His supporters won't get what they want from him.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Hey, Trump Voters: He'll Offend You Next

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Trump fans, let's talk.

I have heard you. You don’t like America’s immigration policy. You don’t like what the modern economy offers to folks who don't have a college degree. And you are sick to death of well-paid folks in Washington and New York and California calling you bigots because of your stance on immigration, trade or foreign policy.

I don’t happen to agree with you on immigration policy, but I think “we should have fewer immigrants, and should not grant visas to people who came here in violation of the law” is a perfectly legitimate policy preference that deserves debate, not contempt. I can see why you’d want a candidate who was strong on an issue you care a lot about, someone who ignores the accusations of bigotry that so often shut down any serious debate on immigration.

What I don’t get is why you think Trump is going to give you what you want.

After all, four years ago, the guy was an immigration liberal, criticizing Romney for taking an excessively hard line. His positions on other major conservative issues, like abortion, are shamelessly opportunistic. His enthusiasm for bashing China is somewhat undercut by his enthusiasm for outsourcing the manufacturing of his own products to same. It is impossible to say with certainty which way he actually leans on any issue -- or perhaps the answer is “Whichever way the wind blows.”

Of course, all politicians are strategic in their policy positions, and all politics is, to some extent, an exercise in signaling. We have no idea what problems politicians will face, what they’ll be able to get Congress to go along with, what problems might crop up with their plans when all the niggling details have to be worked out. In the end, we’re mostly looking for a sort of fit: “Does this person agree with me on the issues I think are most important?” The hope being that if they agree with you now, they’ll be more likely to do what you would do when it comes time to actually make deals and respond to crises.

A lot of Republican voters are angry that their elected officials have not produced anything like the policies voters wanted, and their interpretation seems to be that the folks they send to Washington are simply turning around and selling them out.

I understand that what Trump signals with the angry rhetoric, the gleeful indifference to the opinions of the chatterati, is that he’s not “one of them” -- that dread “Washington establishment” that every politician in the country is now trying to run against. Donald Trump, it is supposed to say, doesn’t care what They think, which leaves him free to fight for Us.

But his endlessly convenient opinion shifts, on the very core issues his supporters care most about, ought also to signal that Donald Trump doesn’t care about you, either. He’s against outsourcing and immigration as long as that’s getting him votes. But if he can find a different coalition, he’ll happily abandon the current one in a flash. As he’ll need to, if he gets the nomination, and starts looking at the electoral math to take the general. Trump may set the land-speed record for a full 180, and his supporters will have little right to complain, given that his newfound attachment to conservative issues -- including the ones he hammers most -- is obviously weak and opportunistic.

The mass of voters who show up at his rallies may not know his long history of … let us say, strategic reconsideration of previously stated positions on core value issues. Low-information voters may share Trump's disdain for "the media," in which case they will remain low-information voters and never learn much about the names on the ballot.

But that doesn’t explain why he has followers among high-information conservatives. And for them, the best I can come up with is that they think the Washington establishment is so disconnected from the base that even a frank opportunist like Trump couldn’t possibly be worse.

“It couldn’t possibly be worse than what we have now” is what people say right before they are proven wrong.

Adam Smith famously noted that “there is a lot of ruin in a nation”. The corollary is, however, that things could indeed be much worse than they are now. And the people you elect out of desperation are often, in fact, much worse for you than the frustrating, half-witted, pork-laden compromises that the candidate you spurned would have made.

If you don’t believe me, just ask the folks who voted for Ralph Nader … and got George W. Bush. But at least those folks had some reason to believe that Nader would actually govern in ways that those folks liked. Trump voters seem eager to ignore the fact that their candidate is only theirs until he doesn't need them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net