It has surprised a lot of the Beltway journalists. The polls have shifted and the billionaire Donald Trump is in the lead. He’s at 18%, while Jeb Bush lags at 15%. It’s not immediately obvious, at least to the commentariat, why this rug-wearing buffoon should be causing such a storm. Of course, Trump has a serious financial advantage and the celebrity clout. But this doesn’t explain his success.
The first time Trump ran was not a success story. He positioned himself as the voice of the Birthers – who claimed that Obama was actually an illegal Kenyan immigrant – just as they were discredited. At the same time, Trump was just one of many loose cannons in the race. Up against Rick Santorum and Herman Cain made Trump look sensible. The most capable operators were Romney and Gingrich. So the 2012 establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, won out and lost to Obama. This time the establishment looks truly vulnerable to the self-styled outsider.
The Republican establishment may be facing the first major challenge in years. The comparison with Ross Perot was probably inevitable, and it’s not entirely deserved. Importantly Trump is not running as a third ticket. He represents the right-wing insurgency, in its latest guise, which has dominated the GOP in recent years. Not just the Tea Party movement with its demand for purified capitalism. ‘The Donald’ is calling for tariffs on Chinese goods, the rolling back of free trade, and a severe crackdown on illegal immigrants.
The market needs borders
The Trump candidacy does not resemble the libertarian exuberance of Tea Party populism. This is more like a return to nativism. The Know Nothing movement comes to mind. Back in the nineteenth century the big hubbub was over Irish Catholic immigration. Still, the waves of Hibernians were assimilated with ease. Now Trump wants to build a ‘great wall’ on the US-Mexico border, while at the same time pushing against free trade. It would be a consistent platform (given the impact of NAFTA on Mexico) though Trump seems preoccupied with Chinese competition. That’s another old story: yellow peril!
Many forces in American political and corporate life want to see China’s currency and banking system opened up. Despite the capitalist transition China maintains state-ownership in core sectors of the economy: banking is a key instance. Simultaneously, China manipulates its currency to give itself a competitive advantage. ‘The Donald’ is speaking for the slice of the US ruling-class which opposes this. The Trump platform combines this with the dogma of low taxes and light-touch regulation. It’s a free-market with strong borders.
The nationalist shock jock Michael ‘Savage’ (real name: Weiner) backs the Trump campaign for this very reason. In fact, the Trump border policy resembles some of Weiner’s ideas from more than a decade ago. Specifically, Trump proposes to force Mexico to pay for the construction of the vast border wall. Mr. ‘Savage’ argued that the wall should actually be built by the illegals, who would receive a one-time worker fee shortly before deportation. The sadism is a key part of the appeal to the fears of white workers.
This is meant to give Trump the air of a maverick. For emphasis, the tycoon has repeatedly swiped at his opponents in the race. He’s attacked Jeb Bush in a clear move to distinguish himself against the safest candidate. The Republican 2008 candidate, John McCain, even became a target. This time Trump went after him for his war record. It seems plausible Trump wants to sling mud at the McCain campaign for failing to smash Obama the first time around. The trick is to hit the target where it’s strongest. McCain’s claim to be a ‘war hero’ was the best claim he had going for him.
Why nativism now?
So it seems the impossible has become possible. It wasn’t long ago that Trump resembled the joke candidate. Over a month ago Ann Coulter appeared on Bill Maher’s show and she got laughed at for saying Trump has the best chance. It turns out she may be right. It also looks like Trump has been lifting pages from her book Adios America, wherein Coulter depicts Mexican immigration as a left-wing plot to transform American society.
It’s worth noting that Coulter writes for the VDARE website. Run by Peter Brimelow this white nationalist site has been promoting this world view for many years. A few years ago Brimelow described the Obama administration as a ‘minority occupation government’. He displayed similar grace in the Clinton years. This website has reeled in Ann Coulter, as well as conservatives like Pat Buchanan and John Derbyshire. It may even be shaping the Republican 2016 challenge. This is all symptomatic of the crisis within the GOP.
The 2012 election result fed into a lot of fears. The Romney campaign pulled in 48% of the white vote out of an overall turnout of 72%. Meanwhile the Obama campaign secured 80% of the minority vote and 40% of the white vote. Mitt Romney could only muster 27% of the Latino vote. This is down from the 31% garnered by John McCain in 2008. President Bush drew out 44% of the Latino vote in 2004. Increasingly, the average Latino-American is socially and economically liberal. This poses a challenge for social conservatives and race-baiters.
Realistically, Jeb Bush would be the man to begin the reverse of this trend. He can pose as some kind of moderate in the future. The only way ahead is some kind of conservative politics which has space for the liberal sons of immigrants. Nevertheless, Donald Trump has surpassed all expectations by tapping into a vast reservoir of white anxiety. As if five decades of immigration could be reversed by one man in an expensive suit and a bad wig. This could just be another turn in a death spiral. Trump may well smash the Republican establishment, but he will be trounced by Clinton next year.