The contrast between Trump and his three remaining rivals was on stark display at the Republican debate on Thursday night. “I will fight anyone who wants to expand government,” Marco Rubio vowed. In Ohio, “We shrunk the government,” John Kasich boasted. “Government is the problem!” insisted Ted Cruz. “Here's my philosophy. The less government, the more freedom. The fewer bureaucrats, the more prosperity.”
Trump has his quarrels with the federal government. He’s repeatedly vowed to do away with the EPA and the Department of Education. When moderators ask him how he’ll pay for his expansive program of government initiatives, he repeats “waste, fraud, and abuse” like a magical incantation to ward them off. He’s promised to end Common Core, to put government services out to bid, and to overhaul the tax code. He’s decried the food stamp program for keeping half of recipients “on the dole for nearly a decade,” and blamed Obama for handing out “welfare goodies” in exchange for votes.
But on issue after issue, Trump vows to use government as a tool to improve the lot of his supporters, and address their anxieties. He’d interfere in free markets, imposing tariffs to punish companies that move factories offshore, and countries with abusive trade practices. He’s pledged to preserve Social Security. He’s proposed, at various times, registering Muslims and banning them from entering the country.
There’s a common theme dividing the government initiatives Trump supports from the ones he opposes. He’s speaking to his core supporters: working-class whites who identify not by ethnicity, but simply as American. And he’s promising to defend their interests. He’ll protect their jobs from spotted owls and immigrants and offshoring; he’ll keep them safe by keeping terrorists abroad, and troops at home; he’ll buffer them against shifting economic fortunes with robust social-insurance programs.
It seems unlikely that Trump has read the political-science tract, Us Against Them: The Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion, but his campaign sometimes seems devoted to proving its authors correct. They used extensive polling data to argue that white, ethnocentric voters vigorously oppose means-tested programs they believe directly transfer wealth to racial minorities—food stamps, welfare, TANF. On the other hand, those same voters are also more likely to support universal social-insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare.
These are Trump’s voters. Some once were Democrats, but left the party for Nixon in 1972, or for Reagan in 1980—in search of a leader who would put the interests of the white working classes first. For decades, both their legitimate grievances and their racial resentments found outlet in the Republican program of smaller government. But it’s always been, at best, an alliance of convenience, and not just on obvious flashpoints like immigration. Libertarians and business conservatives share little of their affection for robust social-insurance programs, and none of their hostility to free trade.