Two decades ago, in the spring of 1996, Newsweek magazine described a group of voters it called the "radical middle." Formerly known as the Silent Majority, then the Reagan Democrats, these voters had supported Ross Perot in 1992, and were hoping the Texas billionaire would run again. Voters in the radical middle, Newsweek wrote, "see the traditional political system itself as the country’s chief problem."
The radical middle is attracted to populists, outsiders, businessmen such as Perot and Lee Iacocca who have never held office, and to anyone, according to Newsweek, who is the "tribune of anti-insider discontent." Newt Gingrich rallied the radical middle in 1994—year of the Angry White Male—but his Republican Revolution sputtered to a halt after the government shut down over Medicare in 1995. Once more the radical middle had become estranged from the GOP. "If Perot gets in the race," a Dole aide told Newsweek, "it will guarantee Clinton’s reelection."
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Well, here we are again, at the beginning of a presidential campaign in which the Republican Party, having lost its hold on the radical middle, is terrified of the electoral consequences. The supporters of Reagan and Perot, of Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, have found another aging billionaire in whom to place their fears and anxieties, their nostalgia and love of country, their disgust with the political and cultural elite, their trepidation at what our nation is becoming.
A brash showboat and celebrity, self-promoter and controversialist, silly and mocking, a caricature of a caricature, Donald Trump is no one’s idea of a serious presidential candidate. Which is exactly why the radical middle finds him refreshing. Not an iota of him is politically correct, he plays by no rules of comity or civility, he genuflects to no party or institution, he is unafraid of and antagonistic toward the media, and he challenges the conventional wisdom of both parties, which holds that there is no real cost to illegal immigration and to trade with China.
Trump’s foreign policy, such as it is, is like Perot’s directed not toward Eurasia but our southern border. Unlike Perot, whose campaign emphasized the twin deficits of budget and trade, Trump has taken on illegal immigration from Mexico, fighting with both the identity politics left and the cheap labor right, with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush. Like Perot too he has seized the public imagination, masterfully exploiting the media’s craving for ratings and for negative portrayals of Republicans, turning CNN into TNN, the Trump News Network, the finest and most exclusive cable channel on air.
Trump would enjoy press coverage no matter what he ran on. But the fact that he has chosen, perhaps unwittingly, illegal immigration to be his cause makes the coverage all the more polarizing, visceral, contentious, spiteful. He dared say what no one of his wealth and prominence ever says—that illegal immigration is not limited to DREAMERs and laborers and aspirational Americans, that it is not always, as Jeb Bush put it, an "act of love," that also traversing our southern border are criminals, rapists and narcotics traffickers and human smugglers, displaced souls from illiberal cultures who carry with them not only dreams but nightmares, bad habits, and other costly baggage. That his poor phrasing was sickeningly confirmed in early July, when an illegal immigrant who had been deported several times shot Kathryn Steinle dead in broad daylight on a San Francisco pier, only strengthened Trump's connection to the radical middle. So did the drug lord El Chapo’s escape from prison soon after Mexico received an extradition request from the United States.
It is immigration—its universally celebrated benefits and its barely acknowledged costs—that is the third rail of U.S. politics, with repercussions from the border to Eric Cantor’s district in 2014 to courtrooms and the Republican debate stage today. Trump didn’t step on the third rail; he embraced it, he won’t let go of it, and in so doing he’s become electric. Republicans, Democrats, journalists, corporations all want to define themselves against him, and their flaunting of their moral superiority only feeds the media monster, only makes Trump more attractive to the dispossessed, alienated, radical middle.
What Republicans are trying to figure out is not so much how to handle Trump as how to handle his supporters. Ignore or confront? Mock or treat seriously? Insult or persuade? The men and women in the uppermost ranks of the party, who have stood by Trump in the past as he gave them his endorsements and cash, are inclined to condescend to a large portion of the Republican base, to treat base voters’ concerns as unserious, nativist, racist, sexist, anachronistic, or nuts, to apologize for the "crazies" who fail to understand why America can build small cities in Iraq and Afghanistan but not a wall along the southern border, who do not have the education or skills or means to cope when factories move south or abroad, who stare incomprehensibly at the television screen when the media fail to see a "motive" for the Chattanooga shooting, who voted for Perot in ’92 and Buchanan in ’96 and Sarah Palin in ’08 and joined the Tea Party to fight death panels in ’09.
These voters don’t give a whit about corporate tax reform or TPP or the capital gains rate or the fate of Uber, they make a distinction between deserved benefits like Social Security and Medicare and undeserved ones like welfare and food stamps, their patriotism is real and nationalistic and skeptical of foreign entanglement, they wept on 9/11, they want America to be strong, dominant, confident, the America of their youth, their young adulthood, the America of 40 or 30 or even 20 years ago. They do not speak in the cadences or dialect of New York or Washington, their thoughts can be garbled, easily dismissed, or impugned, they are not members of a designated victim group and thus lack moral standing in the eyes of the media, but still they deserve as much attention and sympathy as any of our fellow citizens, still they vote.
What the radical middle has seen in recent years has not given them reason to be confident in our government, our political system, our legion of politicians clambering up the professional ladder office to office. Two inconclusive wars, a financial crisis, recession, and weak recovery, government failure from Katrina to the TSA to the launch of Obamacare to the federal background check system, an unelected and unaccountable managerial bureaucracy that targets grassroots organizations and makes law through diktat, race riots and Ebola and judicial overreach. And through it all, as constant as the northern star, a myopic drive on the part of leaders in both parties to enact a "comprehensive immigration reform" that would incentivize illegal immigration and increase legal immigration despite public opposition.
The Republican Party has had two historic midterm victories, only to see its gains at the ballot box overruled by presidential veto or decree, by infighting, by incompetence. When the salient GOP accomplishment of 2015 will be granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority, when the leading Republican candidates for president are telling donors they will push for comprehensive immigration reform when in office, when those candidates seem more interested in following the lead of the press than caucus goers, when they so often fail to respond directly and forcefully to provocations domestic and foreign, when it is sometimes hard to determine what they believe in beyond their own ambition, how is it surprising that a not insignificant portion of the grassroots, along with some people who normally do not pay attention to politics, are supportive of or intrigued by the outspoken and entertaining Donald Trump?
That Trump is not a conservative, nor by any means a mainstream Republican, is not a minus but a plus to the radical middle. These voters are culturally right but economically left; they depend on the New Deal and parts of the Great Society, are estranged from the fiscal and monetary agendas of The Economist and Wall Street Journal. What they lack in free market bona fides they make up for in their romantic fantasy of the patriotic tycoon or general, the fixer, the Can Do Man who will cut the baloney and Get Things Done. On social questions their views tend toward the moderate side—Perot was no social conservative, either. What unites them is opposition to elites in government, finance, culture, journalism; their search for a vehicle—whether it’s a political party or an outspoken publicity maven—that will displace the managers and technocrats and restore the America of old.
Our political commentary is confused because it conceives of the Republican Party as a top-down entity. It’s not. There are two Republican parties, an elite party of the corporate upper crust and meritocratic winners that sits atop a mass party of whites without college degrees whose worldviews and experiences and ambitions could not be more different from their social and economic betters. The former party enjoys the votes of the latter one, but those votes are not guaranteed. What so worries the GOP about Donald Trump is that he, like Ross Perot, has the resources and ego to rend the two parties apart. If history repeats itself, it will be because the Republican elite was so preoccupied with its own economic and ideological commitments that it failed to pay attention the needs and desires of millions of its voters. So the demagogue rises. The party splits. And the Clintons win.