The GOP is panicking. And it should be.
Conservatives are sending an angry unambiguous message to the party. The message can be read not only in the rise of Donald Trump, but also in the rise of Ben Carson. Republican voters are choosing candidates who don’t talk or seem like politicians. They have lost all faith in the Republican Party.
And it’s hard to blame them.
Conservatives poured time, energy and money into a party that promised to counter Obama and take back America. The GOP controls both houses of Congress and conservatives have nothing to show for it.
Support for Trump and Carson really isn’t about the issues. Attacking them for their past liberal positions is a waste of time. This isn’t about what Trump or Carson believe. It’s about what the base believes.
There has been a profound loss of faith in the Republican Party and the larger political establishment orbiting around it. Faced with a bewildering number of candidates, convoluted flip-flopping on the issues (trying to track the immigration positions of most GOP candidates alone requires a flowchart), a great many Republicans are opting out of politics by trying something else.
Trump and Carson have diametrically opposite personalities, but what they bring to the table is a completely different attitude. Their biggest appeal is that they aren’t politicians.
How do you run against that?
Trump’s biggest draw is the fight. Republican voters want a man who won’t pull his punches, won’t back down at the last minute and won’t walk out of the room with his head down and promise to try harder next time. They’ve had too much of that already and they’re sick to death of it.
That was what Ted Cruz understood with the shutdown. It didn’t matter whether it would succeed or fail. Sometimes an army needs to attack to keep up its morale. It can’t wait endlessly or it will fall apart. Cruz understood that Congress could not conduct business as usual while the voters would wait around patiently for them to act. It’s a truth that few of his Senate colleagues were willing to listen to.
This is a truth that many in the establishment busy strategizing indefinite endgames have forgotten. Their concept of victory is fundamentally different than that of the base. Trump is the reckoning. He is the base’s payback for the breach of trust. His poll numbers show the lack of faith in the GOP.
It isn’t necessary to take a specific position on birthright citizenship to compete with him. There’s no real point in taking a political position that much of the base no longer pays attention to because it doesn’t believe that the politicians taking those positions will stick to them once they are elected.
We’re not dealing with think tank checklists here. What voters want is someone with the right attitude, not the right ideology. They’re willing to overlook Trump’s past positions, his flip-flops now, because he has an uncompromising attitude. This is not an ideological purity test; it’s an emotional purity test.
Trying to show them that Trump doesn’t pass an ideological purity test is pointless. Instead Republican candidates have to pass an emotional purity test. They have to show that they’re willing to fight as hard as it takes with nothing held back. They have to stop being politically cautious and get angry.
Because their base is mad as hell.
As David Horowitz wrote in Go for the Heart, "'Caring'” is not one among many issues in an election. It is the central one. Since most policy issues are complicated, voters want to know above everything else just whom they can trust to sort out the complexities and represent them."
Trump has brought that reality home to the Republican Party.
The Republican field suffers from a lack of decisiveness, a lack of forthrightness and a lack of anger. That’s normal for politicians running for public office, but non-threatening personalities and memorized applause lines are not nearly as effective as they used to be. The base trusts passion more than professionalism.
Even before Trump, Republican candidates were advancing not on their merits, but on their willingness to be abrasive, to offend and to tell it like it is. Conservative candidates who want to edge out Trump will need more than a plan. They will need an attitude. And they will need character.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ben Carson passes the emotional purity test by avoiding the slick preparedness of the professional politician. If Trump is running on attitude, Carson is running on character. He speaks softly, he sometimes seems unprepared and his manner is casual. It should doom him, but instead it convinces voters of his integrity. He’s trustworthy because he isn’t a politician.
Carson brings sincerity to the table. In his own way, so does Trump. Both candidates engage emotions. They aren’t running on their records and they sometimes seem unsure what their own positions are.
But what people want is candidates who pass the emotional purity test.
Trump and Carson don’t like to get bogged down in details. They lay out ideas that are both big and simple. That is something that most of the rest of the field has forgotten how to do.
And both of them harness moral outrage. They don’t exist in a universe of policies, but of principles.
That is where Reagan was. That is where the rest of the field needs to be. The issues aren’t details, they’re moral choices. They’re not abstracts, but people’s lives. The obstacles are enemies. Credibility is more about conviction than another ten-point plan that few voters have the time or interest to parse.
Republican voters are looking for passion and character. Candidates who put them first will succeed. They want candidates who are as outraged about the state of things as they are. That desire isn’t limited to Republicans. Bernie Sanders’ rise is being powered by the same sense of frustration and anger.
In a landscape of antiseptic politicians, anger and clumsiness seem authentic. They humanize political candidates. Many conservatives have come to see the GOP as a mindless unfeeling machine, much like the government they are contending with. They want someone to fight that machine for them.
Republican candidates have to stop thinking about positions and start thinking about people. Inspiration has become cheap. The path to it is through principled outrage that creates the hope for political change.
David Horowitz wrote, "Because Democrats regard politics as war conducted by other means, they seek to demonize and destroy their opponents as the enemies of progress, of social justice and minority rights. Republicans can only counter these attacks by turning the Democrats’ guns around — by exposing them as the enforcers of injustice."
Injustice is the key word.
Countless millions of Americans carry the conviction that something is deeply wrong. They sense that their lives, their freedoms and their futures have become precarious. They need more than a plan. They need someone who will express the outrage they feel and fight for them.
One way or another, this election will be a referendum on the Obama years.
Republican voters do not want to be represented in that referendum by another mild-mannered politician who will sell them out and fail to give voice to the outrage at what has been done to them. They want their pain, their anger and their fear for the future to be heard. That is what Trump is doing.
That is the emotional purity test. The primaries are only a rehearsal. The real test will come in a national election when the Republican candidate will face down Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. And all the men and women, the families that helped put him there, that spent their time and energy working to help him, will wait to see if he finally calls out their oppressors for the injustices committed against them.
They waited in vain in 2012. They don’t want to make that mistake again.
If the professional Republican candidates want to be standing there on that day representing them, they had better show them that they can do it now.
Before it’s too late.