WASHINGTON — Fascist. Bigot. Jerk. Donald Trump’s opponents have fumbled for some damaging label, any damaging label, that might stick to the slippery billionaire.
Nothing has worked. Now, as Trump swaggers toward the Republican presidential nomination, the party’s hapless leading lights have settled on a new descriptor for a man who wants to ban Muslims from entering the country: liberal.
And it’s not ridiculous.
Ignore, for a blissful moment, Trump’s fear-mongering about dark-skinned foreigners, his colonialist desire to plunder Iraq’s oil, his open embrace of torture. On issues from health insurance to free trade to eminent domain to Planned Parenthood to Social Security, he has adopted positions well outside the conservative consensus of Republican elites.
Trump is dragging the party to the right. But he is also dragging the party to the left.
Consider the two debates so far this month. When sunny Ohio Gov. John Kasich wasn’t talking, and sometimes even when he was, you could go entire segments thinking Trump was the moderate in the race.
Trump promised government help for people who can’t afford their own health insurance. He pledged to leave Social Security retirement benefits untouched. He hailed the “wonderful” non-abortion work of Planned Parenthood, the women’s health provider other Republicans want to investigate and defund. He called eminent domain, the process of seizing private property for public use, an “absolute necessity.”
On Saturday, in the process of attacking candidate Jeb Bush, the former Democrat committed the ultimate Republican heresy: accusing the George W. Bush administration of lying about Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.
There is nothing inherently left wing about any of this. But given how far right the party’s elected officials have moved since George W. Bush left office, it sounded mildly Bolshevik.
“This is new ground off the reservation that he went to. I mean, he went to liberal Democratville,” marvelled right-wing radio titan Rush Limbaugh. “On a Republican debate stage, defending Planned Parenthood in language used by the left, going after George W. Bush and Jeb Bush and the entire Bush family, for the most part using the terminology of Democrats …”
Limbaugh hypothesized that Trump was being strategic, attempting to appeal to the Democrats and independents who can vote in Saturday’s South Carolina primary. He might be half-correct. Strategic, sure. But the ideological mishmash that is Trumpism — an iron fist for non-white threats, a helping hand for struggling white natives — has substantial appeal to actual Republicans.
“It appears,” University of California, Irvine, professor Michael Tesler wrote in the Washington Post, “that the Trump coalition unites resentment of minority groups with support for economically progressive policies.”
Tesler, analyzing a large national survey, noted that Trump loses handily to rigid right-winger Ted Cruz among Republicans who are very conservative economically. But Trump wins by more than 30 percentage points with Republicans “who hold progressive positions on health care, taxes, the minimum wage and unions.”
Anti-immigrant parties in Europe appeal to the same slice of the electorate. Like them, Trump has exposed a rift between old-fashioned power brokers and the people whose support they had come to take for granted.
Trump’s base is both far more right wing than the Republican donor class on immigration and far more left wing than the donor class on Social Security. No other candidate is speaking to them on both issues at once.
“There’s a voter out there that is more moderate, more secular, more blue-collar,” says Bruce Haynes, a Republican strategist and president of the firm Purple Strategies. “While they appreciate the traditional Republican position on social issues, their bell is really rung by his message on immigration, his message on guns and his message on trade. Because those things really speak to where those people sit, economically and culturally. And traditional, orthodox conservative positions, which someone like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio might hold, don’t always sit squarely and cleanly with that voter.”
Cruz, still trailing big, is betting voters will be repulsed by Trump’s intermittent liberalism once they learn more about it. New ads from Cruz’s campaign and from an allied Super PAC highlight Trump’s past and present stances on abortion, eminent domain and bank bailouts. One Cruz ad calls him a non-conservative who “pretends to be a Republican.”
The existential question, in the era of Trump, is what being a Republican means.
How Trump deviates from Republican orthodoxy
Donald Trump, like his rivals, has vowed to repeal Obamacare and replace it with some unspecified superior program. But he has also spoken fondly of Canada-style universal health insurance.
“As far as single-payer, it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland, it could have worked in a different age, which is the age (the early 2000s) you are talking about here,” he said at the first Republican debate.
Other Republicans denounce single-payer health insurance as socialism.
“Socialized medicine is a disaster. It does not work,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in February.
Republicans have fiercely criticized Planned Parenthood, a leading provider of abortion and women’s health services, in the wake of undercover videos showing its employees discussing the transfer of tissue from aborted fetuses. Trump, though, said in August that he wants to “look at the good aspects” of the organization.
Pressed by Cruz at Saturday’s debate, Trump barely budged.
“It does do wonderful things, but not as it relates to abortion,” he said. “There are wonderful things having to do with women’s health.”
Cruz is vowing to launch an investigation of Planned Parenthood on his very first day in office. Ohio Gov. John Kasich is about to sign a bill defunding Planned Parenthood in his state.
Cruz, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have all proposed raising the age to receive Social Security benefits, from 67 to as old as 70. Trump, conversely, says he will simply protect the program.
“There’s tremendous waste, fraud and abuse, and we’re going to get it. But we’re not going to hurt the people who have been paying into Social Security their whole life and then all of a sudden they’re supposed to get less,” he said Saturday.
There is considerable Republican skepticism of the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration, but no prominent party figure is as critical as Trump.
Bush says, “This is a great deal for America.” Kasich says, “It’s critical to us.” Trump calls it a “terrible deal” written by incompetent leaders who are no match for the ruthless Chinese.
And he doesn’t stop with the TPP. He also says the North American Free Trade Agreement is a “disaster.” The U.S., he says, needs “fair trade,” not free trade.
“We will either renegotiate it or we will break it,” he said in September.
War in Iraq
Trump has grown scathing in his attacks on George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq.
“They lied,” Trump said Saturday. “They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew that there were none.”
Rubio felt compelled to step in and defend the brother of his Florida rival.
“Not only did he keep us safe,” Rubio said, “but no matter what you want to say about weapons of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein was in violation of UN resolutions, in open violation, and the world wouldn’t do anything about it, and George W. Bush enforced what the international community refused to do.”