The manufacturing executives had gathered in an Atlanta conference room last year to honor their senior U.S. senator, Johnny Isakson, for his tireless efforts on their behalf in Washington. But as the luncheon wound down, Isakson found himself facing a man from Coweta County. The man, Burl Finkelstein, said trade policies with Mexico and China were strangling the family-owned kitchen-parts company he helped manage, and imperiling the jobs it provided. Isakson politely brushed him off, Finkelstein recalled, as he had many times before.
So when the Georgia primary rolled around this month, Finkelstein, along with many others in his town, pulled the lever for Donald Trump, who made him feel that someone had finally started listening. "He gets it," Finkelstein said in a recent interview. "We've sold ourselves out."
As the Republican Party collapses on itself, conservative leaders struggling to explain Trump's appeal have largely seized on his unique qualities as a candidate: his larger-than-life persona, his ability to dominate the airwaves, his tough-sounding if unrealistic policy proposals. Others ascribe Trump's rise to the xenophobia and racism of Americans angry over their declining power.
But the story is also one of a party elite that abandoned its most faithful voters, blue-collar white Americans, who faced economic pain and uncertainty over the past decade as the party's donors, lawmakers and lobbyists prospered. From mobile home parks in Florida and factory towns in Michigan, to Virginia's coal country, where as many as one in five adults live on Social Security disability payments, disenchanted Republican voters lost faith in the agenda of their party's leaders.
In dozens of interviews, Republican lawmakers, donors, activists and others described — some with resignation, some with anger — a party that paved the way for a Trump-like figure to steal its base, as it lost touch with less affluent voters and misunderstood their growing anguish.
"This is absolutely a crisis for the party elite — and beyond the party elite, for elected officials, and for the way people have been raised as Republicans in the power structure for a generation," said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary for President George W. Bush. "If Donald Trump wins, he will change what it means to be a Republican."
Many trace the rupture to the country's economic crisis eight years ago: While Americans grew more skeptical of the banking industry in the aftermath, some Republicans played down the frustrations of their own voters.
While wages declined and workers grew anxious about retirement, Republicans offered an economic program still centered on tax cuts for the affluent and the curtailing of popular entitlements like Medicare and Social Security. And where working-class voters saw immigrants filling their schools and competing against them for jobs, Republican leaders saw an emerging pool of voters to court.
"They have to come to terms with what they created," said Laura Ingraham, a conservative activist and talk-radio host. "They'll talk about everything except the fact that their policies are unpopular."
The distance was magnified by the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which gave wealthy donors rising weight in Republican circles, even amid signs that the party's downscale voters were demanding more of a voice.
Most of these voters had long since given up on an increasingly liberal and cosmopolitan Democratic Party. In Trump, they found a tribune: a blue-collar billionaire who stood in the lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper bearing his name and pledged to expand Social Security, refuse the money of big donors, sock it to Chinese central bankers and relieve Americans of unfair competition from foreign workers.
The Democratic Party is also reckoning this year with a populist insurgency, driven in part by economic pain and growing anger against Washington and Wall Street. But while Sen. Bernie Sanders trails Hillary Clinton in delegates, Trump's unlikely campaign has become a seemingly unstoppable force, one that Republican lawmakers, donors and activists are only now fully confronting.
"The Republican Party is being dramatically transformed," said Foster Friess, a Wyoming investor and philanthropist who is among the party's most significant donors. Republicans and Democrats alike, Friess said, had neglected "the people who truly make our country work — the truck drivers, farmers, welders, hospitality workers."
Seeds of a Split
Six years ago, as the 2010 elections neared, everything seemed to be falling into place.
Republicans celebrated an impending repudiation of President Barack Obama in congressional races, in which they would eventually pick up 63 seats. On the ninth floor of the storied Beresford apartment building on Central Park West in New York, guests clinked glasses at a fundraiser for Republican Senate candidates hosted by Paul Singer, the billionaire investor.
A self-described Goldwater conservative and proponent of an immigration overhaul deal, Singer had publicly lamented "indiscriminate attacks by political leaders against anything that moves in the world of finance." In 2010, Singer tripled his campaign giving, doling out almost $3 million in contributions to Republicans.
As Obama's presidency unfolded, Singer became one of the pillars of a new Republican donor class. He gave generously to conservative super PACs and to the rising political network overseen by Charles G. and David H. Koch. He and other donors groomed rising stars like Marco Rubio of Florida, a Tea Party ally elected to the Senate in the 2010 wave, and Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Ryan, a devotee of supply-side economics and an advocate for privatizing Social Security, became one of the party's leading policy voices, and later the House speaker. His "Ryan budgets" — which called for large income tax cuts for the wealthy, lower taxes on capital gains and the shifting of Medicare to a voucher system — became the gold standard for Republican policy, and drew plaudits from big donors for their seriousness and depth.
