This article appears in slightly different form in the Financial Times.
A brief history of white working-class voters in America: Between 1932 and 1964, they were diehard Democrats, core constituents of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Lyndon B. Johnson severed that bond when he committed his noblest deed in signing the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I think we’ve just delivered the South to the Republican Party for the rest of my life and yours,” Johnson told his aide Bill Moyers.
George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, began fulfilling Johnson’s prophecy when he led Southern whites out of the Democratic Party. Wallace formed the American Independent Party, which took five Southern states and helped deliver the White House to Richard Nixon in 1968—incidentally, the last time a third party carried any state in a U.S. presidential election. Wallace’s Southern voters and their Northern brethren increasingly supported Republicans thereafter, becoming a pillar of the Reagan coalition in the 1980s.
Now a version of that old split has emerged on the right. The Reagan Democrats have become the Trump Republicans, and signs point once again to a breach with the party they have reflexively supported for decades. At one level, the cause is the same as in 1964: reaction against social change that has eroded the value of white privilege. But at another level, this is a revolt by Republican voters who no longer believe that their party supports their basic economic interests. While the leader of this rebellion is one of the rankest opportunists ever to appear on the American political scene, the white working class’s feeling that it has been seduced and abandoned by the GOP is perfectly justified.
The revolt of the Republican masses bears out the thesis of Thomas Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? Non-college–educated whites have been suffering from an epidemic of false consciousness that took hold during the Reagan Era. While their self-interest aligned with Democratic policies designed to help insulate the vulnerable from economic transition, Republicans managed to persuade working-class voters to support the very policies that were doing them harm. They accomplished this by diverting the attention of less-educated whites with coded racial appeals, emphasizing cultural issues like abortion and gay rights, and stirring resentment against liberal “elites.” (It should be noted that not everyone buys this thesis.)
Working-class Republicans are waking up to the reality that their new party doesn’t represent them any more than the Democrats did. On issue after issue, Trump’s supporters are at odds with GOP dogma. They don’t support free trade and globalization. They don’t favor tax cuts for the wealthy, or bailouts for banks, or financial deregulation, or the rollback of consumer protections. They’re against privatizing Social Security, paring back Medicare, and eliminating other government programs that aid the middle class. While they’ve been encouraged to regard Barack Obama as an extraterrestrial, they’re not demanding the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Though nationalistic, their families are the ones that paid the human cost for the neoconservative fantasy of bringing democracy to Iraq.
With his real estate developer’s nose for opportunity, Donald Trump has bought up the swampy property between Republican leaders and the Republican led. His most effective line of attack is against sensible immigration reform, which the party’s donor class supports and its constituent base rejects. Trump’s voters couldn’t care less about bringing Latinos into the GOP. But his rallying cry of “build the wall and make them pay for it” isn’t just about nativism. It expresses a broader distress over the consequences of globalization, free trade, deindustrialization, and deunionization. Like William F. Buckley in the 1950s, Trump’s supporters stand athwart economic change yelling, “Stop!”
In this context, the rise of the Tea Party, circa 2009, now appears as red herring. Rank-and-file Republicans weren’t in fact dismayed by George W. Bush’s failure to shrink their entitlement benefits. It was the party’s wealthy elite—the Koch brothers and their beneficiaries at libertarian think tanks—who were frustrated about that. Working-class Republicans were enraged because they saw the federal government bailing out Wall Street banks instead of ordinary citizens. The Tea Party quickly dissipated into irrelevancy because it didn’t represent the people it claimed to represent.
Granted the nomination, Trump will drive away the Republican elite in this year’s election. Denied the nomination, he may lead the white working class out of the party for good, or clear the path for its slow-motion removal. But people who agree on next to nothing can’t go on cohabiting indefinitely. It’s impossible to say what form a Republican schism will end up taking. It could be an actual rupture at the Republican Convention in Cleveland, like South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat walkout from the 1948 Democratic Convention, with immigration as the new segregation. Or, if Republicans lose in November, we could see the emergence of a Trumpian third party. Or a populist faction could try to seize control of the GOP from within.
What seems least likely is for the voters aroused by Trump to return to their previous docility. They won’t fall back on supporting another corporate conservative like Mitt Romney, or a soft libertarian like Paul Ryan. Once parties rupture the way the GOP is now doing, only a master of constructive ambiguity like Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton can paper over their fundamental disagreements. There is currently no such figure at large in the Republican Party.