On the whole, I’m inclined to think that Donald Trump’s large lead in the Republican race is a passing phenomenon, similar to several candidates’ surges during 2011-12, and driven mostly by media attention and name-recognition at a time when most people are not yet following the campaign closely. In Die Hard III, which is 20 years old, Trump and Hillary Clinton are already two prominent references. The Donald has a level of celebrity that may give him disproportionate attention early in a multi-candidate campaign but that won’t win him the nomination.
However, there is an interesting substantive discussion of his candidacy. It’s not about whether he will win but rather whether he and his followers are like the right-wing parties in Europe. That constituency might outlast his presidential run.
Trump’s positions are not consistent with American conservative doctrine. He is fanatically anti-immigrant and lobs verbal grenades at various countries every day, but he also says, “I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. … Every other Republican is going to cut, and even if they wouldn’t, they don’t know what to do because they don’t know where the money is.” Apparently, Trump would also raise taxes on unearned income.
The combination of grievances against foreign countries and immigrants plus enthusiasm for state intervention in the domestic economy is a position that tends to be called “populism” in Europe. I resist that terminology for the US because we have a very worthy political tradition officially known as Populism (on which Laura Grattan‘s forthcoming book is excellent). Another term could be “far-right.” As Mathew Yglesias writes, “several of [the European parties] have institutional roots in old fascist political movements.” That would indeed make them far-right. But, as Yglesias adds, “their current ideological positioning is generally much more complicated than that, and some of them have no such institutional roots.” They typically combine extreme positions against immigration with economic policies that would be left-of-center in the US. So perhaps the most accurate term is “economic nationalist.” It can then come in varieties that range from truly chauvinistic to plausibly mainstream.
Similar views make a popular combination in the US as well. As Lee Drutman shows, if you screen for people who favor expanding Social Security and decreasing immigration, you get 24% of the electorate. They may or may not be chauvinists, since their views on immigration could be moderate. But they are out of step with the Republican Party on Social Security and could accurately be called “economic nationalists.” Meanwhile, those who would expand Social Security and keep immigration at least at current levels constitute 26.5%. This second group is in sync with the Democratic Party’s leadership. The strong conservative position (trim or privatize Social Security and restrict immigration) draws just 2.4% of voters, one tenth as many.
Trump is aligned with the 24% who are economic nationalists. If we use Social Security and immigration as the two proxies for that view, then Trump’s constituency is comparable in size to liberals and much larger than conservatives. A third measure would be attitudes toward policing, on which Trump takes an aggressive position that may also be fairly popular (with similar people).
It’s common for a combination of views not to be represented in a two-party system. Antiabortion progressives, for instance, have nowhere to turn in presidential politics in the US. But economic nationalists represent a big enough bloc to possibly destabilize the political system. Antiabortion progressives are typically Democrats who are badly outvoted within their own party on that issue. Economic nationalists, in contrast, seem to be Republicans who represent a large force in their party but are at odds with its elites.
While Trump’s support (about 30% of Republican voters right now) may be boosted by his attention-grabbing style during the silly season of the campaign, it is conceivable that someone with similar views and a less rebarbative and risible style might actually perform better in the long term. Republican elites disagree with half of economic nationalism and will have to figure out how to keep it at bay even after Donald Trump no longer threatens the nomination.