After the Michigan primary, there has been a predictable round of handwringing from the GOP about why Donald Trump keeps winning despite being neither a Republican nor a conservative. A lot of answers have been bandied about: there are too many candidates in the race; the media is too nice to him; Republican voters are stupid; it can’t continue forever.
The problem is that these answers miss the point. Trump is not the problem. He is also not the cure. He’s the symptom. The Republican Party is sick, and has been for a long time. For a generation Republican voters have consistently pulled the lever for whatever Republican has been trotted out; they are only now realizing they don’t have a lot to show for it.
Voters are angry. They are angry at President Obama for transforming America into something new. They are angry at Republican legislators for not stopping the president. They are angry at Republicans for passing massive budgets with little regard for future debt, for making miniscule attempts to reign in the executive branch, and for depending on the Supreme Court to do what they in Congress should have done. They’re angry at D.C. Republicans and donors who, in their view, think many Republican voters are rubes and simpletons, while simultaneously expecting them to turn out to vote like clockwork.
And at least some of this anger is justified. There is a real lack of trust in the Republican establishment in Washington—and it’s not just among Republican voters. Consider the most recent controversy, the question of what to do with the replacement of Justice Scalia. Republican Senate Majority Leader McConnell has promised to refuse to confirm any Obama appointment, as Democrats did at the end of the last two Republican presidential terms. President Obama, for one, does not take them seriously. As Michael Memoli at the Los Angeles Times noted, “Obama himself suggested Wednesday that Republicans were hardly committed to their own position now. ‘I get the politics of it … and, by the way, there’s not a lot of vigor when they defend the position that they’re taking. … They’re pretty sheepish about it when they make those comments.’” When many Republican primary voters read Obama’s comments, they fear he is right; they suspect that the Republican Senate’s promise to refuse to confirm another Obama appointee to the Supreme Court is just talk.
Consider, just three months ago, after promising to stand up the president’s budget demands, new Republican Speaker Paul Ryan capitulated on virtually every one of the president’s demands, from accepting more Syrian refugees, to increased federal grants to sanctuary cities, to quadrupling HB-1 visas for service jobs. In light of this, Republican voters have felt a bit like the villagers who kept coming out to the aid of the little boy who cried wolf. And they are angry about it.
And in their anger, they’ve turned to an angry man who has made promises that, were they less angry, they would know not to take seriously. Trump, after all, and to repeat, is neither a Republican nor a conservative. He has flip-flopped on the Iraq War at least as much as John Kerry did in 2004. Trump, like Kerry, Pelosi, and Reid, was in favor of the war, right up until the point that it got difficult, and then Trump, with the rest, turned against it. Trump thinks Planned Parenthood does good work, he believes the government should pay for everyone’s health care, and even on immigration, the supposed policy that no one was talking about until Trump came along, Trump himself is less than forthright, having said multiple times that once the border is secured he would “give them [illegals already in the country] a path.” A path to what? Trump refuses to say.
These are all things that Trump is on record about, and yet many Republican voters, in their anger, are determined to think that Trump is the straight-shooter in the race, rather than a man that has changed positions on every major issue in the race.
The problem for Trump’s main opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and for the Republican Party as a whole, is not just Trump. It’s that too many of their own voters no longer trust them. And unfortunately, they have reason to be distrustful. Regardless of how the Republican primary turns out, it would be a grave mistake for the Republican leadership to simply dismiss Trump supporters as angry, stupid, or ignorant.
Unfortunately for Republican voters, in their anger at their party leaders, they’ve missed the fact that they have even more reason to be distrustful of Trump. And they are running out of time to recognize their mistake.
Dr. Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute. He teaches American Politics and Political Theory and specializes in American constitutional thought.
Publication date: March 11, 2016