When Donald Trump accepts the Republican nomination on Thursday in Cleveland, it will represent a stunning moment in American politics — the triumph of a raw populism, embodied by a shameless demagogue, over both the official establishment and the official ideology of a major political party.
We didn’t see Trump’s apotheosis coming. But in our 2008 book, “Grand New Party,” we pointed out that despite its “party of the rich” reputation, the Republican Party increasingly depended on mostly white working-class support, even as its policy agenda was increasingly unresponsive to working-class voters’ problems and concerns.
Now Trump has brought this tension fully into the open and ruthlessly exploited it. His primary-season base was more working class and less religious and libertarian than is usual for Republican nominees, and his campaign trafficked in overtly populist rather than ideologically conservative appeals: protectionist talk on trade and immigration, an “America First” foreign policy vision, a promise to protect Social Security and Medicare and an unsubtle emphasis on white identity and white nostalgia.
Of course Trumpism is also a celebrity-driven cult of personality, forged by its leader’s unique reality-television appeal. This has made it relatively easy for the Republican Party’s leaders to hope that his campaign is sui generis, that when he loses in November (as most of them still expect) there won’t be a coherent Trumpism after Trump.