Republican voters are a decidedly unhappy group these days.
In the recent Nevada caucus, six out of 10 described themselves as “angry” with the federal government. In the three previous caucus and primary states, it was four in 10. Not surprisingly, these ticked off voters are flocking to Donald Trump.
But while it’s certainly true that Trump’s army of supporters are no fans of Barack Obama, it is their other target of frustration that is more worthy of note: the Republican leaders who have refused to stand up to the president they despise.
In South Carolina, 53 percent of those who came to the polls said they felt betrayed by the party’s leadership. In all, more than 60 percent of GOP voters this cycle have given their support to a candidate who is either not a politician (Trump and Carson) or is at war with the Republican establishment (Cruz).
The grievances of Republican voters are not hard to discern. When Republican leaders took control of the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014 they did so by promising to repeal Obamacare and vowing to stop illegal immigration. They said they would cut spending, take on big government, and challenge, even contemplate impeaching, Obama. They’ve failed on all accounts.
Meanwhile, they’ve also failed to de-fund Planned Parenthood, failed to block the Iran nuclear deal, failed to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming the law of the land, failed to kill Obamacare, and failed to stop Obama’s executive orders on immigration and climate change.
Failure, however, was always the inevitable outcome. As long as Obama remained president, the GOP had little hope of forcing him to bend to their will. It didn’t stop them from trying, of course.
Republicans even went so far as to shut down the government in 2013 in order to kill Obamacare and have continued to try and use the debt limit as political blackmail. But no dice — American governance simply doesn’t work that way. Indeed, it’s the uncompromising stance of Republicans that made even partial success impossible.
But, of course, Republican voters didn’t want a bucket half full. They wanted everything, and, after all, GOP leaders promised them that it was possible — even though those same leaders knew it was not. They lied, dissembled, and exaggerated what could be accomplished in Washington in order to win the votes of GOP’s rank-and-file supporters.
This ritual dishonesty is not a new development. For decades, Republicans have railed against big government and claimed they would take an ax to the federal government. And yet, somehow the tough words were never matched by actions. Rather than slash spending they increased it; rather than gut “big government” they expanded it. End abortion? We’ll get to that later, just after we pass these massive tax cuts that will barely trickle down to the 99 percent.
Is it any wonder that fed-up Republican voters have gravitated to the one candidate this election cycle who vows to do all the things that others have promised but couldn’t deliver? Is it really surprising that Trump’s supporters say, almost without fail, that they like him because his personal wealth means he can’t be corrupted and he will vow to do the things that need to be done? Now the proverbial chickens are coming home to roost.
But this is the great irony of the great betrayal and the anti-establishment fervor that have gripped the GOP in 2016. Rather than recognizing that their demands could never be met, rather than seeking out a candidate who could moderate conservative positions to get into office and affect the change so deeply desired, GOP voters sought out a politician who lies to them at even greater levels.
Enter Donald Trump.
Republicans have failed to stop illegal immigration. . . . How about promising to build a wall and have Mexico pay for it?
Conservatives didn’t want a bucket half full.They wanted everything, and, after all, their leaders promised them that it was possible.
You want to repeal Obamacare. . . . How about promising that not only will it be gotten rid of, but upon taking office, a new and better system will immediately replace it?
Angry about foreign trade and being ripped off by other countries. . . . How about threatening to slap 30 to 40 percent tariffs on China, among others?
Scared about the possibility of jihadist terrorism (even though Americans are more likely to be killed by falling televisions than terrorists). . . . How about a ban on all Muslims seeking to enter the country?
Rather than wink and nod at those who say Obama is a Muslim, born in Kenya. . . . How about electing someone who is a full-fledged birther?
If the old lies don’t satisfy you. . . . How about bigger and bolder lies?
The reality is that Trump is not going to build a border wall paid for by Mexico. He might repeal Obamacare, but he surely isn’t going to replace it with something better. He’s not going to slap tariffs on America’s top trading partners, and he’s not going to make America great again.
If, by some outside chance, Trump were able to win the White House, he would enter office with the highest of expectations, and it would likely only take a few months before he disappointed his followers — just as so many Republican leaders before him.
In fact, considering that Trump has painted himself into a corner by taking so many extreme positions, he might not wait that long to reverse himself. It could begin as soon as this summer, when he needs to start thinking about how he can possibly win in November. The thing about candidates that can’t be bought is they have no allegiances either — and no one would say loyalty is Donald Trump’s greatest personal attribute.
In a very real sense, Trump has exposed both the shameless dishonesty of the Republican establishment and the singular gullibility of the party’s rank-and-file voters.
For decades now, Republicans have cultivated the anxiety and fear that their primarily white voter base has about the nation’s continuing cultural and racial transformation. As the Tea Party emerged out of the Republican firmament in 2009, the response of the party leadership was, as it’s always been, to double down on dishonesty.
Rather than accept the reality of the modern welfare state (which, truth be told, most Republicans voters like), rather than accept that social change is inevitable, rather than level with their supporters that compromise is an inevitable part of governing, the GOP fed them lie after lie, reinforced each election cycle, with a new set of mistruths. Republicans have demonized the president (and the Democratic nominees for president before him), scapegoated minorities, and convinced their supporters that decades of economic and social progress can be reversed, and rather easily at that.
Trump may be the worst example, but with Ted Cruz saying that on day one in office he’ll repeal Obamacare, reverse the president’s executive orders, tear up the Iran deal, and launch an investigation into Planned Parenthood, he’s playing the same game — just not as well. And to be sure, it’s not restricted to just Republicans. Bernie Sanders, by telling his supporters, he’ll enact single payer health care, pass legislation to make college free, put in place new regulations on Wall Street, and get money out of politics, he’s playing the same game. But then he’s not likely to end up being the Democratic nominee.
Republicans have succeeded at the polls because they were preaching to an audience that wanted to hear what it wanted to hear. Trump is just following in their footsteps. But be assured, when he disappoints them too, there will be another demagogue to take his place.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.