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Transactional Voters and Trump

President Donald Trump attends a Cabinet meeting on day 12 of the partial government shutdown at the White House in Washington, D.C., January 2, 2019. (Jim Young/REUTERS)

J. J. McCullough is certainly right to caution us not to treat Trump-supporting columnists though they represented Trump-supporting voters. (I’ve made the same point.) But I think his overall argument — that Trump voters like the man rather than the policies — is mistaken.

His chief evidence for his contention comes from polls, which I think he misinterprets. He writes, “Trump’s approval rating among Republican voters is not a pragmatic 52 percent, but an overwhelming 89 percent.” That’s a non sequitur. Many of the Republicans who approve of the job Trump is doing approve of it because he is delivering or at least standing for the policies they want. (And if his support were at 52 percent, it could be because 52 percent of Republican voters liked his personality.)

McCullough notes as well that large majorities of Republicans tell pollsters that they think President Trump is honest, intelligent, shares their values, and so forth. He concludes:

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. . . .

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.

If 80 percent of Republicans tell a pollster that Trump shares their values, it does not prove that 80 percent of Republicans have “unshakable faith” in him. I strongly suspect that if Trump were to flip back on abortion, or follow through on his occasional comments in favor of gun control (beyond the bump-stock ban, which the NRA partly supports), that number would decline: not to zero, but enough to hurt. Which helps to explain why Trump hasn’t done those things, and probably won’t.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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