COLUMBIA, South Carolina—I have never covered so much distance in such a short time, traveling from one corner of the Republican big tent to the other. Last Friday, I attended a Donald Trump rally in Rock Hill, South Carolina. More than 6,000 people filled a basketball arena at Winthrop University, right up to those last seats obscured by championship banners. It was a like a revival, but the outbursts from the crowd were not the sounds of new conversions. They were denunciations of the heretics—the weak, the politically correct, the Chinese, those with low poll numbers, Hillary Clinton, and hecklers who had interrupted and were removed like ticks. Saturday, I attended the Jack Kemp Foundation poverty summit in Columbia, 70 miles to the south. It was hosted by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Republican South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott. The crowd filled the neatly arranged ballroom seats and listened patiently as GOP presidential candidates offered their ideas about how conservative principles could help those most in need.
The Republican Party hopes to come together after the primary race of 2016. It’s going to require some really strong sutures. The noisy part of the party and the governing part of the party are far apart on fundamental issues like trade, national security, budgeting, and immigration. And the loud voices supporting Trump are suspicious and angry about just the kind of compromises, temporizing, and patience that the joining of two halves requires.
One way to think about the split is to consider the difference between Trump and Ryan. Trump is the phenomenon of the grassroots, and Ryan is the best hope of the GOP’s governing wing.
Ryan believes in public service. He has been involved in public affairs essentially his entire adult life. The Kemp forum opened up with Jimmy Kemp, the son of the late congressman, talking about public service as a calling. This year in the GOP presidential race, anyone who has devoted his or her life to public service in politics is at a serious disadvantage. Trump has leveraged the disappointment with the elected class into a huge lead in the polls.
Ryan also believes in quiet work to understand a problem. As he said during the afternoon, “I learned from my mentor Jack Kemp and my other mentor Bob Woodson ... that the only way to really know poverty is to try and walk it through people’s footsteps, to learn from people struggling.” The poverty summit was the product of weeks Ryan spent traveling the country after the 2012 election learning more about the issue. He did it quietly. No one knew what he was doing until he’d completed the tour. When he quizzed the candidates, he wanted to know if they’d done this kind of homework.
Trump is the opposite. He is proud of his outsized personality and public relations stature—he’s not going to go off and toil in anonymity. He eschews the kind of detailed experience-based study Ryan was talking about. He believes he can get up to speed quickly on issues.
The conversation at the poverty summit was at times quite detailed. Ben Carson talked easily about literacy rates and the reading programs he’d set up across the country. Several candidates praised the educational improvement tax credit program and talked about its expansion. Ideas for the best tax rates, incentives, and work requirements were discussed.
There wasn’t much policy at the Trump gathering other than his call and response with the crowd about making the Mexican government pay for the wall he’s going to build on the southern border.
There was a physical aspect to this hunger in the Trump crowd. Protesters rose and were ejected to the rising roar of the crowd. Some were aggressive and seemed to be asking to create a spectacle. Others were not, such as one woman wearing a hijab who simply stood there but was shouted down and manhandled out of the room. After a few ejections, Trump expressed nostalgia for the way protesters used to be able to be handled—much more roughly. “I like the old days better,” he said. That could be a tag line of his campaign as he promises a return to the days before political correctness and elites fouled up the country everyone was promised.
Meanwhile, back at the Kemp forum, the closest it got to confrontation was when Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, talked about using free enterprise to be “warriors for the poor.” Progressive poverty experts have plenty of criticisms of Ryan’s free-market approach to poverty and those the GOP candidates put forward: They say conservatives’ excessive reliance on the states will lead to unequal treatment of the poor; the budget cuts proposed by candidates will devastate programs that are actually helping the poor; and the GOP work requirements are useless if there aren’t also policies to help the millions of working poor who have jobs but need the protections of a consistent schedule, paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave. Is the existing welfare system really a trap if food stamp assistance is being shown to improve educational outcomes in the next generation?
Those are the kinds of debates that can take place if Ryan is successful in putting poverty on the agenda. Without his efforts, the Republican Party is on track to not discuss these issues at all in the 2016 primary. “I think it’s a mistake that's been made,” Ryan told me on Face the Nation:
We have got to go and compete for the minds and the hearts and the votes of everybody in this country no matter who they are. ... I think our presidentials need to do this. It’s one thing I regret having not done like I wanted to in 2012. ... Typically what these consultants tell you is, “Well, this is where our voters are. And these are the precincts and the counties that we have to maximize turnouts. So go there.” And then you go there, and then you go there, and you go there. This is a national election. The stakes of this election are the highest in our lifetimes, in our generation. And everybody needs to be involved in this election. So we need to go and compete for the hearts and the minds and the votes of everybody. No matter if we get 2 percent of the vote, we should be there showing that our ideas are better.
This raises an interesting question: Does the constituency Ryan wants to help find these ideas more appealing, or do they prefer the messenger who is giving the middle finger to the elites on their behalf? Trump doesn’t need policy to connect with his audience, which was undoubtedly of a lower socio-economic average than those at the Kemp poverty summit. They think their fortunes will be better served by what they were hearing from the man who flew there on his own private plane.
Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican Party, sounded like a new convert to the Trump appeal as a recipe for his party’s success in a recent Washington Post story: “I’m not one of these people that think that Donald Trump can’t win a general election. I actually think there is a huge crossover appeal there to people that are disengaged politically that he speaks to. ... Donald Trump taps into the culture.”
A quote in the New York Times this weekend about these fissures in the Republican Party encapsulated a view I’ve heard echoed by Trump voters and those in the GOP who would seek to understand them. “The Republican Party has never done anything for the working man like me, even though we’ve voted Republican for years,” Leo Martin, a 62-year-old machinist from Newport, New Hampshire, said. “This election is the first in my life where we can change what it means to be a Republican.”
For Trump, defining what it means to be a Republican means putting a finger in the eye of the Washington Republicans like Ryan. Trump received raucous cheers in opposition to the following policies: immigration reform, trade, the 2015 end-of-year budget, and entitlement reform. Ryan believes in all of those things. He also criticized Trump for his call to ban Muslims entering the United States.
If Trump doesn’t win, the candidate who does is almost certain to exacerbate the underlying disappointment and sense of betrayal that was evident at Trump’s rally. If Trump does win, how will he work with Ryan and others nodding thoughtfully to the ideas presented at the Kemp forum, without disappointing the people spilling their popcorn at Winthrop University? Do they make tents that big?