Increasingly, ordinary Republican voters are rallying behind himby Andrew Stuttaford / May 23, 2016 / Leave a comment
Read more: What would Trump do?
In July last year, former Texas governor Rick Perry, then running for the Republican presidential nomination, took aim at Donald Trump, then—as now—amazing just about everyone (full disclosure: including me) by how well he was doing.
Trump, warned Perry, offered “a barking carnival act…a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.” Trump’s candidacy was, he added, a “cancer on conservatism.”
That was then. Last week Perry said that he would be prepared to serve as vice-tumour. If Trump needed somebody with his experience then Perry would not say, “Aw shucks sir, I’m gonna go fishing.” No sir, he would do his duty by his country.
Leading figures in the Republican Party are coming round to the political reality that Trump’s success represents. For some that’s a matter of personal ambition (absolute power may corrupt absolutely, but the whiff of power does a pretty good job too). For others it’s the product of hard-eyed, if bleak, calculation. They are unlikely—despite recent polling suggesting a swing in Trump’s direction—to think that the Donald can win the presidency (or to agree with what he stands for), but they may well have concluded that losing as a relatively united party would be less harmful than any of the alternatives.
Ordinary Republican voters are finding it easier to rally behind Trump. Those who, just a month or two ago, were telling pollsters they would not vote for him in November are falling into line. And fewer are holding their noses as they do so. In April, Wall Street Journal/NBC News polling showed that around 40 per cent of GOP voters regarded Trump negatively. That’s now dropped to 25 per cent. Politics are tribal. With the primary fight over, most will unite behind their leader despite earlier misgivings.
It helps that Hillary Clinton, the presumed chieftain of the other tribe, has been a bogeywoman to the Right for decades (and she’s not too popular with anyone else: her unfavourables—astoundingly high for a candidate in her position—are only exceeded, if by a narrowing margin, by Trump’s). It helps too that Clinton’s standing with the wider electorate is being hurt by the brawl with Bernie Sanders. In some recent polls, Trump has pulled ahead of Clinton. I doubt that lead will endure once the Democrats reunite, but to the degree that it does, it will induce even more Republicans into the Trump camp. After all, if he has a chance….
There’s something else. Trump’s mood music (it would be an exaggeration to describe his programme as much more than that) sounds sweeter to many Republicans than their leadership might like. Tough on immigration: Check. Tough on trade: Check. Rejecting Bush-style interventionism abroad: Check. Preserving Medicare (health care for the over-65s) and Social Security (pensions): Check. Trump’s voters may revere Reagan the man, but they are unconvinced by Reagan the mantra. Trump achieved lift-off with the help of a white working class that believes, not without reason, that it has been “left behind” (the parallels with today’s UKIP are obvious), struggling to prosper in a rapidly transforming America in which it no longer feels at home. It has had quite enough creative destruction, thank you very much.
But in an age of insecurity it is not only blue collars that are being felt. Trump’s campaign may owe its launch to working class Republicans, but it was boosted into orbit by supporters from far beyond the Appalachian hollows and Rustbelt towns of reassuring caricature. The collateral damage of globalization and automation is spreading ever higher up the social scale. Trump’s coalition of the anxious is considerably broader than the GOP’s high-ups seem willing to acknowledge, and, tellingly, was not soothed away by the social conservatism peddled by the Donald’s rivals. To say Trump makes an unexpected standard-bearer for a party that includes a prominent (if often misunderstood) religious right is an understatement, but that’s what he will be. Priorities change.
To be sure, Trump threw the Reaganite wing of the party a bone in the form of a supply-side-on-steroids tax plan of such absurdity that the kindest way to look at it is as a statement of intent (welcome enough from someone who has supported higher taxation in the past) that he won’t increase taxes. In another conciliatory gesture, Trump has released a list of potential Supreme Court nominees designed to appeal to the Right. If he were to abide by this promise, wrote Jim Geraghty of the conservative, Trumpsceptic National Review (of which I am a contributing editor), “justices like these would make autocracy, a likely nuclear exchange, the collapse of the dollar and the dissolution of NATO easier to bear.”
Jim was not, I think, being entirely serious, but, there’s no mistaking his underlying concern that Trump simply cannot be trusted with the presidency. To the extent that Trump has an ideology (he has changed his party affiliation five times since 1987), it’s best described as a mutation of early Twentieth Century American Progressivism—something that’s a long way from contemporary GOP orthodoxy—but ultimately Trump is about Trump. Being Trump has enabled him to get to where he is now, but being Trump will ensure that, however horrified Republican voters might be at the prospect of another Clinton presidency, there will be a number of them who will not vote for their party’s candidate.
Some will worry that a Trump victory in November would be even worse for the future of the GOP than defeat. For others, the fears may run deeper still. A month or so back, a Midwestern Republican told me that Trump would, for the most part, be a better president than Clinton. But the worst of Trump could, he fretted, be far worse than the worst of Hillary: “He could blow the country up.” That was not a risk he would take. He hasn’t changed his mind since.
That’s just one voter, but I suspect he’s not alone.