In Washington, Republicans read Tea Party anger over Obama's health care law as a principled rejection of social welfare programs, despite evidence that those voters broadly supported spending they believed they deserved, like Social Security and Medicare. Amid intense anger at Wall Street, Republicans urged voters to blame the recession on excessively generous federal home-lending policies, while moving to roll back regulation of one of their biggest sources of campaign money, the financial industry.
"These voters would have loved someone to stand up and say, 'We should put someone in jail,'" said Matthew Dowd, a political consultant and former adviser to President Bush.
While the party was drawing more of its money from an elite group of the wealthy, it was drawing more votes from working-class and middle-income whites. Between 2008 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center, more lower-income and less-educated white voters shifted their allegiance to Republicans.
These voters had fled the Democratic Party and were angry at Obama, whom they believed did not have their interests at heart. But not all of them were deeply conservative; many did not think about politics in ideological terms at all. A 2011 Pew survey called them the "Disaffecteds."
Older white voters with little education beyond high school, under enormous economic stress, the Disaffecteds surged to the Republican Party early in Obama's first term. But they were as cynical about business as they were about government. They viewed immigrants as a burden and an economic threat. They opposed free trade more than any other group in the country.
Some conservative intellectuals warned that the party was headed for trouble. Republicans had become too identified with big business and the wealthy — their donor class. They urged Republican lawmakers to embrace policies that could have a more direct impact on pay and economic prospects for these voters: wage subsidies, relocation aid to the long-term unemployed, even targeted infrastructure spending. But much of the party's agenda remained frozen.
"They figured, 'These are conservative voters, anti-Obama voters. We'll give them the same policies we've always given them,'" said James Pethokoukis, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "High-earner tax cuts, which people are skeptical of; business tax cuts, even though these businesses seem to be doing great. It didn't resonate with the problems in their lives."
Misreading the Mood
During the 2012 campaign, the party's donors rallied behind Mitt Romney, a patrician former private equity executive. Fully exploiting the Citizens United decision, they poured tens of millions of dollars into a super political action committee that helped Romney overcome more populist challengers during the primary. Romney advocated tax cuts and deregulation, and selected Ryan as his running mate. At the Republican National Convention, the party approved a platform blasting Obama for delays in trade deals and pledging to complete negotiations for a new trans-Pacific trade pact. Trump, who endorsed Romney, was denied a live convention speaking slot.
When Romney lost, the Republican National Committee commissioned a detailed review, as did the Kochs and other outside groups. Advisers to the Kochs, finding that Romney had increased the party's share of elderly voters, concluded that proposals to overhaul entitlements were not hurting Republicans.
The committee's review made one notable recommendation on policy: The party should "embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform," or "our party's appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only."
But rank-and-file Republicans had other ideas. For many blue-collar Republicans, anger against Obama now extended to their own party's leadership, whom they viewed as not only failing to stand up to Obama, but also as colluding with him to make their lives worse.
They saw illegal immigration not only as a cultural and security threat, but also as an economic one, intertwined with trade deals that had stripped away good manufacturing jobs while immigrants competed for whatever work remained.
In 2013 in western New York, one of the last remaining American manufacturers of dinnerware went out of business, adding 110 lost jobs to the Rust Belt toll. Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from the Buffalo area, had been the plant's majority owner until the previous year, when voters elected him to Congress. His former firm had been undercut by Chinese imports that were a third cheaper, Collins argued, propped up by Chinese currency manipulation.
"I've seen what happens when a country is allowed to undersell the U.S.," said Collins, who was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump. "Those jobs were stolen. And the politicians let it happen."
While jobs in places like Buffalo were vanishing, Washington was coming to resemble a gilded city of lobbyists, contractors and lawmakers. In 2014, the median wealth of members of Congress reached $1 million, about 18 times that of the typical U.S. household, according to disclosures tabulated by the Center for Responsive Politics. During the same year, real hourly wages remained flat or fell for nearly all U.S. workers.
Ed McMullen, a public relations executive who worked for the conservative Heritage Foundation in the 1980s, watched the gulf widen between the Washington establishment and the working people in his home state, South Carolina.
