When Donald Trump spoke at a South Carolina rally last weekend, the audience booed a Pacific Rim trade deal supported by much of the Republican-controlled Senate. Then cheers erupted in the basketball stadium where he was speaking when Mr. Trump touted his plan to avoid entitlement cuts, saying, “We’re going to save Social Security. We’re going to save Medicare.”
Those aren’t the talking points of a traditional Republican presidential candidate. Moments later, Trump also defied traditional conservative orthodoxy by asserting simply that many Americans need help.
Yet he’s leading in Republican polls, because his message is connecting with people like Donna Reynaud, a mom who drove from Statesville, N.C., with her 16-year-old daughter for the event. She describes herself as a regular Republican voter, but one who’s now fed up with traditional politicians.
“I don’t care about the Republican Party anymore,” says Ms. Reynaud. For now at least, her attitude is as blunt as Trump himself: “Wherever the Donald goes, that’s where I go.”
For many supporters, Reynaud included, the top-of-mind rationale for following Trump is his personal qualities: His flouting of "political correctness," his business acumen, and the notion that his riches allow him to focus on the public interest rather than on fund-raising and pleasing big donors.
But these voters also see the country facing large and urgent challenges, including economic troubles that traditional politicians – of both parties – have failed to address.
Trump may not have fleshed-out policy proposals, but his rhetoric speaks to these issues – including the ones that affect people’s bank accounts, from rising health care and tuition costs to meager retirement savings.
Core ingredients of Trump’s platform amount to a conservative brand of populism. Mainstream Republicans – who traditionally take some of their cues from big corporations – haven’t generated Trump-style voter enthusiasm so far in this election cycle.
And some political scientists say his polling success is revealing a gaping hole in Republican politics: that many people in the party’s electoral base – plus a sizable contingent of independent voters – feel their economic anxieties aren’t being addressed by traditional Reagan-style platforms of low taxes, less regulation, and downsizing government.
“Republicans have been able to win elections on two sets of issues,” Reaganomics plus conservative social positions on things like guns and abortion, says Daniel Shea, an expert on American politics at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Today, “there’s a group of voters that have said that those two sets of issues are no longer enough.”
This doesn’t mean the Republican Party is under pressure from within to jettison its Reagan-influenced focus on low taxes. The people at Trump’s rally in Rock Hill, S.C., didn’t call for higher taxes on the rich. Nor did they voice affection for the left’s populist candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has made economic inequality central to his campaign.
The South Carolina rally made national headlines after a Muslim woman, standing in silent protest, was yelled at and forcibly removed. And Trump’s more outrageous statements regarding Latinos and Muslims – as well as endorsements from white supremacist groups – have led some critics to claim that his rise is being fueled by latent racism.
But Mr. Shea calls it an exaggeration to say xenophobic strains in conservative politics can explain the Trump phenomenon. Rather, he sees a sense of economic dislocation as a vital ingredient in Trump’s success.
The urgency of financial issues stood out clearly in views expressed by the crowd in this inland part of South Carolina, where jobs in industries like textiles and furniture have been migrating offshore for years.
“What we need as a country is jobs,” says Russ Cash. Having lived and worked for two decades in this region, he’s watched those jobs disappear, and now he’s laboring hard as a welder and fabricator to support his family.
“Them hands are working hands,” he says, looking down at calloused fingers.
A lifetime Republican, Mr. Cash says Trump has energized him politically, like no one he can recall in the post-Reagan era. As with many in the crowd here, part of the appeal for Cash is Trump’s status as a successful business leader who entered the race as an outsider.
“He will bring [the economy] back to where it needs to be,” Cash predicts.
Among Cash’s worries are the high cost of health care and whether Social Security will stay solvent.
Trump has promised to replace the Affordable Care Act with something better and more affordable, but so far hasn’t spelled out a detailed plan. (One person in the throng says he came hoping Trump would put some policy-detail “meat” on his message.)
On Social Security and Medicare, Trump has drawn mainstream support by pledging not to cut benefits, although here too he hasn’t spelled out a detailed solvency plan.
By contrast, some Republican candidates have opened the door to ideas like boosting the retirement age, means-testing benefits, or shifting Medicare to an offer of “premium support,” something Democrats deride as a voucher system.
