NEW GEOGRAPHY--Whether he loses or, more unlikely, wins, Donald Trump creates an existential crisis for the Republican Party. The New York poseur has effectively undermined the party orthodoxy on defense, trade and economics, policies which have been dominant for the last half century within the party but now are falling rapidly out of fashion among the rank and file.
In this sense, Trump’s nomination could be seen as both an albatross and something of a life preserver. His rallying of a large working-class base, particularly in the Heartland, provides a potential new direction for the party that has lost irretrievably the business elite, the coastal states, minorities and the educated young. Clearly, the party needs to revise its electoral strategy.
Geography and economics
Trump’s raw and poorly considered economic nationalism positions the GOP against Hillary Clinton’s crony corporate establishment — anchored by Wall Street, Silicon Valley and the coastal media. This resonates broadly among many Americans, who are increasingly disaffected with the oligarch-dominated, big-bank-driven economy.
Now the Democrats have become the party of the urban gentry, public employees and the government-dependent poor, an identification that hurts them elsewhere. In contrast, Trump’s strongest support comes from small towns and, to a lesser extent, the suburbs. In these geographic heartlands, low labor participation rates, declining incomes, struggling Main Street businesses and collapsing opportunity incite resentment and a call for radical change. The disconnect with the power centers is further stoked by the celebratory coverage received by the asset/inflation-driven “false economy.”
Clearly, the traditional Republican path to victory — pandering to the ultrarich — seems misplaced, if not a trifle masochistic. Trump may boast about how he benefited from cronyism, but his critiques resonate more with the owner of a bar on a small town Main Street or a 20-person machine shop who knows that he can’t count on the Treasury Department defending his tax avoidance, as has occurred in the case of big-time Democratic donor Apple.
Similarly, Trump’s crude assault on undocumented immigration makes more sense to many lower-skilled Americans who compete with them for jobs. Additionally, Trump’s attack on the Democrats’ ever more strident decarbonization drive has brought Appalachia firmly into the GOP realm, and may also deliver some key Midwestern swing states, such as Iowa and Ohio.
Bill Clinton, who once effectively reached such voters, now denounces the “coal people” like they are a bunch of mindless Bubbas. His wife’s recent attack on Trump supporters as homophobes, racists and xenophobes revealed an unflattering glimpse at the inner thoughts of the “party of the people.”
Not just the white people’s party
Trump’s shameless, needlessly provocative antics clearly appeal to those with residual racist and nativist sentiments, which undermine GOP efforts to break into the increasingly racially diverse electorate. But, surprisingly, Trump isn’t doing much worse than more temperate Republicans, such as John McCain and Mitt Romney, among Latinos. It’s shocking how little appeal country club Republicans, despite their nicer manners, wield outside the county club.
The challenge now is to expand Trump’s class-based appeal in ways that can also win over minorities. Becoming the white people’s party is not the road to long-term success; better to reach across the racial divide and make common cause with the new party core.
Most Latinos and African Americans, after all, share many economic concerns with the white working class — the loss of blue-collar jobs, lack of affordable housing and diminished prospects for homeownership. They also are most likely to suffer from the efforts to protect poorly performing public schools, which are fervently defended by Clinton’s core supporters in the teachers unions.
And as most Latinos are, themselves, not immigrants, and are becoming ever more native-born, they may prove more amenable to such basic economic appeals than focusing on people crossing the border.
But perhaps Trump’s signature achievement may prove to be the marginalization of the religious right, exemplified by the embrace at the Cleveland convention of gay billionaire Peter Thiel. Religious conservatives have posed a mortal threat to Republican future prospects, not only among millennials and educated professionals but across a broad swath of an increasingly secular electorate.
The only way to relevance: Exploit the weaknesses of the other side
In the post-Trump future, Republicans need to focus on issues that exploit the Democratic disconnect with middle- and working-class voters: absolutist arrogance on environmental issues, the increasing embrace of radical social engineering and issues related to law enforcement. It may help that there does not seem to be any great progressive tide out there, since Congressional Republicans, although burdened with Trump at the top of the ticket, are doing better than expected.
Ultimately, the GOP strategy needs to incorporate the populist aspects of Trumpism – economic nationalism, respect for blue-collar labor, opposition to political correctness -- while ejecting the New Yorker’s bile. A positive, inclusive message embracing economic growth – now abandoned by the Democrats years ago – could make the GOP attractive enough to avoid being tossed into the dustbin of history.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org. This column was posted most recently at New Geography.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.