In ways large and small, with policy and with personality, billionaire Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is forcing his party's establishment to confront the vast divide between party leaders and the voters who, according to nearly every poll for months, have wanted him to carry their torch to the White House.
A prevailing narrative is that Trump is leading in the polls by appealing to the far right. That's an oversimplification. Trump is offering Republicans something no other candidate can: An insider's knowledge of the elite combined with a mischievous determination to upend it and an unorthodox set of policy prescriptions—running the gamut from immigration to campaign finance to Social Security—that aim to achieve that goal. In this year's contest for the Republican nomination, that platform has proven to have staying power.
“We’re all out there like little bee workers trying to get these people elected, and then nothing changes!” said Fay Schall, a 63-year-old conservative Republican from O'Brien County, Iowa. A Trump supporter, she said the real estate tycoon articulates the frustration voters feel, in part because he doesn't worry about being politically correct. “People are tired of it,” she said. “I think that’s the nerve that Trump is hitting. Everybody is tired of being trampled on. I think that’s what’s resonating.”
The fact that Trump is a billionaire enhances his credibility as the standard-bearer of the populist moment, suggests Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who ran John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. “Trump is essentially saying there's one set of rules for people like you and another set for people like me—I've played the game, I've won at the game and now I'm going to be fighting on your side,” he said.
Campaign finance 'scam'
Ahead of the third Republican debate in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday, the real estate mogul is pounding on a theme that has also been picked up by Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders: The influence of the wealthy on politics.
After calling super-PACs a “scam” and disavowing the ones backing him (none of which have reported receipts so far to the Federal Election Commission, making it impossible to determine whether Trump is making much of a sacrifice), Trump is urging his competitors to do the same. “All Presidential candidates should immediately disavow their super-PACs. They're not only breaking the spirit of the law but the law itself,” he tweeted on Monday.
For months he has characterized his Republican rivals as puppets of the wealthy donors they depend on, zeroing in first on Jeb Bush, who is supported by a super-PAC that had nearly $100 million cash on hand as of its most recent filing with the FEC, and more recently on Ben Carson, the beneficiary of several super-PACs.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Republicans in Congress have consistently opposed limits on political donations, arguing that it's a form of free speech. But that doesn't reflect the views of the party's rank-and-file. A whopping 80 percent of Republicans believe money has “too much” influence in politics while 85 percent say politicians mostly or sometimes promote policies to help their donors, according to a New York Times poll in June.
On immigration, Trump has exposed another gap between the party establishment and voters. While Republican politicians—including arch-conservative presidential candidate Ted Cruz—want to increase legal immigration, 67 percent of Republicans want to decrease immigration flows and 63 percent view immigrants as a burden, according to surveys by the Pew Research Institute. Trump caught fire over the summer with incendiary rhetoric about illegal immigration from Mexico and by being the first to call for deporting an estimated 11 million people now living in the U.S. illegally.
Schmidt calls Trump's remarks “intemperate” but acknowledges that the insurgent candidate's willingness to own his political incorrectness enhances his appeal. In the face of advertisers bolting and searing criticism, “does Donald Trump back down? No. Donald Trump doubles down,” Schmidt said. “That's the proof point—he's too rich, he's too wealthy to be bought off, unlike all these politicians who've been bought and sold by the billionaires. That is the populist fuel that is driving his campaign.”
Trump's immigration theme taps into the anxieties of white working class Americans who feel that “the country is becoming a majority-minority country and the people who felt that they were in the ascendancy are now descending,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “It's not just racism but certainly race is a part of it. The feeling is, 'We're slipping and the people who are supposed to protect us are ignoring or defying us—they seduced and abandoned us.'”
Some voters see the political establishment's support for more immigration as a payoff to elites. Philip Koch, 64, an independent from Linn County, Iowa, and a Trump supporter, accused the GOP establishment for backing immigration reform for the sake of “cheap labor” for big business. “They’re doing what needs to be done for their donors. They’re selfish and they’re doing what people are paying them to do.” He likes Trump because “he’s not doing what the Republican mainstream are doing,” Koch said. “And I don’t want what the Republican mainstream are doing.”
Protect Social Security, reject free trade
Trump also breaks with Republican elites who support free trade and want to cut Social Security and Medicare. Nearly all Republican candidates from Bush to Senator Marco Rubio are campaigning on cutting entitlements and many want to ink the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord. But Trump is joining forces with some on the left by campaigning to protect the retirement programs and assailing President Barack Obama's trade pact as a “disaster.” Nearly 80 percent of Republicans want to preserve Social Security and Medicare, according to a Reuters poll earlier this year.
“I think it is a mistake to evaluate his positions through a Washington prism of right versus left,” said Schmidt. “He has an issue set that meets the moment—that moment being a moment in time where trust has collapsed in all of these institutions.”
In addition, Trump was the first Republican candidate to call for closing the so-called carried-interest loophole that benefits hedge funds, venture capitalists, and private equity firms. “The hedge fund guys are getting away with murder,” he told CBS in August. His overall tax plan lowers rate for everyone, including the affluent.
Foreign policy bravado
Trump has also forced the GOP to confront President George W. Bush's legacy. While Republicans years ago disowned Bush's big-spending domestic policies, Trump recently raised questions about his foreign policy and national security credentials.
After Bush said his brother “kept us safe,” Trump observed that the elder Bush brother was president on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorist attacks took down the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. Jeb Bush took umbrage, at which point Trump steered the conversation to the Iraq war.
Trump says it is a war that he has opposed—unlike most Republican party leaders in Washington but like most voters: 71 percent of Americans view the war as a mistake, with Republicans about evenly split, according to a 2014 poll.
'I'll cut your legs off'
At the end of the day, some Republican elites still refuse to believe Trump can win the nomination—after all, the party hasn't picked someone who never held elected office since in 1950s. But Ornstein notes that the Republican base is “so consumed with anger at their establishment” and that Trump's blustery attitude has a strong appeal to that sort of frustration. “For people who believe their own establishment has been basically humiliated and taken to the cleaners repeatedly by Barack Obama, a guy who says 'You tap me on the shoulders and I'll cut your legs off' gets attention,” he said.
Ornstein offered several scenarios that could cause Trump to fall, including losing Iowa and New Hampshire. “If he goes through a period where he's not the front-runner he could get frustrated and hang it up.” But he's not betting on a collapse, and he's not alone.
Apart from recent polls placing him second to Carson in Iowa and (within the margin of error) nationally, Trump has enjoyed comfortable leads nationally and in the early states of New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Nationally, Republican voters view Trump as their most electable candidate in a general election, according to an Associated Press/GfK poll released Sunday.
“Anybody who thinks Donald Trump cannot be the Republican nominee is smoking something,” said Schmidt. He noted that Trump has led in major polls for more than 100 days—more time than is left until Iowa voters cast the first ballots of the primary—and that his path to the nomination is clear if his large lead translates to getting the most votes and delegates. “What was once described as a spring fling or a summer romance is lingering well past Halloween and into November.”
(Contributing: Ben Brody)