There’s an important essay in The New York Times Sunday Review on May 1 about the candidacy of J. D. Vance for the open Senate seat in Ohio. Mr. Vance is the best-selling author of Hillbilly Elegy, an autobiographical description of his rise from poverty in Middleton, Ohio to Yale Law School and now he’s parlaying his fame into a run for the U.S. Senate. Mr. Vance successfully competed for the greatest prize on the Republican side of the aisle, Donald Trump’s endorsement. If Vance should win the primary and the general, it will crystalize what has profoundly changed in the United States over the past five or six years and further ensconce Mr. Trump as a once and future king as well as a king maker.
Many on the Democratic side of the aisle and in the traditional Republican mainstream do not fully comprehend Donald Trump’s popularity, but it is highly reminiscent of that of Richard Nixon in 1968. Nixon ran for the presidency after having lost the prize in 1960 and the California gubernatorial race in 1962. Many in the press thought Nixon was done. But in 1968, Nixon spoke to the many disenfranchised Americans who saw civil unrest, opposition to the war in Vietnam, and long hair as threats to the America they knew. Nixon used a frankly racist Southern strategy and the promise of extraction from Vietnam to win the presidency. The same was true for Donald Trump in 2016 as he delivered for the masses who saw Hillary Clinton as unspeakably corrupt and unsympathetic to the things that mattered to them—family, jobs and the American way of life where possibility was still real.
Mr. Trump spoke to those same disenfranchised, mostly white voters who saw immigration, shifting jobs off shore due to NAFTA and welfare as a means of redistributing income as similar threats to their America. There is still a huge number of people in the United States who do not approve of east and west coast liberalism and the ineffectiveness of Washington, DC to solve their problems. Mr. Vance not only speaks for these people, he was one.
The United States has become a country split over a host of issues. Immigration is still an unsettled matter. Do we need more immigrants to fill jobs or ought we deport every illegal we can find?
Globalization may get us a lot of cheap merchandise in Target and Wal-Mart, but it also moves manufacturing jobs away from the U.S. Globalization in the minds of the Trump voters is a welfare program for the Chinese. And are they really wrong?
This election cycle will be a test at several levels. First, can Mr. Trump’s endorsement glean the nomination for his hand chosen candidates? If it can, then his power has not diminished during his absence from Washington. If his candidates lose, then there is a real scuffle pending for the heart and soul of the GOP.
Second, if Trump’s chosen do get nominated, can they win? If Trump’s endorsement translates into seats in the House and Senate, not to mention wins in Governor’s races, then we have probably not seen the last of Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump may not be on any ballot in November, but he may be affecting many races in primaries and in the general.
We may well be in a 1968 moment where the rejection of Democrats and liberalism in general may carry the day. On the other hand, anything could happen.