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The Establishment Still Doesn’t Get Trump

February 13, 2024

A few weeks ago, a “Morning Joe” panel concluded that if Donald Trump were to become the Republican nominee (spoiler alert: he will), Republicans will lose in the fall. This is by no means a unique sentiment – former House Speaker Paul Ryan expressing this idea here, journalist Bernard Goldberg wondering if Trump is trying to lose here, and so forth.

As I read these analyses, I wonder if I’ve somehow been transported back to 2016, when such takes were de rigueur. Here in 2024, we know that Donald Trump won in 2016 and came close to winning in 2020. He carried Republican senators across the finish line in both years, and the GOP gained House seats in 2020, much to the surprise of most election analysts. And, at a comparable time in the campaign cycle when he trailed Hillary Clinton by 4.5 points in the RCP Average and Joe Biden by 5.6 points, Trump actually leads Biden by 1.9 points in national polling.

My goal here isn’t to rehash the arguments over whether Trump can win – I think that’s plain enough. Nor is it to make a case Trump should win; anyone who has followed me on Twitter over the past decade knows my opinion on that. Rather, it’s to talk about the continued blindness of the old power structure of the GOP regarding Trump’s allure.

The bottom line is that Trump’s appeal isn’t geared toward white college educated voters, which leaves us unable to see its foundations. For decades, as Michael Barone has pointed out, the GOP was defined in large part as the party that “the system” benefited, while the Democrats were a collection of outsiders. That began to shift in 1992, when Bill Clinton began a full-frontal assault on Republican hegemony among the “winners.” Over time, the appeal of Democratic nominees increasingly tilted toward that message, and away from the older “outcasts” approach.

So for decades, college-educated whites have been in a situation where both parties were largely focusing their messages on them. Yes, Democrats had more of a populist approach, and yes, Republicans would always have candidates with a bit of a patrician air, but overall the focus was on winning the suburbs.

It is a bit jarring, then, to have a Republican nominee like Trump suddenly tailor his appeal toward people who think the system doesn’t benefit them. It’s an interesting strategic shift to disengage in large part from the fight over college-educated whites. It also has its pluses and minuses. One of the major pluses, and this is overlooked by college-educated Republicans who believe that the party’s message should still be geared toward them, is that Trump succeeded where the old GOP failed: by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and then very nearly winning them a second time in 2020. Iowa and Ohio were where GOP dreams once went to die; now they are solidly red states.

This gets to the final point that I think the old GOP establishment hasn’t fully digested: The revolt of the party’s former base isn’t without a rational basis. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the excuse for not fully enacting a conservative agenda was that Republicans never controlled the House. Fair enough. Then, in 2000, the GOP won the “trifecta” for the first time since the 1950s. That ended after a few months when a Republican senator from Vermont – whom the GOP had supported in his 2000 reelection bid – switched parties. Republicans won the trifecta again in 2002, and expanded those majorities in 2004.

Yet at the end of the Bush years, what did Republicans have to show for it? Expiring tax cuts, the GOP’s reputation on foreign policy in tatters, No Child Left Behind, TARP, and an expansion of Medicare to cover prescription drugs. This wasn’t really what conservatives had been promised.

There was also the revolt against comprehensive immigration reform, which was repeated in 2013. The old GOP’s response? To go all-in for Jeb Bush, whose main bona fides were his commitment to immigration reform and ability to modulate his Spanish accent depending on the audience.

I personally favor immigration reform and think TARP is one reason I light my house with electricity and not candles today. But the point of politics is that you must appeal to a broader polity which may not always desire the “best” policies. It was beyond obvious by 2015 that the GOP polity’s desires were very different from the establishment’s desires, which sometimes seemed geared toward winning over the votes of three people in think-tank cubicles (two of whom were voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson anyway).

Whatever else you might say about Donald J. Trump (and there is much to say), his appeal is fundamentally different than previous Republican candidates. But it is not narrower.

All of this is to say that of course Donald Trump can win again. More importantly, if the GOP establishment/remaining NeverTrump portion of the GOP wants to have a say in Republican politics in the future, they really need to work on figuring out why.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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