How Trump Is Winning Over Conservatives Without the Bona Fides

No one plays the music of conservatism better than Trump, which allows him to make crowds go wild without mentioning issues like taxes, the deficit, profligate spending, or abortion.

Trump Media Circus Hits Iowa State Fair

“Keep dropping the truth bomb!” someone in the crowd yelled as Donald Trump arrived at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, New Hampshire, this weekend. For nearly an hour, the crowd cheered him on, applauding with particular gusto when he went after political correctness, politicians who use teleprompters, and his shorter rival Rand Paul: “I’ve had him up to here,” he said, holding his hand up as high as his chest.

Yet very little of what the conservatives in the hall were going wild over could be characterized as conservative, and most of it wasn’t political at all: The 54-minute address included zero mentions of taxes, the deficit, profligate spending, abortion, or any social issue, unless you count his inscrutable promise to “help on women’s health issues more than anybody, including on the Democratic side, you watch.” Or his put-down of the University of New Hampshire’s unofficial new “bias-free language guide.” “They don’t want you to differentiate between a man and a woman! If that ever passed,” Trump said, “I’m gone.”

He called himself the “most militaristic person in the room,” then added, “but you have to know when to use it.” And he also says not only that we should never have gone into Iraq, but that we were better off with Saddam Hussein in charge there. “You had Iran and Iraq and they were the same; they were twins…Well, we took one out and look at the mess we have; we destabilized the Middle East. I’m not a fan of Saddam Hussein, but he ran the place, and he had no weapons of mass destruction. And now, instead of Saddam Hussein, we have far more brutal.” No, this is not an unheard-of view, but it is one that has generally been heard only from Democrats. Yet when the Republican front-runner says these things now—that we have nothing whatsoever to show for all the blood spilled there—many heads nod.

RELATED: Pop Quiz: How Well Do You Know Donald Trump? 

Trump doesn’t lose them even when he mocks outright what many of his fellow Republicans still see as the success of George W. Bush’s surge in Iraq: “They talk about ‘the surge, the surge.’” And though he told Chuck Todd, in an interview that aired on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday, that American ground troops may have to take out the Islamic State, he also said this in New Hampshire: “At some point, we had to go out; we can’t stay there forever; we have to rebuild this country.”

Like not a few Democrats, he talks an awful lot about rebuilding our falling-down bridges and torn-up roads. And unlike all those tedious candidates in both parties who talk about sacrifice and slow progress over time, Trump promises that turning things around is going to be so simple it’s practically a one-person job, for just him and a few of the world’s best negotiators.

There is the music of conservatism in what he says—a shout-out to Rush Limbaugh, and his extremely believable vow never to waste an instant being politically correct. 

But his only clear conservative passion is the issue of illegal immigration, which he’s just announced he’d address by deporting all of the 11 million people who are in this country illegally, ending birthright citizenship, and building a massive and impenetrable wall along the Mexican border that he thinks Mexico should pay for. He copped to some progressive views on Meet the Press, too, this weekend, including support for affirmative action.

He doesn’t mention post-partisanship, the way Obama often did while campaigning for president, but isn’t ruling out a third-party run, either. And in some ways, what he’s selling is a lot like those free helicopter rides he gave kids this weekend at the Iowa State Fair, where he told reporters that creating jobs is “not going to be that difficult.”

Instead of Obama’s motto that “we’re all in this together,” what Trump is telling us, in effect, is “I’ve got this.” The point of most of his stories, like the one about how somebody paid him “hundreds of thousands of dollars to go to a dinner,” is that it’s a law of nature that money flows to him, and will flow to the country if we elect him: “We will make great trade deals. We will have Social Security without cuts. We will come up with health care plans that will be phenomenal, phenomenal, that will be less expensive.”

We will make the country great by making it rich, and how appealing is that? Describing the future-perfect conversation between President Trump and the Ford Motor Co. officials he’ll get to change their minds about building cars in Mexico, he says, “This is too easy, too easy! This is a couple of phone calls.”

To a young man in Hampton who asked whether he’d send men to Mars, he said sure, after we rebuild our infrastructure, and then assured him, “We’re going to have so many victories they’re going to be pouring out of your Harvard-educated ears.” Sure, there’s not a little paternalism in his promises: “The women haven’t been taken care of properly,” he said at the Iowa State Fair. But could it be that Republicans like the prospect of a free lunch as well as the next guy?

After he finished talking in New Hampshire on Friday night, I asked half a dozen Republicans who said they liked him what they had heard in his long, stream-of-consciousness oration that struck them as conservative, and none of them could point to anything in particular. Still, four of them plan to support him.

“I can’t explain it,” said Mary Rosa, of Seabrook. “They make him look like an idiot in the media, and he can look like an idiot. But he stands for the military, and he wants to change things around.”

Her husband, Charles Rosa, said what he appreciates is Trump’s business success, and unvarnished way of speaking: “In his own English, he’s saying we have to get the f--k up and do something, get busy.”

John McCarthy, who describes his neighboring home state as “the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, where 2 + 2 = 5,” says there’s some truth to what Trump says about Iraq: “Only Saddam Hussein could hold that place together.” Yet until a minute ago, wasn’t it unpatriotic to say that? It’s sensitive, said McCarthy, who has spent time all over the world, but “even the Kuwaitis say they wish he was back in power.” Asked why conservatives are flocking to someone who can sound like the former Democrat that he is, McCarthy seemed underwhelmed with his 16 other choices: “Where else are the conservatives going to go? To whom?”

Kimberly Rogers, a 33-year-old woman from Westford, Massachusetts, shouted, “Trump, we love you!” as the candidate left the event. Although she is a committed Republican, “I don’t even look at him as a Republican or Democrat. He’s common sense,’’ she said, “and he brings it down to our level.”

The best part of his presentation, thought 18-year-old James Velez, from Andover, Massachusetts, was: “I thoroughly enjoyed him not being nice; you have to be assertive, and he doesn’t back down.” His 20-year-old brother Josh said he’d been hoping for a little more substance: “He’s a great speaker, and I like that he’s not a politician, but I didn’t hear anything about tax cuts, or less regulation; he’s targeting emotion and getting laughs.” Yet though he now prefers Florida Senator Marco Rubio, he might still support Trump in the end, since “I do believe government needs a better manager.”

On Meet the Press, the first questions from Todd were how Trump sees conservatism, and whether those who question how conservative he really is have a point.

“Well, I think they have a point from years ago,” he said, and compared himself to the man who granted amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants, Ronald Reagan, who was also a liberal before he was a conservative.

“And if I'm president, we're going to have a great country,” he said near the end of the interview. “And then we will really have better than Reagan, better than anybody. We will make America great again. That's what it's all about.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE