The Republican party can be understood, broadly, as a coalition of people who dislike food stamps because they think the government is too big and discourages people from working, plus people who dislike food stamps because they think black people get them.
For years, Republicans have bristled at these sorts of descriptions, especially because Democrats tend to leave out the first part, painting the party as purely racist. But this election has forced Republicans to confront reality: A healthy chunk of Republican voters don’t have a broad objection to big government, but an objection to big government for the wrong people.
So, what can non-racist Republicans do about this? It’s a hard question.
It’s no coincidence that the two pillars of the Donald Trump coalition are Southern whites and Northern white ethnics. These groups were loyal to the Democratic Party through the massive expansion of the federal government under the New Deal.
Political-science research shows “ethnocentric white voters” tend to look negatively at government programs for the poor, but they are disproportionately likely to favour programs aimed at the elderly. Relatedly, a lot of white voters were happy to vote Democratic when they saw big government as serving the interests of their own ethnic group, and shifted to the Republicans when they started to see government as mostly working to help others.
Trump correctly realised he could win this kind of white Republican voter by becoming a demented version of Richard Nixon, turning the dial up on ethnocentric appeals (“they’re rapists,” “Islam hates us”) and turning the dial down on the government-slashing (no Social Security cuts because he’ll “make us so rich”).
This has horrified a great many non-Trump Republicans, many of whom are ideologically committed to small government or Christian morality, and who are sincerely (if naïvely) surprised by the power of white identity politics within their party. Some of them even say they do not want Trump’s voters in their coalition.
But what is the alternative? Without the Trump voter, there is not a majority coalition for an antigovernment policy agenda.
Trump is not the first Republican to understand the conditionality of many Republican voters’ opposition to big government. Look at this ad from 2010, which the National Republican Campaign Committee ran in an effort to defeat then-Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat. What was wrong with Schauer? Why, he voted to cut $500 billion from Medicare. “Let’s save Medicare and cut Schauer,” the Republican ad urged. Voters did.
Of course, the Medicare cuts were part of the Affordable Care Act, a law that expanded government spending and healthcare coverage overall. Some Republicans hated this because it meant a bigger government. Others hated it because it meant less government for elderly white people and more government for low-income working age people. All across the country, the NRCC ran with the second message and won — but it wasn’t a truly antigovernment message.
If the GOP sheds the “government-out-of-my-Medicare” vote and the “Mexicans-out-of-my-country” vote — heavily overlapping and Trump-favouring demographics — it’s going to have to find an alternative way to expand the coalition. But that will be hard because, ironically, in many cases what non-white voters and ethnocentric white voters want on economic policy is similar.
Medicare cuts are not any more popular with non-whites than they are with Trump voters. The Trumpkins are not a natural fit for conservative economic ideology, but there is not an available demographic out there that is a better fit.
Republicans may not like being in bed with Donald Trump. But they will need to retain his fans’ favour unless they want to either drastically change their policy agenda, or lose elections by landslides. So watch for them to find ways to accommodate his supporters, even if he manages to lose the nomination.
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