The Republican Party has long won elections by appealing to the fears of non-rich white voters while letting rich white voters know that they will be the top priority when it comes to governing. But there were signs that that high-wire act was breaking down even before Donald Trump came on the scene:
In early 2014, a group of neighbors from a Florida mobile home community called Carriage Cove, near Daytona, took seats in a town-hall-style meeting with Representative Ron DeSantis, a Republican. It was a mix of Republicans and Democrats, almost all of them seniors living on fixed incomes.
They had come to ask Mr. DeSantis why he had put his name on a letter urging Republican leaders to take up Mr. Obama’s offer of a deal to overhaul Social Security. Mr. DeSantis seemed caught off guard, neighbors who attended the meeting recalled. He did not necessarily agree with
in the letter, he told them. When they persisted, Mr. DeSantis left, explaining that he was not feeling well.
In Virginia, an unheralded college professor from the Richmond suburbs named Dave Brat announced a primary challenge to Representative Eric Cantor, the majority leader. Mr. Brat attacked Mr. Cantor for his ties to Wall Street. But as the campaign heated up, Mr. Brat recalled in an interview, he began railing against his party’s immigration proposals. “I saw this very crony-ist aspect of the nation’s power structure pushing this agenda,” Mr. Brat said.
Brat defeated Cantor, stunning the Republican elite. But the party continued, and continues, to function for its wealthiest donors, and that means that the (in many cases legitimate) fears of its base are there to be cynically exploited, not addressed in any meaningful way. Then along came Trump, who’s been willing to whip certain fears—of immigration, in particular—to new heights while campaigning against the Republican elite on issues like trade and Social Security. Now all those Republican voters who had been noticing that their party looked to them for votes but governed on behalf of the super-wealthy have someplace (other than a Democrat) to take their votes. And the Republican elite is having real trouble figuring out how to respond.
Of course, in the end, Trump is just another rich guy out for himself. If he became president, his followers would figure that out soon enough—but it’s our job to keep them from having the chance.