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Brooke Rollins on South Carolina, Donald Trump, and the State of the GOP Presidential Race

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As mentioned on the show this morning, Brooke Rollins, President and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, explains the important history behind Donald Trump’s win in South Carolina and discusses the future of the Republican presidential race. 


The path is well established: lose Iowa, win New Hampshire, win South Carolina, go on to the nomination. It isn’t the only path, of course — but it is the path followed by Ronald Reagan in 1980, George HW Bush in 1988, and John McCain in 2008.

Last night, it was the same series established by Donald Trump in 2016: loser in Iowa, victor in New Hampshire, and last night the plurality winner in South Carolina. The question is whether he now receives the momentum and credibility to go all the way. History is on his side: if you win NH and SC, you are historically the nominee.

It’s worth discussing what South Carolina means to us, and to America at large. The bastion of the Old South has transformed itself in the past generation into an advance outpost of the New South. As early as the 1990s, a Republican Governor was attempting to resolve the state’s longstanding public anguish over the Confederate Battle Flag on the Columbia statehouse. In recent years, South Carolinians elected an African-American United States Senator — and a female Governor of Sikh ancestry. It attracted industry and investment from around the world. It was a long, long way from the social and racial divisions that characterized its past, and moreover, it was a state building a conservative movement open to all Americans — whatever their color or creed.

And yet — there is something else in there, buried deep in history, that needs to be understood. Americans largely do not recall the course of the Revolutionary War now, except that most recall that the war ended with George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781. But the road to Yorktown began the year before, in 1780, with the British conquest of Charleston, South Carolina. The capitulation of Charleston put the Low Country aristocracy at British mercy, but the Carolina backcountry rose up and waged war against the King’s armies. It was a war that led those armies on a frustrating chase through that Carolina backcountry, and eventually to Yorktown. The men and women of the backcountry were not the well-heeled planters of the coast: they were rough and ready, mostly poor, mostly Scots or Irish, mostly Presbyterian — and always ready for a fight. The story of three young Patriot brothers from a frontier region called the Waxhaws is illustrative: the oldest died in battle; the next oldest died in captivity; and the youngest — fourteen years old — emerged from the British prison camp with saber scars on his body, in time to see his mother die of wartime disease.

That fourteen-year old boy, Andrew Jackson, went on to American greatness. But he was fired by the experience of violence, and his demographic profile — the backcountry pioneer, inheritor of a tradition of defiance of authority from the highlands of the British Isles — is the demographic profile of many Americans today. They are voters who detest what they perceive (often rightly) as elite platitudes, and therefore vote partly for their champion — but mostly against those elites. They are the Trump base now, and if we dismiss them, we dismiss a major part of American history and heritage. Our charge is to understand them — on their terms.

This same demographic was, interestingly enough, the Hillary Clinton primary-season base in 2008 — and as she is locked in an unexpectedly tight contest with Senator Bernie Sanders, we can discern the same dynamics at play. This is, after all, not strictly a phenomenon of the right.

Back to the Republicans, we now have a three-tiered Republican race:

Up top is Trump, hovering in the 30%-35% range, and for this moment, the presumptive nominee.
Second tier is Cruz and Rubio, tightly matched in South Carolina, and in the 20%-25% range overall.
Third tier is now Kasich, Carson, and any minor candidates remaining.

The first tier, of course, may be President. The third tier has little chance of being President, but may play spoiler roles in discrete states to come. It’s the second tier that’s interesting, because its two occupants do retain a reasonable shot at the nomination and Presidency — but only if they start consolidating support above that Trump 30%-35% ceiling.

One thing is clear: there are still men in this race who have managed to articulate conservative messages that build upon the achievements of the past decade, in which conservatism has shown itself to be a truly majoritarian and pragmatist philosophy of governance — and not just the force of reaction so often assumed by its opponents. Here in Texas, we know what that conservatism looks like, in a state where liberty proves its case every day in prosperity and opportunity for those who need it most. Conservatism and Constitutionalism are not, after all, ideologies of the powerful — they are, rather, hope and dignity for the common man and the humble home. A victory for that conservative vision is ultimately the only victory we seek in this election. We who care about candidates first for what they signify in the realm of ideas care about this.

So, on to the next state, and then the next after that, and so on. As the great Margaret Thatcher once said, “I am in politics because of the conflict between good and evil, and I believe that in the end good will triumph.” Those words have never meant more to me than they do now. And the agent of their fulfillment will be, I believe, the same as it has always been — the American people with the ballot.

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