It’s safe to say that many conservatives are appalled by Donald Trump’s current lead in the polls among Republican presidential candidates. Whether they regard him as a passing fad among angry conservatives, as the centerpiece of an elaborate political conspiracy, or as a legitimate threat who could reside at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue next year, Republicans have come to fear the real estate mogul as the Iowa caucus inches ever closer. What Republicans, particularly the elites of the GOP, have not adequately explored is exactly why people are following Donald Trump in droves. At the heart of the Trump success story, a deluge of conservative working class voters drives the train away from establishment candidates and towards one of the most unlikely outsider candidates ever to run for president. The truth is this: many Republican elites have excluded working class conservatives through policies that overlook their interests or through rhetoric that alienates them from the rest of the Republican base.
AEI President Arthur Brooks has repeatedly referred to conservatives as the creators of economic opportunity, and has called for a rebirth of a conservatism focused on combatting poverty. If only more of the elites in the Republican establishment shared this definition of conservatism. Whether through the corporate ties of some Republican elites or the allegiance of countless representatives and senators to the big business interests in their own states, the GOP has become known as the party that loves big business. Populist presidential candidates seeking to challenge establishment ties to big business can’t seem to get their critiques across because they don’t typically succeed in the primaries. For years, scholars and ordinary citizens alike have known that when government walks hand-in-hand with big business, the salaries and working conditions of laborers, the quality and quantity of American jobs, and long-term workforce participation all decline. If Republicans who deeply care about maintaining the vibrant, constitutionally based traditions of religious freedom, multiculturalism, and social justice want to capture the hearts and minds of the working class, they will need to demonstrate a serious commitment to promoting and adopting policies that care for their working class constituents and not simply their biggest donors.
[pq]Many Republican elites have excluded working class conservatives.[/pq]
Worse still, Republican elites have alienated their working class voters through rhetorical snubbing. For years, I’ve been among the many young voters attending college and moving into the public sphere guilty of looking down on working class Republican voters. This snubbing wasn’t motivated by legitimate hatred or by a sincere belief of their inferiority but instead a result of frustrations with the frequent liberal stereotyping of conservatives as uneducated hicks “clinging to their guns and their religion.” As many Republican elites did, I sought to represent what I thought of as a more intellectual conservatism that drew on longstanding political theory rooted in classical liberalism and manifested itself in the gracious leadership of presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. During this election cycle, I have frequently pointed fingers at leading Republican candidates over rhetoric that represented the “ignorance” of their voter base. I’ve pointed fingers at conservative voters who have claimed we live in a post-racial society or who wanted to keep Middle Eastern refugees out of the U.S. Even if you have strong disagreements about policy with others in your political party, angrily pointing fingers at your fellow constituents never works, and I was wrong to do so. A little respect for working class voters from GOP elites might go a long way.
The damage from economic policies ignoring the interests of working class Republicans may be irreparable during this election cycle. It may be too late for the elites in the Republican establishment to come to grips with condescending or exclusionary rhetoric, either because they still haven’t linked working class Republican support for Trump to this snubbing or because they have no desire to change their tune. It may take very strong medicine to finally get the message across to Republican elites that attachment to big business and a spite for working class conservatives won’t get them into the White House. The working class may have even more economic hardship to look forward to under Mr. Trump or Secretary Clinton, and people like me would be partly to blame.