The Republican Party is currently experiencing some problems related to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump. Many Republicans would, I guess, say that Trump is himself the problem. The problem, however, is more complicated than they often let on. I would say this is true in three ways.
First, as Tom Hoopes suggests in his own post on Trump, it is necessary to draw a distinction between Trump and his supporters. Republican leaders don’t like the fact that Trump sometimes expresses himself in ways that are–shall we say–worthy of criticism. But the fact that he does so does not mean that his supporters are worthy of condemnation. Probably many of his supporters don’t wholly approve of all of his comments. It is far more likely that they stick with him despite his sometimes excessive rhetoric. Why would they do this? Probably because they note that ordinary politicians are very careful never to express themselves in ways that might give offense, but also note that these non-offensive politicians cannot credibly claim to have managed the country’s affairs competently. If this is what they think, they probably have a point. But in any case, their votes are necessary for Republicans to win, so the path of prudence would be for Republican leaders to find a respectful and constructive way to appeal to these voters’ concerns.
Second, the problem with the Trump candidacy is probably not exactly what the Republican leaders say it is. Or at least, it is what they say it is, but it is also something else, too. They complain, again, that he expresses himself intemperately, and for this they have at certain points called on him to get out of the race. At the same time they don’t complain about the issues he has raised–such as illegal immigration. Instead they acknowledge that he has touched a chord with a segment of the American people. But it is likely that some of these Republican leaders object just as much to this issue being raised as they do to Trump’s sometimes abusive words. At least, you could get the impression that they really don’t want to talk about this. Many Republican congressional candidates made an issue of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration last fall, but once in office they have not done much about it–or, for that matter, even said much about it. This is the kind of thing that makes some voters think they are being duplicitous. And this in turn makes these voters interested in Trump.
This brings us to the third way in which the Trump problem is more complicated than Republican leaders sometimes seem to say. To hear them, and various commentators, talk about it, the Trump phenomenon is either the result of bad luck or an evil plot. If it is simply the result of Trump’s desire to run for the presidency, then it is bad luck. If Trump was talked into doing it by Bill Clinton in order to hurt Republicans, then it is an evil plot. In either case, the Republican Party is not to blame. It is the victim of circumstance. But this is not an adequate account. Leaving aside the question why Trump would run for the presidency, we have to ask why, once he got in, he was able to get decent support in the polls and even remain the frontrunner after sustaining a barrage of criticism from both within and without the Party. I would say that he could only achieve this because many Republican voters feel that the Party’s leadership is not really interested in protecting their interests or defending their values.
Here I find Machiavelli helpful. I know he is not at all a model for Catholic statesmanship, but he did know a lot about politics and human nature–things that even Catholics should consider. He suggests that if the people are restive, it is the prince’s fault. If he were a good prince, the people would be satisfied. Something similar applies here. A certain kind of Republican wants to condemn a big segment of Republican voters as crazy yahoos. But for the most part Republican voters are responsible enough people–middle and working class people. They are, in other words, “the people” that Machiavelli describes: mainly interested in tending to their own business and taking care of their own families. If they are worked up, it is a sign that their leaders have not treated them correctly.