of 1964 – Trumpism has a real chance to emerge as the ideology of a remade Republican Party. As has proven true again and again in this topsy-turvy election cycle, conventional wisdom is yet again wrong.
It is true that Trump has almost no chance of being President. He starts the general election campaign a daunting nine points behind Hillary Clinton, according to a May 2016 poll in the Huffington Post. Given his incendiary rhetoric, it is little surprise that Trump is the most negatively viewed major party political candidate of the modern era, with fully 67 per cent of those polled actively disliking him. These numbers skyrocket for Hispanics (87 per cent despise him), African-Americans, and women (according to a May Gallup poll, 70 per cent of women find him creepy, too). There are just not enough angry white men around anymore to carry Trump over the electoral finish line. He will lose, and lose big.
But if his personal political demise is not in question, what Trumpism (as opposed to Trump) means for the Republican Party in particular and America more generally is entirely open to question. There is absolutely no doubt that his insurgent campaign has shattered Republican shibboleths, pointing out that what the party establishment took as conservative gospel just does not matter all that much to a base the Republican hacks have taken for granted for too long.
Be the issue free trade, immigration, or running an activist foreign policy, Republican elites have often been in lock-step with their Democratic Party counterparts over the past generation. While it was generally known that both parties’ bases were less keen on free trade, open immigration, and foreign policy adventurism than were their respective elites, in their deceptive quiescence it was lazily assumed that, where the Republican elite went, its nominal supporters would follow.
Trump’s new nationalism has rightly made a lie of this horribly arrogant notion (as has Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democrats), as the Republican revolt has led to at least the temporary triumph of an anti-immigration, protectionist, anti-neoconservative stance within the party. The ideological aftershocks of the Trump earthquake will be felt for years.
But here the new conventional wisdom grinds to a halt. For Trumpism is not like Goldwaterism, the conservative, small government creed which became the unifying glue holding the modern GOP together, and which a political genius like Ronald Reagan turned into an active governing creed. For Goldwaterism (if not Goldwater) become the source of commonality for all the disparate strands of Republican thinking, uniting evangelicals, pro-business Republicans, values voters, and fiscal conservatives. It provided the common narrative that kept these fractious groups united enough to triumph more often than they lost in the modern political era.
But it was Reagan who made Goldwaterism work, skilfully and seemingly effortlessly using the ideological principles of small government to add followers to the Republican cause, to grow the party, and in so doing to win.
And that is why Trumpism is not Goldwaterism; it is instead an exercise in political subtraction, not addition. Trump’s views are excluding possible Republican voters, not growing the party. Hispanics are the prime case in point. This fastest-growing segment of the overall American electorate tends to be pro-business, religious and pro-family values; in other words these are Republican voters in the making. However, if the party begins every conversation by talking about deporting Uncle Jose, it is impossible for Republicans to get beyond this, to all the other policy points that Hispanics might find attractive.
So Trumpism, while rightfully smashing the feckless neoconservative elite that ran the GOP into the ground, is not the answer to what ails the Republican Party. Rather, it amounts to an ideological form of fool’s gold, a disastrous distraction that can only lead to prolonged electoral defeat. If the Republican Party follows the Democrats into being a political force primarily interested only in identity politics (in this case preserving white privilege), the Party of Lincoln will deserve the extinction that is presently staring it in the face.
There is a crying need for both a new Goldwater and a new Reagan in the GOP. Sadly, the siren song of Donald Trump means that he is neither.