The Republican Civil War Has Begun

You can't build a small-government movement on the backs of people you think are welfare cheats

The conservative intelligentsia have found themselves at odds with a significant portion of the Republican Party's base. Credit: Scott Audette/REUTERS

"The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles," Kevin D. Williamson wrote recently in The National Review, the stalwart voice of the right for more than 60 years.

The conservative intelligentsia — the collection of free traders, tax cutters and government shrinkers who have dictated the Republican Party's agenda since the Eighties — have had it with the losers of globalization who make up a significant portion of the party's base: the white males of modest education who have been most full-throated in their support of Donald Trump.

In the mainstream organs like the op-ed pages of The New York Times or the editorials of The Wall Street Journal, right-wing columnists might support using the Republican convention process to deny Trump the nomination, but they discuss it in language that offers some respect to the legitimate anger of Trump's supporters. Last week, David Brooks tried to play nice, writing, "Well, some respect is in order. Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams."

Brooks' niceties will prove too weak a dam to hold back the anger that conservative intellectuals indulge with every Trump victory. The Trump supporters might register Republican and have been counted on to vote the party's way in past elections (flirting for a while with Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996, then voting for George H.W. Bush and Robert Dole against the hated Bill Clinton in the general) but they are, from the point of view of right-leaning think tanks, pretty lousy conservatives.

We saw a hint of this in 2005, when George W. Bush suggested reforming Social Security by partially privatizing the system. Even before the financial crisis, Bush couldn't unite Republican voters behind the idea. Even Republicans like Social Security checks. We got another hint of this during the early Tea Party days when Paul Krugman relayed the story of an angry conservative who told his Congressman "keep your government hands off my Medicare." It may well be that when Mitt Romney made his crack about the dependent 47 percent of Americans who would never vote for him that he was not talking only about liberal Democrats.

It's become a matter of public health record that death rates for middle-aged white Americans are rising, partially due to alcohol addiction, drug addiction and the economic stresses of underemployment. As these lives crumble, marriages are cracking up (or never happening) and communities are falling apart as the tax base can no longer support basic health and education services. In 2008 and 2009, as unemployment benefits reached their limits for many who lost their jobs since the financial crisis, applications for Social Security Disability Insurance spiked, up 8 percent in 2008 and 10 percent the year after. The rate of increase has since reversed, but in the last five years the government has received 16.2 million disability applications.

We know what Republican intellectuals said about the inner cities of the Eighties and Nineties: They called it a crisis of values and lectured black communities about the importance of temperance, hard work and fatherhood while not publishing books like The Bell Curve, which used phony eugenics to imply that black communities had it coming because they're just not as smart as others.

Republicans get testy when their mythos is tested — and in the Republican mythos, people are supposed to react to economic displacement with resourceful pluck and vigor. The National Review is aghast that reasonably able-bodied people on government assistance live in towns like Garbutt, New York, that have been in decline for more than a century, when there are jobs four hours away in the Pennsylvania gas fields. Another National Review writer (they devoted an entire issue of the magazine to beating up Trump supporters), comparing Trump to Buchanan, wrote:

"The Buchanan boys are economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency."

That's Trump's pitch: His base is great but betrayed and need Trump to protect them and keep those Social Security checks coming. It doesn't seem likely that Trump voters are going to suddenly look inward and discover the causes of their problems. And a bunch of people already convinced that they're being ignored and ill-served by the think-tank elitists are not going to take well to seeing their chosen candidate denied the nomination.

Somebody has to leave the Republican fold because you can't build a small-government movement on the backs of people you think are welfare cheats. The Trumpeters probably aren't going anywhere. As The National Review argues, these people won't even leave destitute Garbutt, New York.