Supporters cheer as the South Carolina primary is called for...

Supporters cheer as the South Carolina primary is called for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at his election night party Feb. 20, 2016 in Spartanburg, S.C. Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

A pivotal debate has broken out in conservative ranks in the age of Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump. Call it "the Trumpists vs. the anti-Trumpists."

The anti-Trumpists, including the editors of William F. Buckley's seminal National Review magazine, don't think he's a true conservative. Their free-market approaches differ sharply from Trump on such issues as trade, immigration, outsourcing and the protection of Social Security and Medicare, among other middle-class entitlements.

Under the headline "Against Trump," the magazine ran a "symposium" of 22 contributions by conservative thinkers in January that challenged Trump's brand of conservatism.

Trump, in his usual fashion with critics, dismissed the magazine as "a dying paper," a diagnosis that its editors would call wildly exaggerated, even as Trump's primary victories continued to mount.

Yet Trump's success has forced many mainstream Republicans and other conservatives to take a closer look at his appeal to figure out how the Grand Old Party went wrong.

Michael Brendan Dougherty, senior correspondent and rising star at The Week, struck a nerve with his recent provocatively titled essay, "How Conservative Elites Disdain Working-Class Republicans."

His central theme: The working-class "Reagan Democrats" who crossed over to vote for Ronald Reagan and other Republicans since the mid-1960s have been abandoned by conservative elites as their wages have stagnated and jobs have fled overseas.

Sure, billionaire Trump also has used special visa programs and outsourced jobs to further enrich himself. But that has not hindered his image with voters who see him as a guy who is on their side.

Sure. If you can't trust the founder of "Trump University," whom can you trust, right?

Polls show Trump's pitch is working particularly well with voters who have only a high school diploma or less, a group buffeted by a half-century of structural changes in the economy.

"If the conservative movement has any advice for Mike (Dougherty's fictitious example of a white working class father who is getting by on Social Security disability fraud in economically failing Garbutt, N.Y.)," Dougherty writes in The Week, "it's to move out of Garbutt and maybe 'learn computers.' "

Dougherty singles out fellow conservative writer Kevin D. Williamson at the National Review, who responded bluntly in an essay titled, "Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class' Dysfunction,"

"The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities," writes Williamson, "is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. ... The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump's speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin."

Instead of temporary pain relievers, "literal or political," Williamson says, displaced workers like "Mike" need to pack up get out of Garbutt and fine real opportunity where new jobs are popping up.

That's been the traditional conservative answer to working-class economic anxieties. But even the always-provocative Charles Murray, a best-selling libertarian author at the American Enterprise Institute, has recently questioned whether that bootstrap approach is enough.

I praised his important 2012 book about our troubled times, "Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010." By focusing only on white Americans, he revealed how disastrously our national civic culture is following our economy in splitting apart, along lines of class.

The resulting culture gap between the top 20 percent and the bottom 30 percent, in Murray's view, erodes family unity, undermines civic spirit and threatens the "American way of life."

I praised Murray's focus for showing how much the social dysfunctions that we usually associate with poor urban black communities increasingly plague low-income whites, too.

From this, I hoped we might find a new left-right common ground in our wars against poverty. Instead we have the rise of "Trumpism," which Murray recently defined on "PBS NewsHour" as "the expression by the white working class of a lot of legitimate grievances that it has with the ruling class ... all the ways in which, if you're a member of the working class, you have over the last 30 or 40 years been screwed."

I'm still hoping for a productive debate about what ails working-class Americans across racial, ethnic and religious lines. First we're going to have to get through the current election season.