A Lesson for Trump's Intellectual Vanguard
In 2016 we found out that conservative elites didn’t speak for Republican voters.
Think tankers may have hungered for entitlement reform and valued free trade, but a large group of Republican voters disagreed, and another large group had no strong views on these issues. When Donald Trump won the primaries and then the November election, many people who considered themselves conservative leaders found out that Republican voters weren’t who they thought they were.
Now it turns out that Trump’s prominent early supporters don’t speak for the Republican masses either. Many of these luminaries are unhappy about Trump’s airstrike against the Syrian government. “Those of us who wanted meddling in the Middle East voted for other candidates,” tweeted Ann Coulter.
Republican voters, on the other hand, overwhelmingly approve of Trump’s action. A Washington Post poll found that 86 percent of them support it.
To the extent these high-profile Trump fans are now disillusioned, it’s because they overread what both the president and his voters stand for. As McKay Coppins points out in the Atlantic, Trump did not campaign as a consistent skeptic of military intervention abroad. “Instead, Trump entered the Oval Office with a bone-deep belief in vengeance, a tendency toward impulsiveness, and a history of saber-rattling rhetoric.”
Intellectuals, whether they are for or against Trump, want to construct an “ism” into which they can fit his politics: an “ism” that includes opposition to free trade, mass immigration, foreign interventions that aren’t necessitated by attacks on us, and entitlement reform. But Trumpism doesn’t exist. The president has tendencies and impulses, some of which conflict with one another, rather than a political philosophy.
That’s also true of most voters, especially when it comes to foreign policy. An adviser to President George W. Bush once remarked to me that a lot of people thought Republicans backed Bush because of the Iraq war, when in reality Republicans backed the Iraq war because of Bush. In the absence of detailed and deep convictions on a foreign-policy issue, voters will side with the politicians whose side they usually take.
Some primary voters surely backed Trump because they thought he would be less prone to Mideast “meddling” than other Republicans, and some people who don’t always vote for Republicans in presidential elections may have found him an attractive choice for the same reason. His stance on trade drew other voters to him.
But trying to figure out what “Trump’s voters” wanted in any detail is a fool’s errand. Take, for example, this argument that “the people who elected Trump” would love for him to embrace a single-payer health-care plan. People backed him for a lot of different reasons. Some primary voters thought it was time to have a successful businessman in the Oval Office. Some liked Trump’s style.
And millions of regular Republicans who detest the single-payer idea voted for him, mostly because they thought he was likely to govern a lot more to their liking than Hillary Clinton would have -- just as they had voted for Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. He wouldn’t have been elected without them.
Is it also true that he wouldn’t have been elected without working-class white voters who want an anti-interventionist foreign policy, protectionism and the rest of what his intellectual vanguard is selling? Maybe. But many Republican candidates who campaigned on a more conventionally conservative platform ran ahead of him in their states.
I’m one of those voters who don’t have strong views on what to do about Syria. I’m inclined to oppose the airstrikes along with Coulter et al. The fact that a lot of Republican voters seem to be indifferent or opposed to the ideas of prominent Trump supporters, just as they were to the ideas of the conservatives those supporters seek to supplant, isn’t an indictment of those ideas. They should just keep in mind that most voters don’t have ideological commitments -- which helps explain why politicians will almost always disappoint those who do.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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