Surprise! Donald Trump Appeals to White Nationalists

David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and a fan of Trump’s immigration policies, shakes hands with far-right National Democratic Party of Germany member Udo Voigt in Saxony, Germany. By Emmanuel d’Aubignosc [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What happens when a party’s leading candidate for its nomination for president falls in a forest and a bunch of white nationalists hear him loudly and clearly? Well, we’re finding out now.

Evan Osnos, in a great reported piece for The New Yorkerhappened to be out in the field researching white nationalism when the Trump candidacy reached full bloom. And while some of the people Osnos spoke with don’t trust Trump entirely, one thing is clear: certain segments of the population love what Trump is saying about immigrants and America’s position relative to other countries. I can’t recommend this Osnos piece highly enough. Read it if you want to better understand what’s going on with Trump.

Two months ago a Trump candidacy seemed like a fun joke. But then he jumped into the race by calling Mexican immigrants rapists, followed that up by belittling John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War, followed that up with misogynist insults of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly in the wake of the first Fox News debate, and recently praised the passion of two supporters who beat up a homeless Hispanic man in Boston (in fairness, two days after praising his “passionate” supporters Trump finally acknowledged the terribleness of the crime).

So far, there’s been no punch line to this joke. So far, the joke seems to be on us.

I now see no compelling reasons to believe that Trump is not the favorite to win the Republican Party’s nomination. And if he wins the nomination, he has a shot at the presidency. I’d put his chances of winning the general election somewhere between 30 and 40% if he makes it through the primaries.

Back to the problem of white nationalism. The Republican Party does not harbor a majority of racist whites, does it? No, it doesn’t, but it does host a substantial racist minority. And we’ll have to wait for new data, but I’d be willing to bet that Trump’s candidacy is encouraging more and more white Republicans to be more and more open about their racism. As the linked article explains, social desirability bias discourages people from sharing their real views about contentious topics. I’d argue that Trump is making it more acceptable for his fans to openly express their racism. And the linked analysis above from 538? That only looked at white attitudes towards blacks. Who knows how bad this looks when you factor in other minority populations, specifically Hispanics, in the context of the immigration debate and Trump’s inflammatory comments.

The genuinely fascinating thing about Trump’s candidacy is how he is exposing fault lines between the GOP’s elites and its base. The elites have two economic priorities: keep taxes low and limit government regulation. The base has two economic priorities: keep their jobs and their “earned” benefits, Social Security and Medicare (the “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” phenomenon).

The GOP elite has always been hostile to welfare programs (yes, Social Security and Medicare are socialist welfare programs) because they require certain tax levels and regulations to keep afloat. So how has the GOP managed for decades, like with Bush in 2004, to elect people who promise to dismantle the programs the base relies upon? One thesis, though it has its flaws, is proposed in the famous book What’s the Matter with Kansas? The basic argument is that GOP elites impose upon the electorate candidates who share elite priorities of low taxes and slashed welfare programs, but are capable of redirecting the base with cultural issues, such as immigrants, abortion, gays, and guns (and yes, race), that the candidates and elites have little appetite for actually pursuing.

The Tea Party backlash against the GOP establishment is an expression of this tension in the party. The base started waking up to the fact that the establishment had no real dog in the culture war fights. The base began electing people who really did want to ban abortions, who really did want to carve out exceptions to equal protection laws to allow people with certain religious beliefs to discriminate against gays, who really did want to severely restrict immigration and forcibly remove those residing in the country illegally.

The problem here is that the GOP base has always preferred Democratic economic policies (link to opinions about Social Security, but could easily link to opinions about taxes, Medicare, etc.). So I find it extremely hard to believe that the GOP base is rallying around Trump simply because he talks more like a Democrat about economic issues. To Trump’s credit, he wants to increase tax receipts from the wealthy and use that money to strengthen Social Security as it exists now. All national Democrats hold this position, but usually with more specifics and often they want to expand Social Security benefits. If members of the GOP base truly prioritized their economic positions, they would vote for Democrats.

So what’s going on here? Why would a bloc of voters who have always voted for GOP economic policies all of a sudden be open to Democratic economic policies espoused by someone who sounds like a racist demagogue? I’ll be handing out more free year-long subscriptions to this blog if you have the right answer.

In my next post, I’ll try to explain why I think Trump is as much a favorite as anyone to win the GOP’s nomination, and why I think he has a puncher’s chance to win the presidency if he makes it to the general election as a Republican.

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