Since the rise of Trump, the existence of a GOP generation gap has been painfully clear to anyone who spends any time around Republican voters. In my experience, the mid-forties are the cutoff. Republicans I meet who are younger than me are far more likely to dislike Trump or to be Trump skeptics. Republicans older than me are far more likely to reserve a first-class seat on the Trump Train.
Now there’s evidence that rather decisively backs up my experience. Axios commissioned a poll of Republican voters to determine whether they want to see Trump challenged in the GOP primary. The generation gap is larger than I thought:
82% of Republicans aged 18-24 want someone to primary Trump in 2020 https://t.co/x2kZdogMp0
— Allahpundit (@allahpundit) January 20, 2018
The youngest and oldest Republicans are virtually mirror images of each other, and even solid majorities of thirty-somethings and young forty-somethings want to see a Trump challenger. Why the profound difference? It’s a deep and rich subject — one that merits more than a mere post, but we can at least start the conversation. Off the top of my head I can think of at least four reasons:
First, older Republicans had decades to get to know both Donald Trump and, crucially, Hillary Clinton. Trump built a brand centered around the notion that he was one of the nation’s — no, the world’s — greatest businessmen. It would take far more than a few months of negative media coverage to dislodge an impression created by years in the spotlight. You can easily meet many, many older Republicans who didn’t “hold their nose” and vote for Trump. They genuinely like him and have liked him for years. At the same time, older Republicans had been fighting Hillary Clinton for a quarter-century. To younger Republicans she was just another Democratic politician. To older Republicans she was the embodiment of Democratic corruption. Defeating Hillary led to a wave of relief and gratitude that will not be quickly forgotten.
Second, younger Republicans have been trained from childhood to see the GOP as a party of specific ideas. It’s a simple fact that there is a much greater infrastructure for training and teaching young Americans about conservatism than existed when I was young. Beginning in high school, politically-minded students can attend conferences and immerse themselves in conservative media. In college there are vibrant national organizations dedicated to spreading the gospel of limited, constitutional governance. Moreover, for the entire adult lifetime of young voters, the path to conservative celebrity and power went through proving your adherence to those ideas. Trump, by contrast, has no fixed ideological world view. None. It was baffling to young voters that he could so quickly become the Fox News darling and the hero of so much of the talk radio right. Wasn’t he the quintessential RINO?
Third, older Republicans felt a greater sense of cultural despair. Let’s put it this way, if the only world that you’ve ever known is a world that features Chelsea Manning, then you’re not so conscious of the rapid cultural change that brought us to the point where denying that a man can get pregnant is in some quarters deemed to be inexcusable bigotry. Older GOP voters, by contrast, understood that in many key cultural conflicts, conservatives weren’t just losing, they were losing with remarkable speed. This atmosphere of doom was only amplified by the seeming inevitability of cultural decline. Secular progressives were riding high, and they never tired of rubbing conservative faces in the alleged “arc of history.”
Fourth, younger conservatives covet the moral high ground. Younger conservatives are more likely to live, work, and learn in hostile ideological territory than older conservatives. Conservative Millennials are used to being an embattled minority — especially on college campuses — and it is far, far easier to defend your message when the messengers are good people. Older voters, by contrast, are so wearied and angered by years of leftist claims of racism, sexism, and homophobia that they’re utterly indifferent to the charges and perhaps even ready to “punch back twice as hard.” For the older voter, the quest for the moral high ground is futile, so why try? It’s time to fight.
In my experience, these divisions are being reinforced every day. Every Trump scandal further alienates younger voters. They may be pleased about individual policies, but they recognize that any Republican would do most of what Trump has done. They simply don’t buy the notion that we can’t have decency and conservatism at the same time. Older Republicans are more likely to retort, “Think so? Ask President Romney.”
Younger Republicans have the better argument. You don’t have to choose between decency and conservatism. The election of countless high-character Republicans proves as much. The elections of Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush prove as much. While it’s impossible to prove the outcome of purely hypothetical matchups, it’s hard for me to believe that potential GOP candidates who consistently polled better than Trump against Clinton would have lost the general election.
I don’t know if there will be a primary challenger for Trump, but I hope that the commitments to ideas and character that have shaped younger conservative voters survive his presidency. They are, after all, the future of the GOP.