The conventional wisdom before the so-called #AcelaPrimary: John Kasich would serve to take away delegates from Donald Trump, helping to keep the Republican frontrunner from getting to the magic number of 1237 before the GOP convention. The assumption: the “moderate” and pro-immigration Kasich was a good fit for the more liberal Northeast, where it was already assumed Ted Cruz couldn’t compete. A few weeks ago, Kasich even suggested he could help force a contested convention by preventing Trump from sweeping the area and perhaps even by defeating Trump in Pennsylvania. [John Kasich Talks Up Second Place Chances in New York Visit, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2016] But Kasich was a distant second in every state except Pennsylvania, where he even lost to Cruz.
What did conventional wisdom get wrong? This raises the question: what is a “moderate” Northeast Republican?
The popular conception: a socially liberal, pro-business politician who will stand against Leftist extremism but not aggressively push the Culture War issues important to Republicans in the South and in the Heartland. A successful model would be someone like former Governor Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey. A failure would be someone like Linda McMahon of Connecticut. Needless to say, such candidates or elected officials are generally useless on immigration.
Exit polls show this kind of calculation is all wrong. Northeastern Republicans are looking for fighters—just people who fight on different kinds of issues than what social conservatives are used to. Instead of crusaders against gay marriage or abortion, Northeastern Republicans want their champions to be strong on trade, immigration, and national security.
Trump overwhelmingly won northeastern Republicans who believe Wall Street hurts the economy more than it helps. In Pennsylvania, where Kasich had initially hoped to do well, a majority said international trade takes away more jobs than it creates. More than 4 in 10 primary voters in Pennsylvania also supported deporting illegal immigrants. Trump even won evangelical Christians in Pennsylvania, a constituency which Cruz is supposed to dominate [Northeastern Primaries: Republican Exit Poll Analysis, ABC, April 26, 2016].
Huge percentages of voters in these states also supported Trump’s call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration into the United States. In Pennsylvania, Trump’s call for a moratorium was supported by almost 70 percent of Republican voters, far exceeding even the support for Trump as a candidate. As Byron York observes, a similar percentage supported it in New Hampshire as well as in other states around the country, even though Republican officials have been practically unanimous in vocally condemning it [Byron York: In state after state, strong GOP support for Trump’s Muslim proposal, Washington Examiner, April 27, 2016].
As Matt Yglesias admitted in Vox recently, Republican politics in the Northeast are about “Who? Whom?” Confronted with inefficient, Leftist, and usually black-dominated urban machines in the major cities, white Northeastern Republicans supported elected officials who offer at least some kind of resistance. Rather than being dominated by ideology, politics in the northeast are about identity. Voters in the Northeast are also far more interested in jobs and trade than any kind of perceived ideological purity.
And this turns out to be the case in other area where Trump has shown surprising strength: the South.
When the campaign first began, Cruz was widely expected to perform well in the South, especially among Evangelicals. But instead, Trump has easily won these states—indeed, he has now won every one of the original Thirteen Colonies except New Jersey (which has yet to vote.)
The GOP in the South already functions as a de facto European-American Party, with whites voting as a bloc to keep the large black populations from taking over the state. Given the choice, Southern voters turned out to be more attracted to Trump’s nationalist message than the traditional “true conservative” creed of abstractions about limited government or spending cuts.
Where Cruz continues to do well are in less-diverse states in the Midwest, where the Republican primary becomes a kind of contest for who is the “most conservative” candidate. This is also why the Beltway Right has such a large stake in Cruz’s campaign. Conservatism Inc. has the power to designate who is and is not a “true conservative” and should therefore receive grassroots support.
As the blog Face to Face puts it:
For these ideological purists, the Republican primary is not supposed to produce a contender for the general election. Rather, it's supposed to serve as the Conservatism Olympics, where the candidates perform in a variety of events—stump speeches, televised debates, sit-down interviews, in-person pandering, photo ops, etc.—and are given a Conservatism score by a panel of judges, namely the outcome of the primary or caucus or convention.Of course, long term, this is unsustainable because changing demographics ensure fewer and fewer of these states remain as the non-white population increases. Therefore, “true conservatism” will become increasingly irrelevant to national politics as time goes on, even while the Beltway Right continues to fundraise and sustain itself for years to come.
[GOP primary is no longer the Conservatism Olympics, April 27, 2016]
The Trump campaign is a kind of intervention,—an infusion of nationalism which can actually arrest conservatism’s slow death and create an American Right really capable of winning in the new America by turning out the white a.k.a American vote.
Of course, that means American politics will take on an increasingly Identitarian tone. And this something that worries the more alert Leftists [Trump wins primaries in the most diverse states, and why that’s a problem, by Charles Ellison, The Hill, March 23, 2016]. As more and more Americans are exposed to diversity, they come to regard ideological abstractions as a luxury they can no longer afford. As Singapore Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew famously said, in a multicultural and multiracial society, politics becomes about “who”—not “what.”
But this a time of danger as well as opportunity. Both the “Consistent Conservative” Ted Cruz and the nationalist populist Donald Trump have taken a strong stand on the immigration issue during this campaign (although Cruz’s selection of the execrable Carly Fiorina as his running mate now makes his commitment questionable). Either way, neither Cruz nor Trump can win the general election without the supporters of the other.
National Conservatism is the only way forward. Goofy rhetoric from the Beltway Right notwithstanding, Trump can hardly be called a liberal considering his strong standsf on guns, Common Core, and even taxes. He is offering the “Conservative Movement” much of what it claims to want.
At the same time, Trump is offering American workers a nationalist vision on trade and immigration and is defying the neocons by putting forward an unapologetic America First foreign policy. Trump is in fact a compromise candidate, who expands the Republican coalition while offering grassroots conservatives much of what they want.
Unfortunately for Trump, however, the congeries of special interests and scams that make up Conservatism Inc. have no real stake in political victory or policy implementation. They now functions almost entirely as a self-perpetuating racket, a way for the intellectually mediocre and personally cowardly to make a living.
Ultimately, the 2016 choice will come down to grassroots conservatives, who will have to defy their self-appointed minders to support Trump should he secure the nomination.
They will have to decide whether the country is more important than getting a 100% score on a Report Card from some Beltway think tank.
But regardless of what they decide, 2016 marks the end of the “Conservative Movement” as it is presently constituted. Nationalism is the way forward for the American Right. And this will only become more imperative as the country becomes increasingly “diverse” a.k.a. non-white.
Conservatism Inc. will need to decide whether it wishes to join as part of a winning coalition—or oppose it and be flattened by the nationalist, Identitarian future.
James Kirkpatrick [Email him] is a Beltway veteran and a refugee from Conservatism Inc.