Two events last week are exceptionally helpful to understanding the state of the Republican Party. They seem to point in opposite directions. In fact, they reinforce each other.
The first is the CNN/ORC Poll released Friday that showed Donald Trump as the overwhelming leader for the Republican presidential nomination. Trump had 36 percent among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents. Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) ran a distant second at 16 percent, Ben Carson was at 14 percent and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) took 12 percent.
The importance of the poll is that it brought home dramatically what other surveys have pointed to over the past several months: Trump, the billionaire, is the GOP’s working-class hero.
Among Republicans without college degrees, Trump had 46 percent to 12 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for Carson and 8 percent for Rubio. But Republicans with college degrees split very differently: Cruz 22 percent, Carson and Rubio tied at 19 percent, and Trump at 18 percent. This 28-point gap in Trump’s support tells an important story: Republicans may condemn class warfare, but their presidential contest has taken on all the characteristics of a class war.
Given the limits on Trump’s appeal outside his base, it can be said with near certainty that he will not be elected president. (My use of the weasel word “near” reflects the reality that political predictions can run afoul of unknown unknowns.) But Trump’s enduring strength among the most disheartened members of his party — and the divided loyalties of upscale Republicans — suggests that it is wishful thinking for the Republican powers that be to say they are sure he will never be nominated.
The second event was a big speech by House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that amounted to a delayed inaugural address. Across so many personal and political dimensions, it is hard to imagine someone more distant in style and substance from Trump than Ryan. The speaker’s insistence that his party come up with policy alternatives is the antithesis of Trumpism.
But the most striking aspect of Ryan’s speech is that for all its emphasis on progressives relying on old ideas (they “are stuck in the past,” he said) and conservatives supposedly being more in tune with changing times, his arguments were rooted in the nostrums Washington Republicans have been offering for decades. The angry Republican working class rallying to Trump to express its disillusionment with the status quo will find little in Ryan’s homily to make it reconsider.
True, Ryan said his goal was “to put together a complete alternative to the left’s agenda.” That would be nice, although it raises the question of why nothing even close to this has been forthcoming since the GOP took over the House in the 2010 elections. It also implicitly concedes that the left has an agenda and the right doesn’t.
The speech was full of conservative golden oldies: “More bureaucracy means less opportunity.” “Only government that sends power back to the people can make America confident again.” “Washington has no business micromanaging people’s lives — pure and simple.” “We believe in free enterprise.”
And his big promise: “We want all Americans, when they look at Washington, to see spending going down, taxes going down, debt going down.”
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan: There they go again.
These days, Trump is pouring out so much xenophobia that a little bit of old-fashioned conservatism can seem positively refreshing. But since President Obama’s election, the Republican leadership has been happily complicit with a brand of politics that the prophet Hosea warned against roughly 2,800 years ago: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
Republicans are having trouble taking on Trump not only because they welcomed his support in the past and not only because they have often embraced (in a less colorful and direct way) many of the themes he is accenting, but also because they have delivered next to nothing to their loyal white, working-class supporters.
Many of the Trumpians are inclined to blame the troubles they are experiencing on immigration and on those they see as mooching on public assistance. The country’s changing demography angers and frightens many in their ranks.
But how long does Trump have to stay at No. 1 in the Republican polls before establishmentarians in both parties recognize that the underlying economic causes of his supporters’ discontent are legitimate and deserve a response?
The class war is on the GOP’s doorstep, and the party — including Ryan — simply doesn’t know what to do.
E.J. Dionne is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a government professor at Georgetown University and a frequent commentator on politics.