The Great Republican Revolt, Cont'd

Edward Champigny salutes during the U.S. national anthem at a Trump rally in Lowell, Massachusetts, on January 4. (Brian Synder / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s been hugely gratifying to read so many smart writers react to my cover story in the current issue. Chris Bodenner flagged a bunch of pieces and has generously allowed me to overstep the Notes section’s usually severe word limits to offer some replies.

The most common theme of the reaction pieces—see Jeet Heer in The New Republic, Brian Beutler also in TNR, David Roberts at Vox, and Greg Sargent on Twitter—is that I’ve slighted the centrality of ethnic resentment to the Trump story. Jeet Heer:

During the course of an article of more than 6,000 words dealing with the impact of Trump on the Republican Party, Frum never uses the words xenophobic, nativist or racist (or any variation of them) at all, except for one throwaway reference to “other aspects of identity” like “race, religion, lifestyle.”

No, I didn’t use those words. Here’s what I did say:

Sixty-three percent of Trump supporters wished to end birthright citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants born on U.S. soil—a dozen points higher than the norm for all Republicans. More than other Republicans, Trump supporters distrusted Barack Obama as alien and dangerous: Only 21 percent acknowledged that the president was born in the United States, according to an August survey by the Democratic-oriented polling firm PPP. Sixty-six percent believed the president was a Muslim.

Unquestionably, racial and ethnic resentments are a big part of the Donald Trump story. And yes, those resentments intersect in important ways with concerns about wealth and social benefits. Again as I wrote:

It’s uncertain whether any Tea Partier ever really carried a placard that read keep your government hands off my Medicare. But if so, that person wasn’t spouting gibberish. The Obama administration had laid hands on Medicare. It hoped to squeeze $500 billion out of the program from 2010 to 2020 to finance health insurance for the uninsured. You didn’t have to look up the figures to have a sense that many of the uninsured were noncitizens (20 percent), or that even more were foreign-born (27 percent). In the Tea Party’s angry town-hall meetings, this issue resonated perhaps more loudly than any other—the ultimate example of redistribution from a deserving “us” to an undeserving “them.”

Ethnic and racial resentment are always with us. The Donald Trump candidacy is like nothing American politics has seen since 1945. Not even George Wallace’s two runs for the presidency can compare: When Wallace sought a major-party nomination in 1972 (the Democratic nomination, as it happened), he first carefully cleaned up his platform and his rhetoric, disavowing his past support for school segregation. Trump has become more inflammatory as he has campaigned, and has only risen in the polls as a result. What’s changed?


The United States—and other developed countries too—are becoming rapidly more ethnically diverse at the same time as they are becoming more economically insecure. Many old-stock inhabitants see immigrants not only as competitors for jobs, but also as rival claimants on government resources. (It doesn’t help that one newcomer group, Middle Eastern Muslims, also presents a highly publicized national security challenge.) These voters have turned to Trump because no other political actor offers them anything at all.

I happen to think Trump’s answers to their concerns are pretty bad. But to condemn the concerns themselves as mere bigotry is to deny some important truths about American life in the 21st century. Immigrants really do compete with natives. Sometimes they displace them. Immigration has costs as well as benefits, and those costs fall more heavily on those who are already losing ground.

“Ban all Muslims” is a wrong and knee-jerk response to the terrorist threat presented by some Muslims. But it gets a hearing in part because of the organized campaign of happy talk that has sought to deny the link between terrorism and any Muslims. As in Europe, as in America: the refusal of responsible leaders to address real and important voter concerns does not banish those concerns: it only opens the door to extremists and demagogues who will promise to address issues that the mainstream won’t acknowledge.

A second line of criticism of my piece comes from conservatives who think my vision of the Republican future isn’t sufficiently pure or robust. Matt K. Lewis at The Daily Caller:

Yes, people are pissed. But this doesn’t mean conservatives should abandon their principles in favor of adopting liberal stances masquerading as populism. [Conservatives face an internal challenge from] lunatics and heretics. Both are dangerous. And, in this case, Frum is essentially marrying the two of them. This is the worst of both worlds. The key for conservatives is to modernize, not to moderate.