For many Trump followers, the logic on safety-net programs is simple: Give help to the truly needy and don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, but at the same time, root out entitlement fraud and expect able-bodied people to work for a living.
“I’ve been paying it for 38 years,” Cash says of his Social Security taxes. Troubled system or not, he expects to get his fair share when retirement comes.
This helps explain the potency of Trump’s immigration message. Yes, it’s resonating with many white Americans concerned about fast-changing culture. But it’s also about economic values: People at this rally say they don’t want their tax money being used for people who don’t deserve it – including people who have entered the country illegally.
Similarly, Trump’s message on trade policy resonates as one based on standing up for average Americans, and not letting jobs flow overseas because of misguided policies.
For Tracy Sanders, a South Carolina mom who owns a replacement-window business with her husband, this is the issue that she recalls piquing her interest in Trump.
“That got me,” she says, referring to Trump’s call for a 35 percent tax on Ford if the company builds a plant in Mexico and then ships the output (car engines) into the US for sale.
Will Trump's brand of populism fade?
Some pundits don’t believe Trump’s success to date represents a permanent shift in thinking for GOP voters. An open question is: If Trump fades, will his brand of populism fade in tandem?
“This unusual phenomenon comes and it probably goes with Trump himself,” predicts Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, in an e-mail. “Much of the support for Trump is personality-driven. I don't believe it signals changing policy preferences among the conservative base of the GOP.”
Still, pundits have already seen Trump’s staying power in the race last far longer than they initially predicted. Similarly, on the left, Senator Sanders has made far bigger inroads against the more mainstream Democratic candidacy of Hillary Clinton than political pros expected.
And even before Trump, the party has seen rifts open up between its establishment wing and tea party newcomers inveighing against the cronyism of business and political elites.
Part of the message appears to be that, after years of wage stagnation amid global competition for jobs, coupled with a deep recession, a large chunk of the electorate is yearning for a leader who might bring big change to a troubled economy.
The title of Trump’s latest book, “Crippled America,” speaks to this sense of the American Dream being at risk for future generations – as well as to the desire of many voters for a stronger response to national-security threats including Islamist radicalism.
Other Republican candidates, including Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, have pitched some of their stump-speech rhetoric and policy proposals at struggling workers and families.
But where Trump drew 6,500 people to the Rock Hill rally, according to news reports, other candidates have been drawing much smaller crowds.
On Saturday, Mr. Bush was among several hopefuls who participated in a panel discussion on conservative approaches to address poverty, in nearby Columbia, S.C. Some participants spoke about poverty in their own lives and families, yet much of the poverty discussion had an air of talking about how to solve problems faced by “them” rather than “us.”
That reflects a gap between the elite and the base, which the party may need to bridge. Many Republican voters, while not poor, are financially squeezed.
So, even if Trump falters, he may leave one legacy on the party’s economic-policy terrain: greater openness to policies that address working-class needs.
It’s a path already pioneered by some in the party. In 2007, prior to a national recession, presidential candidate Mike Huckabee sounded alarms that average people faced a hard economy.
“The people who handle the bags and make the beds at our hotels and serve the food, many of them are having to work two jobs,” he said in one debate.
'I don't care what party they're in'
Trump’s success may hint at an opportunity for Republicans to go further down this road of working-class appeal.
Still, some strong distinctions separate Trump supporters from voters flocking to Sanders on the left. Many conservatives here in South Carolina voice deep concern about the relentless rise in national debt. And although tax reform may not be the top of their economic wish list, some voice support for Republican approaches on that issue.
"We have to be more responsible," says Jeff Myers, a mechanical engineer. “We can’t keep rolling up debt.”
He and others at the rally say Trump’s business background and fighting spirit may allow him to succeed at taming federal budgets, where other Republicans in the White House or Congress have failed.
Still, Mr. Myers says he's not yet firmly committed to Trump. He wants to hear the candidate add some policy detail to his promises and says he's also a fan of Ted Cruz, the other leading Republican contender at present.
The big thing he’s looking for is someone who can lead change in Washington. “I don’t care what party they’re in,” Myers says. “I’m really tired of the establishment.”