There’s a tendency in politics to mistake personal animosity for ideological animosity.
Consider Bill Clinton. His staggering dishonesty, tackiness and scorn for the rule of law aroused a lot of anger from the right. But he wasn’t really that left-wing.
Oh, he was certainly more liberal in his heart than he let on, but he also worked from the assumption that this was a center-right country, and that limited what he could get away with.
Clinton ran for president the first time by “triangulating” against the base of his own party. He took time off from the campaign to oversee the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a man so mentally disabled, when he left for the electric chair, he told the guards that he was saving the pecan pie from his last meal “for later.” Clinton signed welfare reform (reluctantly), the Defense of Marriage Act (less reluctantly), helped to balance the budget, and proclaimed that “the era of big government is over.”
And yet, many conservatives insisted he was a no-good hippy left-winger.
George W. Bush ran on a platform of “compassionate conservatism.” Once elected, his first order of business was to work with Ted Kennedy on education. He passed the biggest expansion of entitlements in this country since the Great Society (Medicare Part D), increased the federal workforce and increased federal spending per household.
And yet, during his presidency — even before 9/11 — he was routinely called a heartless right-winger.
Richard Nixon is an even better example. Not counting Barack Obama, Nixon was arguably the most liberal president since LBJ. He came from the progressive wing of the GOP (back when there really was one). In 1965 he told reporters that the “Buckleyites” (i.e., William F. Buckley and his crowd at National Review, where I work) were a “threat more menacing” to the GOP than the John Birch Society. He told his aide John C. Whitaker, “There is only one thing as bad as a far-left liberal and that’s a damn right-wing conservative.”
In office, he created the EPA, institutionalized affirmative action, loved regulation and pushed for ever more domestic spending, including a proposed massive government takeover of health care.
And yet, even today, it’s hard to find a liberal who isn’t convinced that Nixon was a rabid right-winger. Indeed, Nixon’s entire appeal to the “silent majority” was an attempt to forge a populist, big-government alternative to both FDR-LBJ liberalism and Buckleyite conservatism.
Which brings me to Donald Trump, the new leader of a very loud “silent majority.” I keep hearing that Trump poses a grave threat to the GOP because he pits “the conservative base” against the presumably more liberal “GOP establishment.”
The first part is true: He does pose a threat to the GOP. But are the labels right? For starters, the so-called “establishment” is more conservative than any time in GOP history.
Until Trump descended his golden escalator, the “conservative base” generally referred to committed pro-lifers and other social conservatives. The term also suggested people who were for very limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, etc. Most of all, it described people who called themselves “very conservative.”
While it’s absolutely true that Trump draws support from people who fit such descriptions, it’s far from the entirety of Trump’s following. According to polls, Trump draws heavily from more secular Republicans who are more likely to describe themselves as “liberal” or “moderate” than “conservative” or “very conservative.” Ted Cruz draws more exclusively from the traditional base.
And I would argue that his “very conservative” followers aren’t supporting Trump because he’s a conservative but because he’s a walking, talking thumb in the eyes of “elites” in the media and both parties.
The claim that Trump is a committed conservative is not very believable. Until recently, he was for higher taxes on the wealthy, taking in Syrian refugees and single-payer health care. He almost never talks about the Constitution, faith or liberty unless forced to. In 2012, Trump condemned Mitt Romney for being too harsh on illegal immigration. In May of this year, he attacked “publicity seekers” who needlessly provoked Muslims.
With the exception of a few single-issue voters on immigration, Trump fans love him for his enemies and for his populist bombast, not for any specific principles. In other words, he divides the GOP more up-down than he does left-right.
Trump defenders can rightly point to the fact that he draws support from a wide swath of voters. Critics can rightly point out that he draws animosity from an even wider swath of voters. But neither should go around talking about how Trump represents the conservative base.