Politics & Policy

Republicans Have Overestimated the Conservatism of the Base

Trump rallies supporters in Richmond, Va., in October. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

I live in Donald Trump country. Maury County, Tenn. — like much of the South — was dominated by the Democratic party until just a few short years ago. Tennessee’s legislature didn’t flip red until 2008, and my own legislative district in my own “conservative” county was blue until 2010. Tennessee didn’t change dramatically between 2004 (when Democrats were in total control of state government) and 2011 (when control flipped to Republicans), but national politics changed. And — as Donald Trump is proving — they can change again.

If there is a consistent refrain among former Democrats (and there are lots in the South), it echoes Ronald Reagan: They didn’t leave the Democratic party; the Democratic party left them. That means many things, but it does not mean that they’re small government, constitutional conservatives. It means that while they may have been attitudinally “Tea Party,” they were never on board with the core substance of the movement.

So, what do my Trump-supporting neighbors prioritize? It’s a reasonable approximation of the “three-legged stool” of Reagan Republicanism, but with important philosophical distinctions from true movement conservatives.

First, there’s patriotism, but it’s not a patriotism that implies or mandates a particular foreign policy or national-security philosophy. It’s embodied in a deep love for this country and a desire to defeat its enemies, but no particular commitment either to intervention or isolationism. They’re repulsed by the Left’s mindless multiculturalism and elite’s disdain for America, but they’re foreign-policy pragmatists. Fight when it’s smart, and don’t let political correctness get in the way of national defense.

As the New York Times noted, a significant portion of Trump’s support comes from “a certain kind of Democrat.”

Next, there’s cultural conservatism, but it’s not the cultural conservatism of the evangelical Right. In other words, they don’t really care what anyone else does with their lives, but they’re unwilling to join the sexual revolution either personally or politically. They’re not crusaders in either direction, but they perceive the Left as attempting to draft them into a movement they find personally distasteful. When Bill Clinton said abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare,” he was tapping into this mindset — speaking to those who dislike abortion but aren’t willing to place it at the centerpiece of their politics.

Finally, there’s a commitment to economic opportunity, but it’s not embodied by intellectual devotion either to free markets or to small government. You won’t hear former Democrats crying out for social-security reform or changes to Medicare — unless those changes make the system more stable and reliable. And southern voters have proven that they’re more than willing to hand out generous, targeted tax breaks and subsidies to pull manufacturing out of the North or to welcome Japanese automakers to their new, union-free homes in Dixie. Call it “corporate welfare” all you want, but these new Republicans simply don’t care.

#share#Immigration is a potent political issue because it hits each of these concerns. The patriot worries about the impact on national security. The cultural conservative is concerned about assimilation and contemptuous of the Left’s reassuring multicultural platitudes. And a flood of low-skill workers depresses wages and limits economic opportunity and stability. Combine these concerns with the South’s (and industrial North’s) longstanding willingness to embrace colorful, larger-than-life political figures, and it’s easy to see why Trump’s support map looks like this:

New York Times Trump Support Map

Indeed, as the New York Times noted, a significant portion of Trump’s support comes from “a certain kind of Democrat,” and he currently stands ready to pull up to 20 percent of Democratic support from Hillary Clinton.

#related#The GOP underestimated Trump in part because it overestimated the conservatism of its own southern, rural northern, and Midwestern base. It underestimated the extent to which many of its voters hadn’t so much embraced the corporate conservatism of the Chamber of Commerce or the constitutional conservatism of the Tea Party as much as they had rejected the extremism of the increasingly shrill and politically correct Left. And, yes, the size of this population calls into question the very process of building a national Republican electoral majority, but it also threatens Democrats who seem intent on drumming every blue-collar white male straight out of the party.

At present, Donald Trump’s greatest electoral danger (at least in the GOP primary) is that his supporters are so alienated from both parties that they disproportionately choose to stay home. But if they turn out, and he can escape with a win in Iowa, the early primary calendar is largely a march through Trump country. America may end up with three distinct ideological movements: the progressive Left, the constitutional Right, and populist core that will now say of both political parties: I didn’t leave you. You left me.


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