Election 2016: Republicans Fear Donald Trump, but He is The Enemy Within

Donald Trump photo by Gage Skidmore
Eric M. Uslaner, University of Maryland-College Park

The Wall Street Journal editorialized that Donald Trump “has few political convictions and has scorched so much earth on his way to the nomination.” John Sides and Michael Tesler argue that “Trump’s success seems puzzling on its face because so many of his positions seem out of step with Republican Party orthodoxy.” Talk show host Glenn Beck was among many conservative commentators who see Trump as a closet liberal. 

Has the Republican Party been hijacked? Has Trump broken it? As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said of the Pottery Barn’s slogan applied to politics: If you break it, you’ve bought it. Senator John Cornyn of Texas, chair of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, has told GOP candidates in the 2016 election that they should feel free to separate themselves from Trump. Rejecting your party’s nominee is very rare. When it has occurred, as when Democratic Rep. John Bell Williams of Mississippi supported Barry Goldwater against Lyndon Johnson in 1964, there have been strong repercussions: Williams was demoted to the lowest seniority ranks on his committees. But the Republican “establishment” sees Trump and his supporters—many of whom have not been active in politics and who don’t identify as Republicans—as a long-term threat to the party. They see Trump as a sure loser and pundit Larry Sabato now sees a Democratic landslide leading to a likely Senate majority in 2017.

Republican leaders are in a tizzy wondering what to do with the candidate who throws caution—and Republican leadership—to the wind. How did they get into this predicament? The blame lies not in their stars, but in themselves. They are looking all around them for someone or some institution to blame. Donald Trump has upended the Republican establishment by focusing on the issues and rhetoric that the party has been using against the Democrats at least since 2009. As Jesse Jackson said about white opposition to school busing in the 1970s: “It’s not the bus. It’s us.”

Republicans had high hopes for the 2016 elections. There is a well-known third term curse: Parties rarely win the White House three times in a row. They also had high hopes of defeating Hillary Clinton, whose personal popularity drags behind her party’s, and her competitor within the party (Bernie Sanders).

What happened? One scenario is the failure of the party leaders to rally around a single mainstream candidate until it was too late. Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, Ben Carson, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Jim Gilmore—not all “establishment” favorites—saw their campaigns collapse. Marco Rubio, the current favorite among political leaders, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich are the last candidates standing.  Kasich is running too far to the left to have a chance of gaining the nomination. Cruz is running too far to the right and Rubio simply hasn’t caught fire. The party leaders should have pushed all but one of these candidates aside and left one to run against Trump, on this account.

But this isn’t so simple. The Republicans have shifted to the right, especially on cultural issues issues, since the emergence of the Tea Party in 2009. Republican voters in 2016 are much like Democrats in 1972: Democrat Hubert Humphrey ran a close race in 1968 but lost and party activists thought that he had shifted too far to the center. So they backed a more liberal candidate in 1972, George McGovern, who lost every state except Massachusetts. 2016 is the Republicans’ 1972. Many GOP activists believe that the party lost the 2008 and 2012 elections because they chose establishment candidates, John McCain and Mitt Romney. 2016 is the year of an anti- establishment candidate and Trump fills that bill.

The potential Trump crisis is not one of moving too far to the left for the Republican base. Nor is it ideological blandness. Instead, Trump’s problems are the party’s problems. Robert Kagan, the neocon who now calls himself a “former Republican,” argued in the Washington Post that Trump is “the GOP’s Frankenstein monster.” Kagan writes perceptively:

… it is the party itself that brought on this plague. The party’s own political crimes are being punished in a bit of cosmic justice fit for a Greek tragedy. … Was it not the party’s wild obstructionism — the repeated threats to shut down the government over policy and legislative disagreements, the persistent calls for nullification of Supreme Court decisions, the insistence that compromise was betrayal, the internal coups against party leaders who refused to join the general demolition — that taught Republican voters that government, institutions, political traditions, party leadership and even parties themselves were things to be overthrown, evaded, ignored, insulted, laughed at?

… Then there was the party’s accommodation to and exploitation of the bigotry in its ranks. No, the majority of Republicans are not bigots. But they have certainly been enablers. Who began the attack on immigrants — legal and illegal — long before Trump arrived on the scene and made it his premier issue? Who frightened Mitt Romney into selling his soul in 2012, talking of “self-deportation” to get himself right with the party’s anti-immigrant forces? Who opposed any plausible means of dealing with the genuine problem of illegal immigration? … 

… What did Trump do but pick up where they left off, tapping the well-primed gusher of popular anger, xenophobia and, yes, bigotry that the party had already unleashed? ... Republican and conservative criticism has taken an unusually dark and paranoid form. Instead of recommending plausible alternative strategies for the crisis in the Middle East, many Republicans have fallen back on mindless Islamophobia, with suspicious intimations about the president’s personal allegiances.