"Thirty years later, the same people are sitting in Washington that I worked with, making a million a year, going to fancy dinner parties, and they've done nothing to move the ball," said McMullen, who has joined the Trump campaign. "Therein lies the great chasm between the think tanks, the ideologues and the real world."
In early 2014, a group of neighbors from a Florida mobile home community called Carriage Cove, near Daytona, took seats in a town hall-style meeting with Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Republican. It was a mix of Republicans and Democrats, almost all of them seniors living on fixed incomes.
They had come to ask DeSantis why he had put his name on a letter urging Republican leaders to take up Obama's offer of a deal to overhaul Social Security. DeSantis seemed caught off guard, neighbors who attended the meeting recalled. He did not necessarily agree with everything in the letter, he told them. When they persisted, DeSantis left, explaining that he was not feeling well.
In Virginia, an unheralded college professor from the Richmond suburbs named Dave Brat announced a primary challenge to Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader. Brat attacked Cantor for his ties to Wall Street. But as the campaign heated up, Brat recalled in an interview, he began railing against his party's immigration proposals. "I saw this very crony-ist aspect of the nation's power structure pushing this agenda," Brat said.
That message helped propel Brat to victory, though many Republican leaders dismissed his election as a fluke. Elsewhere in the country, with the help of business groups, they tamped down insurgent conservative candidates. That fall, Republicans won control of the Senate — further confirmation, seemingly, that the party had corrected course.
But some remained worried. In August 2014, Kellyanne Conway, a prominent Republican pollster, met with leading Republican donors at a law firm in Chicago. Among the party's base, immigration remained a simmering issue, one they should seize. Her polling showed "a new open-mindedness to populist approaches, regardless of partisan or ideological preferences," Conway wrote in a memo to donors.
The donors responded tepidly, Conway recalled, and were wary of efforts to curb immigration. "They said, 'We need labor and we need votes.'"
A Dangerous Issue
Last March, Republican members of the House Ways and Means Committee filed into a Capitol Hill conference room to discuss trade. The Obama administration, negotiating a trade pact with Pacific Rim nations, was seeking congressional approval to fast-track the deal. Opposition was intense not only among labor unions, but among many Republican voters, while the party's leadership, atypically, was supporting Obama's effort.
For help, the lawmakers turned to Frank Luntz, the Republican messaging guru. For two decades, Luntz had instructed Republicans on how to talk about thorny issues. Do not say "estate tax." Say "death tax." Do not privatize Social Security. "Personalize" it.
Few issues were now as dangerous to them as trade, Luntz told the lawmakers, especially a trade pact sought by a president their voters hated. Many Americans did not believe that the economic benefits of trade deals trickled down to their neighborhoods. They did not care if free trade provided them with cheaper socks and cellphones. Most believed free trade benefited other countries, not their own.
"I told them to stop calling it free trade, and start calling it American trade," Luntz said in an interview. "American businesses, American services — American, American, American!"
While Republicans debated rhetorical approaches, Trump took a radically different tack.
Announcing his campaign a few months later, Trump spun a tale of unfair trade deals hashed out by lobbyists, backscratchers and incompetent presidents who were stealing jobs from Americans. He would stop the flow of jobs over the border with Mexico, Trump promised, and build a wall to stop the flow of people.
That message has resonated with lower-income voters, and helped drive Trump's string of successes. In Mississippi and Michigan, both of which Trump won, 6 in 10 Republican primary voters said free trade cost the country more jobs that it produced, exit polls showed.
But it has done little to convince Republican leaders that they need to rethink their approach or devise new proposals for blue-collar workers who are hurting.
During a recent interview with CNBC, Ryan was asked if Republicans needed to respond to less-affluent voters who believed that Republicans were tending only to the interests of those at the top. Ryan, who during the same interview called again for the overhaul of entitlements and the reduction of debt, rejected that idea.
"People don't think like that," he said. "People want to know the deck is fair. Bernie Sanders talks about that stuff. That's not who we are."
But it is no longer so certain what the Republican Party is. This month, as the party's leading donors met at the Ritz-Carlton in Miami Beach, there was plenty of spirited chatter about Trump, but less discussion of the voters who fueled his rise, and little about what could be done to assuage them.
Haley Barbour, a former party chairman, spoke as women in sundresses and men in dark suits sipped evening cocktails on a patio overlooking the Atlantic. In sometimes subdued tones, he told them that he could not predict what would come next.
"We're cursed to live in interesting times," Barbour said. "Anyone that tells you that they've seen anything like this, they'll lie to you about other things. I don't know where we're going to end up."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing