Donald Trump has once more proven that with the right type of viciousness, he can steal all the oxygen from the news cycle for other people. The most recent Trump offense is attacking Fox News’ Megyn Kelly for “bleeding out of her whatever,” a reference many assumed was to menstruation, although Trump has denied this. Combine that with Trump’s willingness to state that single payer “works in Canada” and Scotland on the debate stage, and you get a recipe for sure-fire bewilderment from conservative commentators and party figures about Trump having any continued appeal and a desire to stamp that appeal out where it exists. Erick Erickson of RedState has led the charge here by disinviting Trump from his RedState gathering.
These people are right to be confused and upset. They’re also right to point out that Trump’s substance, such as it is, doesn’t mesh with the standard conservative party line. Yet his base, apparently, is still defending him in every comments section from RedState on down and handing him victories in self-reported polls like the one on the Drudge Report.
What Moderates Have Been Hoping For
Traditional conservatives have reason to find this alarming. However, when it comes to hand-wringing from socalled moderates in the party, my only response is this: be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.
Let’s consider what moderate Republicans have been hoping for since the rise of the Tea Party and arguably long before that.
First, they have been desperate to see ideological litmus tests go away. Witness the moderate support for candidates like Charlie Crist and the general disdain for Tea Party candidates’ appeals to ideological purity in primaries. Witness also their anger that the base refuses to move on from the policy solutions of the ’80s and reckon with the fact that the world has changed and might require non-“pure” solutions for a more modern Republican party.
Secondly, they have been deeply upset about the thrall in which talk radio and Fox News hold the base and constrain the Overton window of the GOP. Witness Michael Steele’s lashing out at Rush Limbaugh, for instance, or David Frum’s extremely harsh essay on the same subject from 2009. In moderate circles, it seems these figures are seen as agitators and entertainers holding disproportionate sway over a party that should be trying to appeal beyond the AM radio dial or the target market for Alzheimer’s medication.
Thirdly, they’ve been deeply impatient with the base’s suspicion of people who have shown any affinity with Democrats, no matter how long ago. Consider the bitterness of Jon Huntsman supporters — that the former Utah Governor’s stint as an ambassador for the Obama White House ruined his chances at the 2012 nomination — or the impatience of Mitt Romney supporters with the attacks by conservatives over his previous compromises with Democrats in Massachusetts. Or recall the impatience of certain establishment commentators with the idea of a ban on earmarks — a position, which they argue makes it harder to appeal to local interests over ideological hard lines and thus makes governance prohibitively difficult.
Trump’s Campaign Is Something To Take Notes On, Not Dismiss
Anyone who’s complained about any of these three things and still dislikes Trump is missing the forest for the trees. The fact is that if these three things annoy you, then Trump is the hero you deserve, if not the one you might have wanted. And his campaign is something you should be taking notes on, not dismissing as an unserious hack job through a forest of ruffled feathers.
Let’s review. Trump argues that single payer “would’ve worked in a different era” and still praises its effectiveness in other countries. Trump favors trade restrictions, which have been verboten in GOP policy circles for years. Trump is openly irreligious and even said so in Iowa. Yet his very conservative base treats people who point this out as if they’re the problem.
Making litmus tests less important? Check.
What about diminishing the influence of talk radio? Well, Trump already sneered at Megyn Kelly and got praised in some circles for not being politically correct. He also denounced Erick Erickson, a talk radio host, as a “loser” — something that from any other candidate would’ve earned him an “attaboy” from the likes of Josh Barro but outrage from the grassroots right. Yet so far, neither of these things has manifested.
Marginalizing conservative media, another moderate dream? Check.
And as for doing business with Democrats and having a liberal past? Did you even watch the debate? This is a man who’s donated to Hillary Clinton apparently just to get her to attend his wedding. He openly brags about his willingness to manipulate politicians and the law to achieve what he wants. In other words, he’s willing to compromise and make deals with “the enemy” more openly than any presidential candidate this side of Lyndon Johnson (and probably with a similar method), yet a base that hates the very memory of Johnsonera liberalism loves him.
So a liberal past is irrelevant? Apparently it is now, thanks to Trump.
If you’re a moderate, you have to take notice of these facts, and moreover, you have to ask how Trump is doing it.
The answer is obvious: ideological litmus tests, support from talk radio, and an aversion to working with liberals were mere proxy variables designed to find out what the conservative base actually wants from its candidate. And what it actually wants is someone whose temperament, style and presentation render him (or her, like Sarah Palin) automatically “unserious,” “not respectable” or any other Washingtonism that, for them, translates to “closet liberal.” When a candidate demonstrates that preferred quality so openly that it can’t be missed, a la Trump, the proxy variables become irrelevant. Indeed, Matthew Continetti points out it’s not accurate to call many of these people “radical ideologues,” but rather the “radical middle” — an ironic phrase for moderates.
Trump is hardly the first person to try to appeal to this particular demographic, though he’s proven spectacularly successful.
Take his dissent on free trade. Pat Buchanan openly and proudly opposed free trade on behalf of workers and was even willing to back union demands in his 1996 run for president. While Trump is sometimes compared to Buchanan, the comparison makes little sense from a policy standpoint. Buchanan’s social politics were deeply informed by his Catholicism, while Trump is, at best, agnostic on social issues. Mike Huckabee – another socially conservative trade dissenter – or Rick Santorum has far more in common with Buchanan’s blue-collar, hyper religious nationalism. But Huckabee is called a “cuckservative” while Trump is revered by people who would’ve made up Buchanan’s base. Why? Because what the Buchanan brigades cared about was style, not substance.
Nor is Trump the only apparent social liberal to get the support of supposedly die-hard conservatives. Andrew Breitbart supported legalizing prostitution and was pro gay marriage, Glenn Beck came out in favor of helping illegal immigrants. Newt Gingrich is a serial divorcé. Even Rush Limbaugh himself admitted to Zev Chafets in interviews conducted for the latter’s book that he thought the same-sex marriage battle was pointless. But again, the issue is style, and these personal and ideological heresies can be forgiven by some conservatives at lightning speed if you still show that you have the guts to take on the media and political elites openly and without apology.
Trump: The Down-To-Earth Elite
Now, sure, you might say, but unlike these predecessors, Trump is an Ivy League-educated heir of East Coast privilege. Isn’t he the definition of an elite?
Sure, but unlike the “elites” his supporters hate, Trump doesn’t pretend to be “upper-middle class,” wring his hands over his privilege or engage in any of the self-abnegating behaviors that his followers hate in liberals. He’s rich and powerful, and he won’t apologize for it. Yes, he’s almost indistinguishable from Mitt Romney in terms of his upbringing, but that assumes Romney’s problem with the GOP base was his background. It wasn’t. The base admired Romney’s wealth and power and wished he’d flaunt it more. As Exhibit A, I present a piece by (ironically) one of the most incisive anti-Trump writers out there – namely, Kevin Williamson of National Review. Williamson, in a lengthy exhortation to Mitt Romney from August of 2012 (titled, ironically, “Like a Boss”), observed:
You want off-the-charts status? Check out the curriculum vitae of one Willard M. Romney: $200 million in the bank (and a hell of a lot more if he didn’t give so much away), apex alpha executive, CEO, chairman of the board, governor, bishop, boss of everything he’s ever touched. Son of the same, father of more. It is a curious scientific fact (explained in evolutionary biology by the TriversWillard hypothesis — Willard, notice) that highstatus animals tend to have more male offspring than female offspring, which holds true across many species, from red deer to mink to Homo sap. The offspring of rich families are statistically biased in favor of sons — the children of the general population are 51 percent male and 49 percent female, but the children of the Forbes billionaire list are 60 percent male. Have a gander at that Romney family picture: five sons, zero daughters. Romney has 18 grandchildren, and they exceed a 2:1 ratio of grandsons to granddaughters (13:5). When they go to church at their summervacation home, the Romney clan makes up a third of the congregation. He is basically a tribal chieftain.
If he hadn’t given away so much money to his church, charities and grandkids, Mitt Romney would have more money than Jay-Z. It is time for Mitt Romney to get in touch with his inner rich guy. In other words, the conservative Williamson wanted the very moderate and considered Romney to get in touch with his inner Trump.
Paradoxically then, if you’re a moderate who wants to win over the conservative base, the worst possible thing you can do is try to downplay who you are or eschew confrontation. If your politics are moderate and you want to be a Republican president, then your temperament should be radical. You should brag about your record, sneer at your opponents and be unafraid of controversy. Make everything you believe sound as unfiltered as possible, even if it’s perfectly sensible. Throw punches, get your hands dirty, talk like you don’t give a damn, and never apologize because that’s the only way anyone will know you have the status and force of personality to take on the massive liberal establishmentarian forces they see arrayed against them. Sure, they’d rather you agreed with them on all the particulars; but ultimately, even if you’re an atheist trade skeptic with a past supporting single payer and abortion rights, they don’t care, so long as you decimate the norms that sustain the liberal ruling class.
Is it crass? Sure. Is it cynical? Probably. But if you’re a moderate, consider this: If Jon Huntsman had sounded like Trump, he might be president right now. Politically, as Trump might say, that’s yuge.