What it means that the most popular candidate in the Republican field is also the least conservative
By Anthony J. Gaughan
Donald Trump’s path to the Republican nomination gained crucial momentum in Nevada on Tuesday night.
Trump won the Nevada caucuses with 46 percent of the vote and defeated his closest challengers by more than 20 points, his largest victory margin yet. Trump’s third straight win in the GOP presidential race makes clear that the New York billionaire has broad and deep support from all wings of the party.
A sense of inevitability is settling over Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination. The latest polls show he will likely win nearly all of the 10 states that will vote in the Super Tuesday primaries on March 1. He also benefits from the complex and front-loaded nature of the Republican delegate apportionment process, which gives him a clear path for securing the GOP nomination.
The fact that a vulgar, xenophobic, twice-divorced New York real estate developer and TV celebrity with no conservative credentials is on the verge of winning the GOP nomination is highly revealing. It shows how deep racial and religious prejudice runs in the Republican Party of 2016.
Trump is not a traditional conservative
By any traditional measure, Donald Trump is the least conservative candidate in the GOP race.
On one issue after another, Trump defies conservative orthodoxy. During the most recent GOP debate, Trump condemned George W. Bush for invading Iraq and for not preventing the September 11 terrorist attacks. Trump also opposes the longstanding conservative goal of reforming Social Security, and he has even defended Planned Parenthood, a women’s health organization despised by social conservatives. He advocates protectionist policies, such as a huge tariff on imports from China, that would reverse decades of Republican support for free trade.
He has signaled support for state Medicaid expansion that GOP governors across the country oppose. And he supports tax hikes on the wealthy.
It is not surprising that Trump’s populist policies attract support from working-class voters who oppose trade liberalization and tax policies that benefit the rich.
But Trump’s appeal extends far beyond blue-collar Republicans. He is winning among both high-income voters and low-income voters. He is winning evangelical Republicans and non-evangelical Republicans. Most striking of all, he is carrying all educational levels, including college graduates, professionals and voters with no education beyond high school. In his Nevada victory speech, Trump declared: “I love the poorly educated.” But the truth is, highly educated Republicans support him too.
So what is the common theme that binds Trump’s supporters together?
The disturbing but undeniable answer is entrenched xenophobia, racial prejudice and religious bigotry among a large segment of Republican voters.
GOP voters opting for prejudice over conservatism
As the 2016 election demonstrates, Republicans no longer have a shared set of political ideas or a coherent ideological philosophy.
Instead, the only thing that seems to hold the party together is a deep-rooted fear of the social, economic, cultural and demographic change the United States has experienced in recent decades.
It is certainly true that the pace of change in American life is occurring at an accelerating rate. In 2008, the United States elected its first African-American president, an enormous step forward for a nation that upheld racial segregation as recently as the 1960s. Social attitudes are changing, too. A majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage, combat roles for women in the military and implementation of international treaties to battle climate change and protect the environment. Meanwhile, immigration from Latin America and Asia is transforming the racial demographics of the nation. In 1980, over 83 percent of Americans were white; today only 62 percent of Americans are white. The percentage of whites will fall rapidly in the decades ahead. Already a majority of American children are nonwhite, and racial minorities will constitute a majority of the nation’s population as a whole by the 2040s.
From any objective perspective, these developments should be welcomed. America’s extraordinary capacity for change is an enormous source of national strength.
But that is not how Republicans see the changes under way in the nation. As America becomes a more diverse and tolerant nation, Republicans have embraced apocalyptic views of the nation’s future. Almost 90 percent of Republicans believe the country is in poor shape. In an effort to pander to Republican pessimism, nearly all of the GOP candidates have described the state of the country in alarming and catastrophic terms.
But none of the candidates peddle fear as well as Trump. When he announced his presidential candidacy last summer, he declared that “the American dream is dead” and “we’re becoming a Third World country.” Since getting into the race, Trump’s rhetoric has only gotten grimmer. He mixes anger, paranoia and xenophobia more skillfully than any modern presidential candidate.
Trump is thus the perfect vehicle for expressing the poisonous spirit that animates Republicans in 2016. He wants to ban Muslims from the United States. He calls Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “drug dealers” and he has declared that immigrants “from all over” are “killers and rapists.“ He even wants to strip the constitutional right of birthright citizenship from American-born children of foreign parents.
In short, the billionaire TV star is not running on a coherent set of political ideas. He is running on irrational fear, rage and prejudice. And, to an appalling degree, that’s exactly what a critical mass of Republican voters want, as Trump’s victories in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada demonstrate.
Party of Lincoln is now the party of Trump
Trump’s divisive campaign reflects how far the GOP has drifted from its roots. Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president, saved the Union and ended slavery. In the process, he argued in eloquent fashion that freedom and equality for all constituted America’s most important founding principles.
Today the Republican Party is in a very different place. Dividing Americans, not uniting them, is the dominant mood within the GOP. The momentum gathering behind Donald Trump’s campaign makes it starkly apparent that Lincoln’s legacy has no home in the modern Republican Party.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.