Donald Trump seems to be defying gravity and other laws of reality. He has faced endless criticisms from the right for being a phony who donated to liberal Democrats, supported socialized medicine, and engaged in eminent-domain abuse. Trump’s past political commitments put him to the left of any major-party presidential candidate other than socialist Bernie Sanders. That is still good enough for first place in the Republican opinion polls. Despite having by far the most liberal record of anyone in the GOP race, Trump has become a hero among the populist Right, even as the conservative base is reputed to have become ever more rigid in its demands for radicalism and ideological conformity. Maybe Trump’s conservative supporters are dupes and fools, or maybe they are making fools of the rest of us.
Trump could not be more of a hypocrite and a fraud, but the revelations of his past liberalism (and even his past sogginess on immigration) have done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of his conservative fans. For the moment, accusations of hypocrisy cannot bring Trump down because his fans are in a rebellious mood, and Trump’s hypocrisy is a grotesque parody of the dishonesty of “real” politicians. The examples of political cynicism abound. There is Hillary Clinton supporting and then opposing the Iraq War depending on the war’s popularity. There are Obama’s repeated, politically motivated, changes of position on gay marriage. Trump’s explanation for his change of opinion on abortion is, if anything, more plausible and affecting than Mitt Romney’s.
The story about Scott Walker and Stephen Moore might be the most instructive and damning of all. Walker has shifted to the right on immigration as he has prepared to run for president. Moore claimed that Walker called to assure him that “I’m not going nativist. I’m pro-immigration.” It turns out that this conversation might never have happened, but if you want to understand the combination of rage, cynicism, and contempt that motivates Trump’s supporters, remember that they find it perfectly plausible that Walker would reassure a business-friendly journalist that his immigration positioning was boob bait for the suckers of the Republican base. What makes it especially toxic is that you can switch out the name of Scott Walker for almost any other Republican presidential candidate and the story is still completely believable.
Conservative writers like Jonah Goldberg and conservative political consultants like Rick Wilson (among others) have slagged Trump’s supporters with facts and logic, and have received abuse and surreal bravado in return. On reading the comments of Trump supporters, one gets the sense that Trump’s fans are enjoying watching the heads of Trump critics explode. Trump’s fans know they are being manipulated, but they are also playing along with the manipulation. From a certain perspective, between the Trump supporters who are knowing participants in the Trump show and those earnestly supporting duplicitous politicians, who are the real suckers?
This is not to let Trump’s supporters off the hook. The Trump phenomenon is an example of what Fredrik deBoer called “a kind of performative idiocy in which the other side’s exaggerated definition of what you and your people are becomes the ideal you hope to reach, precisely because your opponents dislike what they have made of you.” On the left, this tendency takes the form of social-justice warriors engaging in competitive sandbox Stalinism to see who can become the best little commissar on the Internet by best policing the actions, words, and identities of anyone unlucky enough to get their attention.
On the right, this tendency has taken an even stranger turn. Despairing of convincing the median American, or of advancing their preferences through the political system, some populist conservatives have adopted the Yippie (Youth International Party) style of making theatrical gestures to demonstrate their alienation from the rest of society. The Yippies ran the mascot Pigasus as their presidential candidate. The whole point of running Pigasus was to underline what they saw as the absurdity and futility of conventional electoral politics. Trump, as both the leader and the mascot of his movement, is playing a similar role. Telling Trump supporters about his opportunism would be like having told the Yippies that their candidate was too young to be president, and a pig. They know. That’s why it’s funny.
The good news is that the mass of Trump’s current supporters are not undergraduates. To judge from their past behavior, Trump’s fans will eventually gravitate to more-realistic candidates. The Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain supporters of 2011 became the Rick Santorum voters of 2012. That still leaves the problem of Trump for the moment.
Some are urging Republicans to take on Trump and his supporters. Others worry that attacking Trump will lead him to a third-party candidacy that will split the Right. Both have it wrong. Trump is going to do what is best for Trump, and no amount of criticism from Jeb Bush or Reince Priebus is going to make much difference, and nothing strengthens Trump more than attacks that target his supporters.
Trump’s supporters, who are really just Trump’s temporary collaborators in a piece of political-protest theater, will be ready to abandon him soon enough.
It is fine to mock Trump for his liberalism and his contention that the 2012 Republican party was too harsh on immigration, but the point of those attacks should not be to shame Trump supporters. The point should be to demonstrate the absurdity of Trump’s pretensions. Trump’s supporters (who are really just Trump’s temporary collaborators in a piece of political-protest theater) will be ready to abandon him soon enough.
Above all, the Republican establishment should try a little bit of humility. Romney was the 2012 presidential candidate who had the most support from the GOP’s officeholders, lobbyists, and donors. And yet, when Romney lost, the Republican establishment seemed to blame the populists for the GOP’s defeat. The Trump phenomenon is a symptom of the arrogance, willful blindness, and dishonesty of the Republican establishment.
#related#Republican candidates (including Scott Walker) can, slowly, heal the breach with the party’s populists by trying to earn their votes. Earning does not mean pandering. There are legitimate public concerns about immigration, but Trump’s interventions about the alleged collective criminal tendencies of illegal immigrants, and his ridiculous promise of making Mexico pay for a border fence, are damaging to the cause of better immigration policy.
Earning also does not mean condescendingly explaining to Trump supporters about how they are wrong about everything. Trump’s supporters (and not just Trump’s supporters) are angry at the U.S. government’s laxness when it comes to both border and internal immigration enforcement. The vast majority of people oppose increasing future immigration levels, but there is an elite, cross-party consensus in favor of increasing future immigration. Respectfully dealing with these legitimate concerns would go a long way toward winning the support of disaffected conservatives.
The political class has earned the contempt of Trump’s supporters (and many other Americans besides). The solution is for Republican politicians not to return that contempt but instead to earn, through patience and honesty, the respect of the electorate.