Scott Olson/Getty Images

You can just picture the impish smirk on Bill Clinton’s face when he picked up the phone late this spring to encourage fellow plutocrat Donald Trump to enter the Republican primary contest, a few weeks before the reality TV star, erstwhile real-estate tycoon, and regular contributor to the Clintons and other Democrats threw his hat into the GOP ring. That’s putting the cat among the Republican pigeons, Clinton surely thought with satisfaction. The flying feathers and panicked fluttering were bound to make his wife’s flatfooted, scandal-ridden campaign look positively balletic by contrast.

But even if Trump is no real Republican, and even if his motive is simply to cash in on yet more notoriety, serious GOP candidates have to show they can deftly take him on, for two important reasons. First, many world leaders more resemble boastful thug Vladimir Putin than milquetoast François Hollande, so an aspirant to the American presidency needs to show he can coolly handle a mere blowhard showoff like Trump. Presidential palaces the world over throng with genuine bullies. Since Trump is a seasoned, uninhibited performer, candidates will need quick comebacks as well as barbed putdowns in debates. But they should also go on the attack in speeches and advertisements.

In addition, Trump has expressed two powerful feelings churning in the hearts of the Republican rank and file, and no candidate can succeed if he can’t give more coherent and civil voice to those deep emotions than Trump’s primal scream (and the party is beholden to Trump for making clear what grassroots Republicans believe but mainstream candidates won’t say). Above all, there’s illegal immigration. Grassroots Republicans simply don’t buy the elite GOP orthodoxy about the free movement of capital, goods, and labor. The first two, fine. But grassroots conservatives (and many independents as well) have no patience with the idea that people should just flow over borders as if there were no such thing as national sovereignty and clear immigration laws. They don’t condone lawbreaking, and they hate the refusal to enforce the law that leaves a five-times deported criminal free to walk around San Francisco and murder a beautiful young tourist at her father’s side. They find President Obama’s imperial edicts exempting young illegals from the nation’s laws abhorrently antidemocratic. They view with suspicion the airy assumption that birthright citizenship means that a pregnant illegal’s baby is a citizen, entitling the family to child-only welfare benefits (not much less than the full payment), and they can hear with an open mind the argument that when the Fourteenth Amendment defines citizens as those born in the United States “and subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” that second qualification excludes babies whose mothers have sneaked over the border and are subject to the jurisdiction of another nation. And, taking a longer, colder-eyed view than the GOP elites take of the culture of many illegal communities, where gangs are rife and marriage rare, grassroots Republicans wonder whether the babies of the hardworking illegals are going to become Americans who won’t do the jobs Americans won’t do. That they will swell the Democratic voter rolls and change the political character of the nation, ordinary Republicans have no doubt. So while one unit of capital is the same as another, these Republicans know that one unit of labor isn’t, since each pair of hands comes attached to a particular mind, skill set, and culture.

Most Republicans don’t want to round up millions of illegals and ship them south in boxcars. My guess is that they’d be satisfied with a path to citizenship for longtime residents with a good work history who are willing to pay a stiff fine, demonstrate English proficiency, and renounce their Latin American citizenship when they gain a U.S. passport. But they would want this to be a one-and-done deal, with all further illegal entrants deported and ineligible for amnesty, while future requirements for legal entry emphasize skills and education over family relationships. And no rank-and-file Republican wants a single federal nickel to go to law-flouting “sanctuary” cities.

The second deep chord that Trump has struck in Republican hearts is disgust with political correctness. So no California or San Francisco official is held accountable for a five-time deported felon murderously walking that city’s streets, and IRS chief John Koskinen defies with impunity the subpoena of the people’s elected representatives, while a county clerk who out of religious scruples won’t issue marriage licenses to homosexuals goes to jail, and a bakery that won’t make a cake for a homosexual wedding is put out of business? We worry about the rights of the transgendered while our economy performs so poorly that record numbers of Americans have given up even looking for work? We give tax dollars to windmill companies, while already hardscrabble Appalachian communities wither and die because President Obama, on the basis of “science” that is very far from “settled,” has imperially decreed pie-in-the-sky clean-air standards? Putting aside the other vexed issues of abortion, can any rank-and-file Republican feel anything but revulsion at the thought of his tax dollars funding the ripping of viable third-trimester fetuses from their mothers’ wombs and harvesting their organs—and selling them? And no grassroots Republican believes that disparate impact is evidence of racial discrimination, while most believe that forcing suburban zoning boards to approve housing projects for their “fair share” of poor minorities is tyranny. All Republican candidates need to be able to discuss such issues with feeling but not fanaticism: to explain coolly that opposition to homosexual marriage is not “homophobia,” rejection of partial-birth abortion—infanticide, that is—is not a war on women, support for coal miners is not hatred of nature, opposition to affirmative action is not racism.

In Mexico, we read, piñatas in the form of Donald Trump are selling fast. GOP candidates themselves might take a salutary whack at The Donald—as a prime example of the crony capitalism that grassroots Republicans deplore. A New York real estate developer, after all, needs no architectural or engineering skills; he is a political manipulator, a buyer of zoning variances and expedited approvals in exchange for the “honest graft” of campaign contributions or less-honest graft of jobs for relatives. This isn’t the free-market, entrepreneurial capitalism that Republicanism should stand for, and candidates should say so, especially since so many of Trump’s declared economic notions are anti-free market. Howard Roark he isn’t.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next