The Trump rebellion -- danger and opportunity
There's a certain view of how the Republican party works which goes as follows. The party's core purpose is to serve the economic interests of the rich and big business. However, the rich and big business by themselves are not numerous enough to win elections. So the party makes a show of passion for certain cultural issues -- religion, homophobia, guns, (coded forms of) racism -- in order to seduce large numbers of culturally-conservative working people into voting Republican even though it's against their economic self-interest.
This view is an oversimplification -- many of those with actual power are genuinely committed on the cultural issues, as the strenuous efforts of Republican elected officials to fight gay marriage and restrict abortion show. Nevertheless it's true that a huge chunk of the Republican voting base isn't enamored of the party's economic policies, and never has been. The party's official zeal for the free market, free-trade agreements, and low taxes for the wealthy -- zeal which practically rises to the level of religious dogmatism -- leaves them cold.
What's changing now is that more and more of these voters are noticing that the party isn't actually serving their interests, and they're angry about it. As to why this is happening now, I think part of it is rooted in the unhinged reaction to Obama's election in 2008. Obama was so demonized by some elements on the right -- including many short-sighted members of the Republican establishment -- that much of the base came to perceive him as absolutely anathema, an embodiment of evil with whom no compromise was possible. The problem with this was that Republican legislators did sometimes have to work with him to get anything done -- avoiding government shutdowns, raising the debt limit, and getting budgets passed, for example. But much of the base was now primed to see such necessary compromise as treason. Reading comments by Trump supporters on right-wing sites, I commonly see this theme -- "the Republican establishment betrayed us by making deals with Obama instead of fighting him at every turn". As absurd as this stance may seem, the fact remains that it's led these voters to look on the Republican leadership as their enemy, making it easier for them to also recognize that that leadership's economic policies really have been harmful.
(For more on these themes, see this analysis at Bloomberg and this condescending establishment view.)
Aside from that, you can't fool people forever. Decades of tax cuts, deregulation, free-market fetishism, and free-trade agreements have produced an increasingly Third-World-like economy with stagnant incomes, shrinking job prospects for the less-educated, staggering concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite, and disasters like the West TX explosion and the Flint MI water crisis, evoking a society in which a wealthy ruling elite views the masses as expendable serfs. Eventually even the Fox-addled teabagger base started to notice all this.
It's the anger over this situation which is fueling the passion for outsider candidates, especially Trump. Most Trump supporters are still confused about who is to blame -- decades of propaganda and crypto-tribal paranoia still cast their spell -- hence the fear of foreigners and anyone "different" that Trump is pandering to. But they do understand that the Republican elite and its free-market fetishism are a core part of what's hurting them. And this matters. It matters a lot.
These people aren't potential Democratic voters, at least not yet. They feel betrayed by both parties -- by Republicans too beholden to big business at the expense of ordinary people, and by Democrats they see as too infatuated with gays, minorities, and illegal aliens, and contemptuous of rural and working-class white culture (and also beholden to big business). But they are potentially reachable.
There's evidence that divisive cultural issues are losing force. Younger people of all classes and cultural groups are less religious, and more comfortable with gays and with a racially-mixed society. The dramatic rise in public support for gay marriage in just the last decade has shown that prejudice can be vanquished with amazing speed when it is confronted properly. As I've said before, the transformation of attitudes about gays is one of the most stunning cultural victories in US history, and it behooves us to study this success and work out how to apply its lessons to other struggles.
And Democrats too need to show that they are on the right side economically. In reality, they already are in many areas, at least in contrast with the Republicans -- Obamacare, raising the minimum wage, defending Social Security and unemployment benefits, etc. But it would be useful, for this election, to zero in on one of the current issues which Trump is exploiting to pull Republican voters away from their leaders. What I have in mind is the TPP. Both of our Presidential candidates oppose it; Hillary needs to do with the same force and fervor that Bernie is already showing. If the Republican establishment manages to squelch Trump and foist a conventional nominee like Rubio or Jeb on the party, the spectacle of that nominee spouting the same tired old rationalizations for free-trade agreements, while the Democrat vows to kill the TPP, could well peel off a lot of Trump supporters.
They realize the Republicans aren't in their corner. We have to show that we are. We can't compromise on racism, gay rights, or separation of church and state, but on economics we can appeal to them just by doing the kinds of things we damn well should have been doing all along.
And if Trump is the nominee, as he likely will be? Well, there are plenty of ways to attack him and he has a tremendous potential to self-destruct, but there is still value in the economic-populist appeal. The Democratic base, too, harbors many who are rightly exasperated at how cozy the Democratic establishment is with Wall Street. Much of Bernie's appeal comes from tapping into this. If Hillary is running against Trump and she remains too aloof from economic populism, there's a risk that Trump could peel off some number of Democratic voters. Only by showing that we are listening, and will act on what we hear, can we neutralize that danger.
At the same time, we need to remember that elections are won in the center. The forces which both Trump and Bernie are appealing to are fervent, but they're in the minority; each man is supported by about a third of his party's base. Neither would be likely to win a general election against a more mainstream candidate of the other party. The moderate majority will reject anything that sounds revolutionary, because it sounds revolutionary. The trick is to address the just grievances driving economic populism without sounding like you want to blow everything up and start over. The people who want the latter make a lot of noise, but they aren't as numerous as they think.
If we can exploit the divisions Trump has brought to the surface, and show enough discontented Republicans where their real economic interests lie, the reward could be the permanent crippling of conservatism in the US. It will be well worth it.