Republicans, on Kagan’s argument, laid the foundation for Donald Trump. As Kagan argues, the public face of the Republican Party has been one of division and harsh rhetoric. Tea Party members of the House of Representatives (later rebranded as the Freedom Caucus) pushed Speaker John Boehner to the edge of a government shutdown several times. The Speaker tried to punish some of them by stripping them of prestige committee assignments, but he had to back down every time. The party found a challenger against Justin Amash of Michigan in a primary, a leader of attempts to overthrow the Speaker. But Amash prevailed and remains a leader of the ultra-conservative faction of the House party contingent. On Friday, March 4, the Freedom Caucus announced that it would not work with Ryan in seeking a budget compromise. It had forced Boehner out of office and mainstream Republicans hoped that a new Speaker would be given more room to seek compromises.

Outside the Congress, some Republican officials (always repudiated by more mainstream officials) have made comments that are widely seen as racist or misogynistic. Presidential candidate Ron Paul argued that the rights of black Americans are secondary to the “freedom of whites to discriminate.” Texas Governor Rick Perry’s ranch was once named “Niggerhead.” Many leading Republicans—including Trump and Mike Huckabee—challenged Obama’s birthplace (as an American). And there is a long list of racially-tinged statements by prominent Republicans, most recently comments by Maine Governor Paul LePage on how out-of-state black drug dealers were coming to his state to impregnate “young white girls.” Of course, these statements are not representative of the party. Yet, as Kagan argues, the sheer volume of these remarks paints a negative picture of the party. While they are not representative of party supporters, sufficient numbers of Republican identifiers do support these positions. Seventy percent of Trump supporters in South Carolina wished that the Confederate flag were still flying over the State House and 38 percent of wished the South had won the Civil War.

The 2016 American National Election Study pilot survey asked 1200 respondents about their voting intentions in a two candidate race between Trump and Hillary Clinton as well as their party identification and their positions on many issues salient to the campaign. Only half of Trump’s supporters were Republicans by party identification. By issue positions, however, Trump voters were very much like Republicans. In the table in the image gallery, I report the percentage of supporters for each issue position for Democrats and Independents and then for Republicans and Trump supporters.

Only 12 percent of Republicans and 15 percent of people who intend to vote for Trump support legal immigration, compared to 24 percent of Democrats. The divisions are even sharper on some issues of race: Almost half of Democrats and Independents agree that slavery created conditions that still hold back African-Americans compared to 17 and 18 percent of Republicans and Trump supporters. Far more Republicans and Trump supporters see blacks as lazy and violent than do Democrats and Independents. While 28 percent of Democrats and Independents would be very pleased if a Latino were elected President, only 19 percent of Republicans and just 10 percent of Trump supporters agreed. More than twice as many Democrats and Independents favor automatic citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants compared to Republicans and Trump voters. And both Republicans and Trump voters have more negative attitudes toward gays than do others: They rate gays lower on a 0-100 feeling thermometer and are 30 percent more likely to agree that providers of wedding services have the right to refuse to do business with gays and lesbians.

In one way, those who say that Trump and his supporters may be “too liberal” are correct. “Only” 64 percent of Trump supporters call themselves conservatives—compared to three quarters of Republicans (and just 13 percent of Democrats and Independents). Twenty-one percent call themselves “very conservative,” less than the 28 percent for Republicans. But equal shares of Republicans and Trump voters—about two-thirds—want fewer services from the government.

But Kagan—and Kerem Ozan Kalkan—argue that Trump supporters—and Republicans more generally—stand out on their views of Muslims. This is one of Trump’s core issues. Trump supporters and Republicans both rate Muslims much lower on a feeling thermometer (about 30) than do Democrats and Independents (at 48). And 60 percent of both Republicans and Trump supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim—recall Trump’s earlier contention that the President was born outside the United States (and thus ineligible to be President). It is not surprising that the Obama feeling thermometer ratings are very low (17 and 19 percent) for Republicans and Trump supporters. While most Republicans and most Trump supporters do not see Muslims as lazy (about 20 percent), this is still twice as much as other people (just eight percent). Forty-eight percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Trump voters see Muslims as violent, compared to just 26 percent for Democrats and Independents. Only 14 percent of Republicans and 10 percent of Trump voters are willing to allow Syrians fleeing the civil war to come to the United States—perhaps the most famous of Trump’s own policy pronouncements—while Democrats and Independents are more favorable to this policy (42 percent).

Kalkan shows that Trump’s supporters stand out from those of other candidates, notably Jeb Bush, on ethnocentrism. But this may well be why Bush could not generate much support, while Trump seems well on his way to the Republican nomination.

As Walt Kelly’s Pogo once remarked, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Eric M. Uslaner is Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland—College Park, Honorary Professor of Political Science at Aarhus University (Denmark), and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for American Law and Political Science at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, Chongqing, China.

Donald Trump photo by flickr user Gage Skidmore