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Republican Intellectuals Still Don’t Get Donald Trump

He's winning the voters that GOP reformers yearn for—but with racism and xenophobia, not policy ideas.

Steve Pope/Getty Images

Within the space of a few months, Donald Trump has gone from a joke to an imminent threat. Pundits who might have recently dismissed Trump—Republican intellectuals among them—are now coming to terms with the fact that even if he doesn’t win, he has still changed the shape and tenor of the Republican primaries and the future of the GOP. Of the recent reappraisals of Trump, two of the most interesting are from Ross Douthat and David Frum, two intellectuals loosely associated with the reformicon movement—a faction which has a fair claim to come up with a plausible explanation of why the GOP has been fertile ground for a Trump insurgency. But their analysis falters because they are still not willing to grapple with the racism that lies at the heart of Trump’s appeal.

The strength of the reformicons is that they have long applied a class analysis to the GOP, a party they see as divided between a plutocratic elite and a struggling working class. A majority of Republicans worry that corporations and the wealthy exert too much power,” Frum writes in the latest issue of The Atlantic. “Their party leaders work to ensure that these same groups can exert even more. Mainstream Republicans were quite at ease with tax increases on households earning more than $250,000 in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the subsequent stimulus. Their congressional representatives had the opposite priorities.” This class division long precedes Donald Trump, but it helps explain why he’s been able to win the trust of voters who feel the traditional GOP establishment has been ignoring their interests.

For more than a decade, reformicons like Douthat, the New York Times columnist, have argued that the Republican establishment has become too beholden to the business elite, risking support among the white working class. To ward off this problem, the reformicons have called for policies to help the white working class, ranging from immigration policies that clamp down on low-skilled immigrants to targeted tax relief for the middle class. Although somewhat apart from the main reformicons as a group, Frum has echoed many of their ideas. So Douthat and Frum can both plausibly claim (or, more accurately, hint) that while Trump wasn’t what they had in mind, his ability to mobilize white working-class voters with populist-sounding rhetoric vindicates their arguments that this group has been politically neglected.

Douthat and Frum have a far better sense of Trump’s appeal than most mainstream Republicans, who still think he’s just using charisma picked up from reality TV. But they can’t bring themselves to consider the way Trump’s naked appeal to white identity politics threatens both the GOP and their own reformicon agenda. As Douthat notes in the Times, the sizable Trump faction “has turned out to include precisely the kind of voters Romney needed in 2012 and who stayed home instead: Blue-collar whites with moderate views on economics and a weak attachment to the institutional G.O.P.” 

Douthat admits, “I underestimated Donald Trump.” The columnist acknowledges that Trump’s “populist and nationalist themes” appeal to the “missing white voters” that reformicons have long called Republicans to cater to. Yet even in revising his opinion of Trump’s political potency, Douthat shies away from looking at what actually makes Trump popular.

Instead, Douthat writes that he misread “the voters supporting [Trump] despite his demagoguery.” The use of the word “despite” is revealing. Usually demagogues are popular because of their demagoguery, not despite it. Douthat can’t face the fact that a significant chunk of the Republican base loves Trump not despite but because of his unashamedly xenophobic and racist campaign.

The same problem applies to Frum’s otherwise astute analysis of the rise of Trumpism. During the course of an article of more than 6,000 words dealing with the impact of Trump on the Republican Party, Frum never uses the words xenophobic, nativist or racist (or any variation of them) at all, except for one throwaway reference toother aspects of identity” like “race, religion, lifestyle.” As my colleague Brian Beutler points out, this is a major omission.

To see the analytical problems caused by ignoring Trump’s racism, consider Frum’s prescriptions for “true reform”: 

Admittedly, this may be the most uncongenial thought of them all, but party elites could try to open more ideological space for the economic interests of the middle class. Make peace with universal health-insurance coverage: Mend Obamacare rather than end it. Cut taxes less at the top, and use the money to deliver more benefits to working families in the middle. Devise immigration policy to support wages, not undercut them. Worry more about regulations that artificially transfer wealth upward, and less about regulations that constrain financial speculation. Take seriously issues such as the length of commutes, nursing-home costs, and the anticompetitive practices that inflate college tuition. 

These are all worthy policy considerations in the reformicon tradition. But does anyone believe they will win over the voters who are enthused by Trump’s calls for building a wall along the Mexican border and smashing ISIS and taking their oil?

Trump might well be appealing to the constituency that the reformicons want to win, but he’s doing so by offering them a heady brew of xenophobia and nationalism that runs the risk of making the GOP brand toxic, not just to non-whites but even to many conservatives. Mike Fernandez, a billionaire supporter of Jeb Bush, told the Miami Herald last month, “If I have a choice—and you can put it in bold—if I have a choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton, I’m choosing Hillary.” Much of the corporate elite is likely to join Fernandez, given the fact that shrewd business people will not want to be associated with a candidate who has insulted the fastest-growing demographic in America.

Trump is a kind of reformicon on steroids. In his outsized way, he has brought out into the open a key problem with the whole reformicon agenda: To appeal to those missing white voters, a Republican politician would have to risk alienating many other groups, ranging from Hispanics to the business elite. While Douthat and Frum have many worthy insights into Trump’s rise, they still can’t face that fundamental dilemma.