News & Politics

The Republican Divide: Intellectual Conservatism vs. Populist Nativism

RESTRICTION: NO New York or New Jersey Newspapers or newspapers within a 75 mile radius of New York CityDonald Trump, a candidate for the 2016 Republican nomination for President of the United States, shakes hands with US Senator Ted Cruz (Republican of Texas), also a candidate for the GOP nomination for President, shake hands as they appear at a rally against the Iran Nuclear Deal Tea Party rally against the Iran nuclear deal, Capitol Hill, Washington DC, America - 09 Sep 2015 (Rex Features via AP Images)

According to The Atlantic‘s Molly Ball, the very different reactions of Republican voters to Donald Trump’s plan to ban foreign Muslims from entering the United States prove there are two distinct conservative bases within the GOP:

Prior to Monday’s announcement, it was already abundantly clear what Trump was getting at with his explicitly anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. At the rally I attended in Myrtle Beach, which drew more than 10,000 people—and which occurred prior to last week’s shooting in San Bernardino—I met plenty of people like [Trump supporter Kathy] Parker, who had driven eight hours, with several family members, to attend the event. In his speech that night, Trump said, “Radical Islamic terrorists. Obama refuses to use the word. He refuses to say it, he can’t say it. There’s something going on, I don’t know what it is.” Several attendees could be heard to shout, “He’s a Muslim!” or “He’s one of them!”

The divide within the GOP has long been described as the “establishment”—power brokers, donors, elected officials, consultants—versus the “conservative base.” But it’s increasingly clear there are two separate conservative bases within the GOP.

There’s the intellectual conservative movement, a decades-long project of institutional actors like the Heritage Foundation and the American Conservative Union, which seeks to push the party toward strict adherence with a set of ideas about limited government, strong national defense, and the traditional family. And then there is the populist, nativist strain, which isn’t really about ideas so much as a raw appeal to emotion. Trump’s dominance of the primary field is forcing the party to confront a frightening prospect: that the populist bloc may be the bigger of the two.

The problem is that the eventual nominee needs both bases to win. Trump might have the populists’ support at the moment, but the intellectuals will be hard pressed to join the fold. Trump is just too boorish, simplistic and downright rude for them even to consider doing so. This means that if conservatives want to actually win this race, they’d better unite behind another candidate. If they don’t, an establishment plant may very well end up with the nomination (can you say President Jeb Bush or Marco “Amnesty” Rubio?).

If that doesn’t strike enough terror into the entire conservative movement to finally close ranks behind a solid conservative — just throwing a name out there: Ted Cruz — I don’t know what will.