It can be hazardous to generalize too much about Donald Trump’s supporters, especially during a general election when Trump has the support (often grudging) of a lot of people who did not want him as the Republican nominee. But in evaluating where “Trumpism” goes after 2016, there are really three sometimes overlapping ways of looking at the thought processes (as opposed to just the demographics) of the primary supporters who gave Trump the nomination. At one pole is the ideological Trump voters, who are basically a revival of the anti-”globalist” Buchanan voters of the 1990s: people with skeptical-to-hostile views of trade, immigration and internationalist foreign policy. The GOP needs to reach some sort of modus vivendi with these voters, but they are clearly a minority faction of the party and should be treated like any other sizeable but minority faction.
At the other pole is the situational Trump voters, people who responded to Trump because of his celebrity or in reaction to a perceived Jeb Bush coronation or for some other reason particular to Trump and the circumstances of 2016; such voters should be up for grabs again in the future for more conventional candidates, and presumably a lot of them are the same people voting down-ticket for very un-Trump-ish Republicans. Reclaiming these voters may be as simple a matter as getting candidates more involved in cultural media outside politics and presenting candidates who visually project more physical swagger.
But there’s a third type of argument for Trump, maybe better-represented online than in the real world, but that needs to be addressed if we want to evaluate the GOP’s future as a Trumpist vs non-Trumpist party: that Trump is fundamentally a transgressive candidate, one who breaks norms of behavior that have long governed political figures. Trump is transgressive in three ways:
First, he’s socially transgressive, which his defenders cast as “he tells it like it is.” He caters, sometimes very openly, to bigotry of several different varieties. He has a long history of speaking and acting crudely towards women. He mocks everyone from the disabled to war heros. On occasion, Trump’s refusal to bow to political correctness or even common decency puts him in a position to tell truths that others are afraid to utter, but far more often it’s just Trump being a jerk,
Some of Trump’s more literate defenders online will argue that he’s moving the “Overton Window,” i.e., shattering the glass walls of political correctness and shifting by sheer force of fearless outspokenness the boundaries of what it is possible to say in American political discourse. (The Overton Window theory posits that shifts in what’s politically possible or effective often take place not due to persuasion in the center but by the extremes pushing the boundaries of what’s thinkable, sayable or ultimately doable). In one sense, that’s true: by saying things that were previously unsaid, Trump is giving a kind of permission for the resurrection of open racism on the fringes of our public conversations. But it’s deeply mistaken to think that Trump is moving the Overton Window by running a presidential campaign that is now almost certainly doomed to end in disaster. The way successful Overton Window campaigns have worked in the past is incrementally, often starting from a safe base (academia, magazine articles, popular culture, a safe Congressional district) and pushing outward from there to gradually thrust a new idea into the bloodstream of society. Rushing an idea into the center of the public square to get torn to ribbons and associated with political failure and a toxic personality is far better way of discrediting that idea over the long haul than of making it more thinkable. Imagine where the campaign for same-sex marriage would be if everyone identified it with, say, the Dukakis campaign. In fact, opinion polls this year have routinely found that any idea Trump touts tends to become less popular. Trump may be carving out space for alienated opinions on the margins, but he’s turning the center of the country further away from the things he campaigns on.
Second, Trump is professionally transgressive. He’s never held any kind of public position or office, never run for office before, never served in the military, and frankly refuses to educate himself on even the basics of how the U.S. system of government works. It’s not just that he’s a citizen-politician: he rejects learning the craft of politics or the business of government even for the purpose of succeeding at changing them. He ignores the basic nuts and bolts of campaign work, from ground operations to get the vote out all the way up to preparing for debates. He goes on bizarrely off-message Twitter rants and uses the platform of his campaign to settle personal scores that have nothing to do with the campaign, like his fight with the judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuits. His campaign gleefully embraces its amateurism, both on matters of campaigning for office and matters of public policy. Moreover, Trump seems to make no effort whatsoever to verify that the things he says publicly are true; it appears at times that he prefers easily-debunked conspiracy theories to arguments (even ones that would help him) that require any supporting facts.
One need only read some of his more enthusiastic followers on the web to see this conspiracy-mongering style widely imitated, even by fairly high-profile, long-established websites. I’m reminded of baseball guru Bill James’ line that “Bulls**t has tremendous advantages over knowledge. [It] can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.”
Third, Trump is ideologically transgressive. Specifically, as we’ve all discussed ad nauseum, he has a longer record of taking liberal or far-Left positions (as well as unorthodox right-wing ones) and supporting Democratic politicians, while doing nearly nothing to help Republicans or advance conservative causes. It’s this aspect of his transgressiveness that makes it comparatively easy for many of us who disapprove of his other types of transgressiveness to walk away from supporting him without a whole lot of regret for lost opportunities to use a flawed man to advance a larger cause. It’s also this aspect that reflects the clearest break with the party’s tradition of nominating people who sit roughly in the ideological center of the party’s own voters and officeholders, while attracting some supporters who rejected previous Republicans. To some of his vocal supporters, especially the “alt-Right” and/or Breitbart crowds, the fact that Trump’s ideological transgressiveness drives away conservatives and mainstream Republicans is a feature, not a bug: what specifically appeals about Trump is not that he promotes their issues, but that he helps purge the party of its previous leaders and supporters, creating a power vacuum.
The ideological Trumpists may not go away, but they’ll never run the party. The real test of the endurance of Trumpism in the GOP is the three types of transgressiveness. My guess is that Trump’s fans will have a hard time finding candidates who can win future statewide and national primaries while covering all three, and thus they will never be able to build a truly Trumpist party. But the path away from Trumpism requires defeating, not just one of the three legs of Trump’s transgressivism, but all three.