Donald Trump seems to relish stirring the troubled waters of race, gender and ethnicity. But the other big surprise of the presumed Republican presidential nominee’s rise has been his unexpected emergence as a working-class hero.
Weird as it may sound, that’s the big, underappreciated ideological difference that forced House Speaker Paul Ryan, Trump’s highest-ranking skeptic in the Grand Old Party, to hold a meeting to find “common ground.”
After 45 minutes of discussing “the core principles that tie us all together,” as Ryan put it, they came out all smiles and issued a joint statement that recognized their “many important areas of common ground.” Well, good luck with that, guys.
The ideological differences between Ryan and Trump are profound, particularly for a party whose purity police always are on the lookout for “RINOS,” Republicans in name only.
Trump, by contrast, is a cafeteria conservative, picking the planks of conservative orthodoxy that he likes and rejecting others in the way that most of us choose chicken or fish on a buffet line.
The billionaire showman has gotten away with it because his flexible conservatism has lined up with his mostly white, working- and middle-class supporters’ beliefs more closely than the policies of the mainstream GOP have.
He has famously responded to Republican inaction on immigration by promising to build a border wall, “make Mexico pay for it” and expel millions of undocumented immigrants who already are living and working here.
Under the banner of “America First” isolationism, he attacks existing trade deals as the jobs-exporting products of “stupid people” in both of the parties that run Washington. He would impose punitive tariffs, he says, which brings cheers from his rally crowds; if enacted, however, tariffs would trigger trade wars.
But Trump’s beliefs can turn on a dime, despite his party’s low tolerance for flip-floppers. Remember his early call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States?” On Wednesday, the day before he met with Ryan, Trump said that was “just a suggestion.”
He also famously shifted his position on abortion rights several times within hours of declaring in an interview that women who seek abortions where abortion is illegal should receive “some form of punishment.” Two days later, he settled on leaving abortion law the way it is now until he can “change the law through his judicial appointments and allow the states to protect the unborn.”
But the issues on which Ryan and Trump most obviously disagree are fiscal. Way back in 2011, when Ryan was a rising conservative star as House budget chairman, the House GOP majority approved his budget plan, which he called “our defining moment” for his party. Billionaire Trump, then host of “The Celebrity Apprentice,” lambasted Ryan’s budget as “political suicide for the Republican Party.”
The ideological divide between the two men was sharp. Ryan is an orthodox supply-side conservative in the model of his mentor, Rep. Jack Kemp. The late New York Republican and former pro football star pursued vigorous grassroots minority outreach and promoted market-based alternatives to liberal government-run social programs.
Trump, the cafeteria conservative, is more populist. He promised not to touch Medicare or Social Security, both of which would move swiftly toward privatization in Ryan’s budget. He suggested raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans such as himself before he backpedaled.
Similarly he has supported raising the minimum wage (which wage-earners love but the GOP hates as a “job killer”), except on those days when he doesn’t.
What we have here is a battle between Washington’s insiders and its outsiders for the soul of the GOP. Ryan could press Trump to be more tolerant and constructive at a time when the nation needs congressional action on a variety of fronts.
But based on experience, we probably can expect Trump to stay in the ideological driver’s seat with all of his bombast. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, worried about keeping his GOP majority, already has joined the Trump train.
That’s because, beneath all of his insult-comic-dog bluster, Trump has stumbled on important issues to working-class and middle-class Americans that their leaders in both parties have been kicking down the road.
Even Trump, who has read national moods for decades as a TV showman, could see the leadership vacuum: A hard-pressed mostly white working class that has voted mostly Republican since the mid-1960s has too little to show for it. Out of the ashes of such discontent, even a billionaire showman can become a working-class hero.
Clarence Page, the 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board.