White House

Most Trump Fans Aren’t Transactional

(Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Hard as it may be to believe, they like and admire the man himself

Ann Coulter is cross with the president. Her recent columns and tweets on the man have turned increasingly nasty and snippy, offering choice words such as “betraying voters” and “sociopath.”

As you’d expect from a conservative commentator of several decades, Coulter’s priorities have fluctuated over time. Most recently, she’s reinvented herself as a firm immigration restrictionist, openly inspired by online commentators such as Peter Brimelow and Steve Sailer, who generally portray immigration as an ideologically motivated program to erode and replace white America. The title of her 2015 book, Adios, America: The Left’s Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole, said it all.

Coulter was thus one of many immigration hawks who seized on Donald Trump as a savior, and her subsequent book, In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome!, portrayed him as the country’s last hope, largely on the basis of his immigration views. Coulter, with her apparent love of provocative spectacle, was particularly obsessed with Trump’s promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. It is the president’s lack of progress on this front that now frustrates her.

You may find Coulter’s immigration agenda extreme and offensive, but it’s an agenda nonetheless. Her endorsement of Donald Trump was always explicitly transactional. Coulter was intelligent enough to notice Trump’s obvious deficits, yet what were once passing references to his lack of competence, honesty, and self-discipline have today become defining themes of her commentary.

The Coulter case study is interesting, because many conservatives can probably relate to her feelings of frustration, even if they don’t share her specific motive for it.

Transactional Trump supporters — that is, conservatives who backed the president strictly as a tool to deliver certain policy outcomes — are a vast coalition of goals and interests. Yet that coalition is also disproportionately composed of opinion journalists, politicians, and other highly visible professional ideologues. As a result, it can be jarring to remember that Trump’s approval rating among Republican voters is not a pragmatic 52 percent, but an overwhelming 89 percent.

What transactional Trump supporters have to remember, in other words, is that their qualified appreciation of the president does not reflect the views of his most loyal electorate. It’s therefore naïve to conclude — as many in this camp do — that Trump’s popularity or political capital will decline in sync with what high-profile center-Right voices consider disappointments or betrayals. This is particularly critical to keep in mind as a new Congress is inaugurated, impeachment talk rises, and the 2020 election edges closer. One’s ability to appreciate how precarious Trump’s fate is or isn’t in these newfound situations cannot simply be a matter of projecting what ought to happen.

Coulter herself engaged in some classic projection in a recent column (“Gutless President in Wall-less Country”), in which she expressed incredulity that anyone could possibly be attracted to the president for reasons less transactional than hers.

“On the basis of [Trump’s] self-interest alone, he must know that if he doesn’t build the wall, he has zero chance of being re-elected and a 100 percent chance of being utterly humiliated,” she wrote, adding, “I have yet to meet a person who said, Yeah, I don’t really care about immigration or trade, I just love his personality!” (emphasis in original).

If that’s the case, then Coulter needs to get out more. A November Quinnipiac University poll found that the vast majority of Republicans have enormous, across-the-board confidence in everything about Trump: 82 percent said he had good leadership skills, 77 percent said he was honest, 92 percent said he was intelligent, and 80 percent agreed he was someone who “shares your values.” Trump was given astronomically high approval on the management of basically every issue as well, including 86 percent approval for his handling of “immigration issues.”

When confidence in the president’s competence is this high, failure to achieve policy perfection is rarely held against him. If one begins from a position of unshakable faith that Trump is a wise, honest, skilled leader, then all other perceptions of political reality will revolve around this core truth.

Trump can’t get the wall done? Well, it’s probably the fault of the Democrats. Or the deep state. Or the media. Or Hillary (somehow). Give the man a break!

This reality must teach humility to any conservative who has grown comfortable imagining that his or her satisfaction with some aspect of Trump’s surprisingly standard Republican performance is representative of larger trends within the electorate.

There’s good reason to believe that Trump would be just as popular among Republicans today if he had never appointed Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, for instance. It seems equally likely that his ironclad support among Evangelical Christians has little to do with his abortion politics. (The recent unqualified praise from Jerry Falwell Jr. certainly offers little reason for doubt.)

Among center-Right writers and thinkers who are earnestly trying to compassionately deconstruct Trump’s political rise, he remains a culturally alien figure extraordinarily difficult to appreciate at face value. A moderate conservative columnist at a prestige publication and an alt-right vlogger might not agree on much, but they’re certainly united in the belief that the Trump phenomenon says something important about policy and ideas, rather than merely being a case study in the celebrity charisma of a single man.

There will always be much to say about the practical consequences of what Trump does with his powers of office. He is a politician, after all, and regardless of what motivates his decisions, their outcomes can be judged and measured. What must be conceded, however, is that a sizable chunk of the U.S. electorate does not use this metric to assess the president and instead judges Trump through a prism of predetermined conclusions about the man’s inherent trustworthiness and competence. This deferential attitude solidified quite some time ago and is not particularly shakable today.

Much of the conservative intelligentsia has a hard time relating to voters who think this way and is often in deep denial about their significance. But as we enter a freshly acrimonious era in which demands for accurate assessments of Donald Trump’s political viability will only increase, pundits ignore the realities of the president’s base at their peril.

J. J. McCullough — J. J. McCullough is a columnist for National Review Online and the Global Opinions section of the Washington Post.

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