James Pethokoukis on AEI’s blog expresses optimism that the Republican party can offer a home to a “pro-growth/middle class/family conservative reform agenda adequate to counter Trumpian populism, especially if espoused by a traditional politician.” Rod Dreher at The American Conservative insists on the continuing centrality to modern conservatism of cultural and religious ideals, more than the economic themes I stress:

Religious conservative voters may well vote Republican because they are confident that even thought Republican politicians are useless in protecting their interests, at least they aren’t positively menacing, like the Democrats. But voting Republican as the lesser of two evils is not the same thing as affirming the Republican Party and its leadership.

Me, I don’t trust the GOP, but I am resisting being pissed off, because anger is only going to blind us to what needs to be done, and may cause us to commit to futile causes.  … The GOP is going to do what it’s going to do, but it’s almost certainly not going to be doing much that defends my interests as an orthodox Christian — not only because its donor class and elites dislike bitter clingers like me, but also because the country is moving away from the things we believe in.

Ross Douthat, in a numbered sequence on Twitter, insists that I have under-estimated the importance of the change and reform offered by Marco Rubio, whom I cited in the Atlantic article as a more appealing and modern but otherwise more or less interchangeable variant on Jeb Bush.

What I’d say to all of these conservative critics is that I don’t regard my own version of Republican reform as the definitive, the exclusive, or even the ideal answer. Politics is a collective and collaborative enterprise. Very likely a modernized Republican party would look more religious—and certainly more pro-life and pro-gun—than I’d personally prefer. Douthat may possibly have taken the measure of Rubio better than I have. Above all, I know well that many modernization-minded conservatives think I go too far on issues of healthcare, wage subsidy, and job creation.

But if 2015 has a political message for Republicans, it is that the rank-and-file of the party does not think that the “Republican reform” agenda as advanced by the GOP’s internal policy elite goes anything like far enough. New ideas proceed past a gauntlet of veto checkpoints, each monitored by some ideological coterie or interest group. I think Pethokoukis makes a clever point when he objects:

But at some point “repeal” vs. “reform” or “ending” vs. “mending” becomes an unhelpful and distracting quibble. It’s like how many parts can you replace on your car before it’s really a different vehicle?

If a Republican candidate for president would commit to maintaining health coverage for those who have it now, I’d be happy to call that “repeal and reform” and to congratulate the GOP on the overthrow of Obamacare. But the fact is: The consensus party ideas on healthcare in 2015 were more or less unchanged from those of 2007. Nobody has designed, much less advocated, anything that comes close to preserving coverage for the upward of 20 million Americans who’d lose it if the Affordable Care Act were repealed without a replacement. Meanwhile, every leading Republican presidential candidate, including Trump, has committed himself to tax cuts so huge as to leave no resources for almost anything else anywhere else in the budget, especially if the party makes good (as I hope it will) on the promise to rebuild America’s military defenses.

Whatever is wrong with my ideas about Republican reform, at least they exist. Republicans have spent half a decade talking about the need to develop new ideas at some point in the future. And it is ideas that are needed—plans that might make a difference—not mere messaging exercises. If nothing else, the Jeb Bush campaign should mark the limits of the post 2012 strategy that you can rebrand the Republican pizza while making no changes to the recipe.

I agree with Matt Lewis about the danger to the GOP from lunatics. From atop my little soapbox, I’ve been vexing passers-by with that message since the day John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate. I’m not so concerned about the dangers of heresy. Frankly, today’s GOP could do with more of it, not only because GOP orthodoxy is so crushingly out-of-date, but because so much of that orthodoxy has been so spectacularly repudiated by so many former believers in the six months since Donald Trump posted his 95 Theses on the big brass revolving door of Trump Tower.