Since Trump’s election victory, there’s been a lot of concern trolling (and maybe some genuine concern) that resistance to Trump will alienate decent conservatives who held their noses while voting for Trump, but might be attracted away from him by a suitably respectful presentation of a centre-right Democratic agenda. A notable recent entry is a piece in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, which profiles three such voters, only one of whom has any criticism to make of Trump. The others complain that liberals have been mean to them, but make it pretty clear they would vote for Trump regardless. As is inevitable in such a piece, Jonathan Haidt gets a run – he’s the only expert quoted by name.
A sample of three, along with commentary from a predictable source, doesn’t tell us much. So, what can we say about the strategy of appealing to decent conservatives. A few observations.
- According to recent polling, while Donald Trump is the most unpopular newly-elected president in polling history, he is the most popular among Republicans, easily beating Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Republican leaners overwhelmingly believe (or say they do) that Trump is trustworthy, caring, well-informed and a good manager. The only favorable quality they are unwilling to ascribe is that of an even temper.
- During the election campaign, Hillary Clinton relied almost exclusively on the strategy of appealing to decent conservatives. Even her much-criticised remark about deplorables was a clumsy attempt to split the presumed mass of decents from the racist, misogynist alt-right. (While Clinton had moderately progressive economic policies, these were barely mentioned by the press or in her advertising). The result of all this was that Trump attracted virtually the same support among Republicans as did Mitt Romney. It was the failure of any significant number decents to switch to Clinton, rather than large-scale desertions from Democrats, that was crucial factor in Trump’s victory.
None of this should be surprising. Trump is just a logical evolution of the candidates who’ve generated enthusiasm among the Republican base in recent years including Palin in 2008 and a vast crew of not-Romneys in 2012.
I’ve met a reasonable number of US Republicans, and Australian conservatives, and plenty of them are decent enough in their personal lives. But there is no reason to believe that this decency will carry through, in any significant way, into their political choices. If they do, it will most likely require a wholesale conversion, rather than a rejection of Trump in favor of some more tasteful flavor of conservatism.