With each passing day, it appears to be increasingly likely Donald Trump captures the Republican nomination given his committed base, strong national numbers, a lead in New Hampshire that is insurmountable so long as “establishment” candidates like Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Chris Christie split the vote, and a Teflon-like insulation from his own statements. From George Will declaring a Trump nomination could be the end of the Party to discussions of an anti-Trump PAC, the establishment is up in arms over Trump’s rise and seems to be blaming the base for his success: supporters are falling for a cult of personality, they’re unsophisticated, just looking for a loud candidate, and so on.
I too am a Republican who is no Trump supporter but am tiring of the establishment’s blame game. If they want someone to blame, they should try looking in the mirror lest we forget how Trump was treated in 2012. Rather than ignoring him as a fringe figure, Mitt Romney gladly visited the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas to receive his endorsement in person. Plus, Romney originally planned to have Trump make an appearance at the Convention, only to be cancelled due to a Hurricane. Rather than ignore Trump, the Party decided to embrace and therefore legitimize Trump. If Trump is to be considered a monster, then Romney and the establishment are Dr. Frankenstein. They’ve lost control of their creation (as though they ever had control), and he’s turning out to be quite popular with the villagers.
The establishment’s blame goes beyond the actions in 2012 and is more fundamental. The Republican Party has a George W. Bush problem, and his economic record is partly responsible for Trump. The establishment has yet to come to grips with the economic failings of Bush’s Presidency, which left the working and middle class in worse shape.
The core of Trump’s support comes from working people. For instance, the latest national CNN poll showed Trump with 42% among those earnings under $50k and 46% among those who did not graduate college. The CNN poll is consistent with other national polling. Blue collar workers have clearly gravitated towards Trump.
Now, I am no defender of Barack Obama’s economic policies, and GDP growth during this recovery has been slower than under President Clinton or Reagan. Like many Americans, I blame subpar growth on Obama’s tax and regulatory policies, and the facts are that while job growth has been solid, real median incomes have fallen to $53,657 in 2014 from $55,313 in 2008, per the Census Department. Additionally, in December 2008, America had 12.9 million manufacturing jobs. As of November 2015, that number is 12.3 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
For many Americans, the state of the economy is still fragile, and angst remains. Unease with Obama policies could explain why voters are seeking change, which would imply more support for Republicans, but it does not explain why so many voters are totally ignoring establishment choices in favor of someone as unorthodox as Trump. It is here where Bush comes in.
On the positive side, under President Bush, we enjoyed nearly 3 consecutive years of unemployment at 5% or less, roughly full employment. However, the Bush economy was not great for everyone. GDP growth averaged a meager 2.1% during his two terms, and the middle class did not enjoy much of this growth. Just as under Obama, real median incomes fell under Bush, from $57,724 in 2000 to $55,313 in 2008. Even more importantly to understand the Trump phenomenon is the decline in manufacturing employment, from 17.2 million in December 2000 to 12.9 million in December 2008. Of course, millions lost homes in a financial crisis for which Bush bears some responsibility. The political establishment of both parties have failed working and middle class Americans for at least fifteen years now.
Unsurprisingly, republican voters are willing to look outside the establishment, which has failed them economically for years. Moreover, the establishment, by focusing all of its ire on Obama, has not reached out to workers in a compelling fashion to explain how the GOP can make the economy work for them. While he may be selling a false bill of goods (what makes for good politics is not necessarily good or plausible policy), Trump has made a clear and simple case to workers, essentially: you’ve been screwed by incompetent politicians who work for donors not you, who negotiate terrible trade deals with China, and who have let illegal immigrants undercut wages whereas I will work for you and bring back your jobs. Let’s be honest, if you’re a white guy working in manufacturing, it has probably been a tough decade, and this pitch is compelling.
At the very least, Trump is making an overt effort to show he cares about the middle class, something other candidates and the establishment at large have been unable to do. Rather than recognizing the problems of today differ from 1980, we often reflexively revert to Reaganism (perhaps because Bush policies didn’t work so well). Some, like Carson, push flat taxes that would likely hurt the poor. Senator Cruz is pushing a Business VAT that would disincentivize employment (probably not a good sell to workers), and while Rubio has more interesting economic policies given his new child tax credit, he has not made a sustained pitch to the working class on economics, focusing on foreign policy instead, though that may be changing.
For Republicans to win national elections and possibly put Upper Midwest states in play, they need to do better with working and middle class Americans. To do so, the establishment must recognize its economic policies have failed in the 21st century (as have Democratic policies). In many ways, workers are worse off than 20 years ago, which is a stinging rebuke of our political establishment. Until the republican establishment admits failings and modernizes conservative principles to solve 21st century problems (for example, negative marginal tax rates), the GOP establishment will justifiably continue to lack any credibility with its working and middle class voters.
Trump’s proposals are ultimately simplistic and essentially are “blame the other guy (with other guy being China, Mexico, Vietnam, Donors etc.),” but he is the only major candidate arguing to workers he cares about their well-being. No wonder they are flocking to him. The base is not failing the establishment. The establishment has failed its base for 15 years with lousy, outdated, and unoriginal economic policy offerings, and until they recognize this, blue collar republicans will be receptive to outsiders like Trump.
Bush failed the middle class. Unless the GOP intellectual elites cede this and make necessary policy updates, Trump won’t be an aberration. He’ll be the first in a long string of populist outsiders while the power of the establishment continues to atrophy.