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LA GOP voters may signal end to Trump chances

The only surprise emanating from Louisiana’s presidential preference primaries last weekend was that financier/celebrity Donald Trump did not do better among the Republican electorate, leading to the possibility Louisianans’ vote choices may play a pivotal role in the GOP nomination contest.

Trump finished with around 41 percent of the vote, only three points better than Sen. Ted Cruz and the remainder split among many others. While the closeness of the contest showed the limitations of polling – these inform only about a snapshot in time, and the electoral environment in the state appeared to change dramatically in a the few days between data collection and election day itself – it also showed some erosion of Trump’s support. The next question becomes whether this replicates and deepens across the primary landscape.

If anyplace, Louisiana is tailor-made for a candidacy like Trump’s. He is the first populist Republican to campaign seriously in the state since, well, Trump endorsee (but not “everything” about him) former state Rep. David Duke. Much mythology and distortion has come about concerning Duke’s rise to prominence, complicating a rather simple phenomenon: Duke became the first to turn the populism in the state’s political culture that always articulated big government as a friend of the people into their enemy. Populism endorses a Manichean view of the world, ratifying the notion of irreconcilable divisions existing within society that only can be solved by levelling the playing field through government intervention (liberalism; government must promote the alleged structurally disadvantaged groups, made so by societal conditions, by rigging outcomes to favor them) or by failure of government intervention (conservatism; government creates the uneven field through special interests using it to advantage themselves).

This contrasts with principled conservatism, which argues that minimal government designed to assure individuals have an equal opportunity to acquire resources and does not interfere with intercourse beyond this optimizes life prospects for all individuals as that maximizes voluntary individual contributions that benefit society as a whole. It recognizes that special interests will try to use government to transfer power and privilege to group members beyond what they deserve for their contributions to society, but it does not see as a legitimate solution to prevent these transfers inducing other transfers to cancel out those. As an example with Trump, he believes that protectionism would solve economic ills and recommends redistributionist cures.

Trump attracts the considerable populist wing of Louisiana Republicans by arguing government preferences on behalf of certain special interests should end, but accepts using government to counter these rather than promoting its non-interference. Only a belief that atavistic traits exist among individuals that irreparably separate and creates zero-sum outcomes makes this view tenable. Contrast that with the basic assumption behind principled conservatism, that all human beings have a common aspiration to improve their lives in ways that also serve society as a whole in the process, but which can be warped into pursuit of selfish aims at others’ expenses when government moves beyond the minimal.

Because of this populist heritage, Louisiana never has had state government policy fully committed to principled conservatism. Former Gov. Bobby Jindal was the only politician who even seemed to try, and an argument could be made whether he ever tried to step on the pedal to drive home full-throated principled conservatism, or whether he tepidly did so guided by an understanding of the limitations of his political environment, or whether he gave a solid effort and simply did not have the horsepower to pull it off, but at best policy only incompletely and inconsistently emulated full-spectrum principled conservatism during his terms. That was a magnitude more than any of his predecessors, where just three made any such efforts that happened often in isolation and seemed more exceptions to their broader programs than anything else.

So not accidentally would Trump find Louisiana a fertile environment, one that among Republican-majority states should have provided him the most support of any, with possible exception of Alaska with its libertarian streak. Yet that he could not secure an electoral majority and that principled conservatives and others would coalesce around Cruz in large numbers may indicate Trump has reached his peak: that enough information has come out about him and that an opponent (Cruz) has emerged as compelling to make some of even his most natural supporters question his suitability (and perhaps electability as well) for the nation’s highest office.

Harkening back to the state’s past experience with a conservative populist, the bloom wore off Duke when other conservative candidates emerged with the understanding that the center-right voting public had not received sufficient policy options from them to address their discontent. To think that the likes of Duke or Trump tap into or generate anger in the electorate entirely misunderstands the dynamics present; not anger, but frustration. Electors will turn to the facile, toy bromides peddled by conservative populists if they do not see any other choice to the orthodoxy that has imposed malaise upon the country recently, and upon Louisiana almost its entire history.

Cruz’s Louisiana showing appears to demonstrate that the field of options has opened up, and it’s perhaps no accident that he won the caucus in the other state seemed made for Trump, Alaska, just prior to elections in Louisiana. In this sense, Louisiana may end up acting as a bellwether for the remaining portion of the nomination marathon. Confirmation of that possibility could occur in primaries scheduled for Mar. 15. If so, Louisiana Republicans will have exerted outsized influence in the 2016 presidential selection process.

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