He rode the wave.

Photographer: Jason Redmond/AFP/Getty Images

The Republican Party Got the Voters It Deserved

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

My View colleague Megan McArdle thinks people are exaggerating the Republican Party's responsibility for Donald Trump. Blaming the party, she concludes, “is like blaming the weatherman because it’s raining, or an economist for a recession.”

True, most Republican party actors resisted the Trump takeover right up to the point, and in some cases even after, all his nomination opponents dropped out. But the Republican Party nevertheless bears plenty of responsibility for the rise of the reality-show star, and many conservatives have acknowledged shortcomings in the party that Trump exploited. The question is still what exactly paved the way for Trump.

Republicans had encouraged, or at least tolerated, schoolyard taunts and far-fetched conspiracy talk long before Trump's campaign. He started out in Republican presidential politics by accusing the president of not being a U.S citizen, a slur that had been bandied about by many highly visible Republicans. He has now moved on to recycling conspiracy theories from 20 years ago about Hillary Clinton that were promoted at the time by talk-show hosts and Republican members of Congress.

Another part is how Republicans lowered the standards for their politicians. Normally voters might oppose Trump as flat-out unqualified for the job, both by lack of relevant experience and lack of knowledge of government and public affairs. But by giving a megaphone to people like Pat Robertson, Herman Cain, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, Republicans showed their voters what counts as a "normal" Republican presidential candidate -- and it isn't all that different from Donald Trump. Republican voters had many well-qualified candidates in 2016, but they had been taught by their party to ignore normal qualifications, and they did so.

That same observation can be made about how Republicans have tolerated and promoted bigotry, forging a path for Trump to go even further. McArdle is wrong to say that the Republicans' “Southern strategy” of the Richard Nixon era was only incidentally pitched to bigots. In 1968, Nixon was clearly and deliberately going after pro-segregation voters abandoned by the Democratic Party, a strategy continued (for example) by Lee Atwater in the 1988 presidential race on behalf of George H.W. Bush.   

Additionally, I don't think McArdle’s explanation of the interaction of political elites and masses is quite correct. She says: “You don’t put ideas in peoples’ heads; they just grow there.” But voters have all sorts of ideas in their heads: conservative, liberal, some of which would make for good policy, some which would not. Most of those ideas -- healthy or toxic -- are relatively loosely held, and many times no candidate or party elicits responses based on those particular views. 

The more some ideas are frozen out of politics -- for better or for worse -- the less they thrive “in peoples’ heads." And, more important, only when politicians highlight those ideas do they escape from peoples' heads and become political issues. Yes, neither Trump nor earlier Republican dog-whistlers created the audience they played to. But there are many potential audiences in the electorate. Politicians and political parties choose which ones to nurture -- and are fairly held responsible for those choices. 

  1. Another point several observers have made is that by constantly attacking a party "establishment" and in some cases the Republican Party in general, some conservatives weakened the ability of their party to resist incursions from outside. 

  2. McArdle is right that crime was and is a real issue. The same can be said of immigration or terrorism. But they don't have to be covers for politics that's primarily about sending signals to bigots on race, ethnicity and religion. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net