Originally Posted in the Aiken Standard, Monday, February 8, 2016
The Republican primaries weren’t supposed start this way.
The planned coronation of Jeb Bush lies shattered beyond repair. An Iowa caucus splitting the vote between Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio was unimaginable last spring.
This was supposed to be an orderly and predictable process. The moderate, mainstream candidate (Bush) was the anointed frontrunner. He would defeat the conservative alternative (Cruz or Ben Carson), with libertarian gadfly (Rand Paul) providing comic relief.
But along came Trump and everything changed. Like a kamikaze diving out of the sun at a crazy angle, Trump disrupted the expected center-right versus hard-right choreography.
Trump remains outside the normal ideological spectrum, and pundits and politicians can’t quite come to grips with his candidacy. Countless articles have tried to explain the Trump phenomenon.
Yet Trump’s appeal, and his constituency, was prophesied 40 years ago in Donald Warren’s “The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation.” In essence, Trump is appealing to Middle American Radicals (MARs).
Who are the MARs? What do they stand for?
MARs are alienated working and middle class voters. They feel squeezed economically and believe their horizons are diminishing. Per Warren, they think, “The rich give in to the demands of the poor, and the middle income people have to pay the bill.”
Political theorist Samuel Francis, who championed Warren’s thesis, saw their attitudes pointing “to a sense of resentment and exploitation, mainly economic, but also broader, that is directly upwards as well as downwards…It points also to the frustration of aspirations, to an alienation of loyalties, and to a suspicion of established institutions, authorities, and values.”
Unlike many conservatives and libertarians, MARs have no inherent dislike of the welfare state. Middle class entitlements are fine, but payments to the undeserving poor are anathema.
MARs are leery of both global business elites outsourcing jobs and crusades to “spread democracy” abroad. They’re nationalists and American Firsters.
Pat Buchanan’s and Ross Perot’s 1992 and 1996 Presidential campaigns appealed directly to MARs. Though Buchanan’s campaigns had a rightward hue while Perot’s were more centrist, neither fit along the traditional left-right axis.
Journalist John Judis sees a correlation between the Buchanan and Perot constituencies of the 1990s with Trump’s of today. Middle income voters and those with some college formed the base of their support.
“[They’re] the very voters who were most likely to be feeling squeezed from both above and below,” writes Judis. “Demographically, Trump seems to be attracting the 2015 equivalent of these votes.”
But if MARs form Trump’s base, they aren’t enough to win in November. As Judis points out, they make up roughly 20 percent of the electorate and a third of the Republican vote.
Trump understands this. He’s pursuing constituencies beyond MARs, expanding his outreach beyond Buchanan and Perot.
Trump appeals to MARs with his opposition to illegal immigration, Islamic radicalism and political elites. These issues resonate with conservatives such as Sarah Palin, Phyllis Schlafly, Ann Coulter, Michael Savage and R. Emmett Tyrrell.
Trump’s political incorrectness thrills others.
“When was the last time you stopped yourself from saying something you believed to be true for fear of being punished or criticized for saying it?” asks former “Crossfire” host Tucker Carlson. “If you live in America, it probably hasn’t been long.”
Trump’s flamboyant, unapologetic rhetoric makes him a hero to millions, and according to Carlson it “made Trump’s political career.”
Despite Trump’s wafer thin credentials, he’s gaining support from conservative Christians such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. Tired of serving as electoral cannon fodder for the GOP, they feel shunned by Republican officeholders seeking their votes yet ignoring their issues once elected. From abortion to the defense of the traditional family, they’ve been disappointed repeatedly.
Unquestionably, Trump seeks a deal with disillusioned Christians. He declares that Christians are “under siege,” but promises that once he’s elected president “you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Will this consummate deal maker, this atypical Republican, keep his word? After decades of despair, some Christians see Trump as a plausible alternative to devil they know.
If Trump wins the Republican nomination and triumphs in November, he’ll do so riding a wave of middle and working class resentment. He’ll have defied, and perhaps broken, the bi-partisan power structure.
But to achieve his revolution, he must appeal beyond his base. The New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries will demonstrate what progress, if any, he’s made beyond MARs.