The success of Donald Trump and Ben Carson has turned the members of the GOP elite into anthropologists, struggling to understand those ordinary Republicans who now resemble an exotic and hostile tribe. “I have no feeling for the electorate anymore,” George H.W. Bush’s former chief of staff John Sununu told The New York Times last Saturday. “Their priorities are so different that if I tried to analyze it I’d be making it up.” On Monday, Politico quoted a GOP donor from Florida who fretted that, “I look at this party now, and I hardly recognize it. I never would have thought there would be so much mistrust of the establishment.”
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The GOP sometimes baffles me, too. But I have a suggestion for where Sununu and this anonymous donor might start in their effort to understand their own party: by reading the news.
On Sunday, Politico ran a story headlined, “GOP moneymen: Ryan a fundraising juggernaut.” Unlike John Boehner, the story noted, the incoming Republican speaker “isn’t a golfer” and thus can’t hold “fundraisers on the golf course.” But not to worry. “Instead of a five-hour event playing golf, allies say, Ryan can hold two events in the same time and can bring in five times as much money.” He’s “unusually efficient with his time, even tending to donors on drives between events.”
That same day, The Washington Post reported that Ryan had chosen David Hoppe to be his chief of staff. Ryan’s spokesperson noted that Hoppe, like his new boss, is a father, a Midwesterner and a “rabid” Green Bay Packers fan. How sweet. He’s also a lobbyist who earned north of $600,000 last year representing, among other clients, the for-profit college industry, which has been trying to avoid regulations aimed at ensuring that colleges don’t sucker students into taking out massive debt for a degree that won’t get them a job.
Then, on Monday, Politico ran a story about the men and women who have raised $100,000 per person for Jeb Bush’s campaign. They’re worried by Jeb’s poor standing in the polls. What they want, Politico explains, is “tangible evidence that the product they’re investing in is going to pay dividends.”
The Trump and Carson phenomena are not the same. And they’re not attributable to merely one thing. But this much is clear: They are connected to the fact that ordinary Republicans, like ordinary Democrats, think that a political system in which $100,000 donors seek “tangible evidence that the product they’re investing in is going to pay dividends” is fundamentally corrupt.
The polling makes this clear. The official Republican line on money and politics is that there’s no problem. Money is speech. The more people speak, the healthier our democracy is. But according to a New York Times survey this May, 80 percent of Republicans believe “money has too much influence” in America’s political system. Seventy-one percent prefer “limiting the amount of money individuals can contribute to political campaigns” rather than “allowing individuals to contribute as much money to political campaigns as they’d like.” Eighty-one percent think that “the way political campaigns are funded in the United States” requires “fundamental changes” or should be “completely rebuilt.”
If these numbers are surprising, perhaps it’s because Republicans, unlike Democrats, speak more often in the language of culture and character than the language of class. So Carson supporters praise his decency. Trump supporters praise his bluntness. But central to both men’s success is the fact that they’re not politicians. Why don’t ordinary Republicans like politicians? Because politicians aren’t honest. And why aren’t politicians honest? In part, at least, because they’re saying one thing to the people they want to vote for them and another to the people they want to fund them.
In both parties, those interests are not the same. In the Democratic Party, a candidate dependent on raising big money can’t aggressively attack Wall Street. In the Republican Party, a candidate dependent on raising big money can’t aggressively attack illegal immigration. Sanders has done the first; Trump has done the second, and it’s a key reason they’re both doing so much better than expected in the polls.
There’s an irony here. For decades, Republican leaders have been pushing to dismantle any campaign-finance limits. They’ve largely succeeded; the super-rich are now buying politicians like never before. And in response, ordinary Republicans are embracing populist demagogues.
Why is the GOP so unruly? Republican elites don’t need to go to an Arby’s in Sioux City to find out. The answer lies much closer to home.
This article was first published in The Atlantic.