Lucky for me that I’ve never thought my blogging made a lick of difference to anyone or else reading this last night would have left me looking for a new job. HuffPo came up with a simple yet brutally effective way of testing Republicans’ tolerance for Trump’s ideological heresies: They polled people on universal health care, affirmative action, the Iran deal, and Social Security and simply swapped out Trump’s endorsement of the policy in each question for some prominent Democrat’s. Would Republicans like the Iran deal any better if they thought it had Donald Trump’s approval and not just John Kerry’s?
As it turns out, they sure would. For some segment of the GOP, it seems, politics is nothing more than Team Red/Team Blue tribalism. Policy differences are mere details.
Which is to say, if it wasn’t before, the “MacGuffinization of American politics” is now a bipartisan phenomenon.
Kerry’s endorsement of the deal generates a 52/20 D/R split. Trump’s endorsement turns that into … near parity, 54/53. By sheer coincidence, within 10 minutes of this HuffPo survey dropping yesterday, Charles Cooke went live on NRO’s website with a new post agonizing over how Trumpmania seems to have convinced some conservatives to discard their principles overnight. How can it be, he wondered, that the segment of the GOP that’s complained most loudly about RINO deviations from conservative orthodoxy over the past five years would suddenly clasp the biggest RINO of them all to its breast?
A handful of months ago many of those who now make up Trump’s rank-and-file were ideological perfectionists who hated the GOP’s leadership, believed to their souls that the country was becoming a socialist hell-hole, and insisted vehemently that they had sat out the 2012 election because Mitt Romney was such a terrible squish. Today, by dint of some dark and unholy magic, these wannabe purists have hitched their wagons to Donald Trump, the greatest shape-shifter of them all.
Thus it is that an array of self-described “true conservatives” have put themselves in the awkward position of supposing that an “assault weapons” ban isn’t that big a deal after all. Thus have the pioneers of litmus testing lined up obediently behind a guy whose position on Planned Parenthood is identical to Hillary Clinton’s. Thus have the Scalia-citing “constitutional conservatives” taken to lionizing a man whose primary criticism of the liberty-shredding Kelo v. New London ruling was that it didn’t go far enough. Thus have the screaming eagles of Twitter and beyond taken to contending that the class-conscious tax hikes that the America-hating communist Bernie Sanders proposes are akin to apple-pie-and-motherhood when they’re floated by Donald Trump.
Little did we know how quickly “take America back” would disintegrate in the face of a little pop culture.
“We have reached a moment,” Steve Schmidt told WaPo, “where conservatism isn’t defined by issues anymore for a big percentage of the country.” Is that true? Is “conservatism” really more of a cultural attitude now, at least in its populist version, than a collection of policy principles derived from the conviction that the surest way to maximize individual freedom is to limit government? Cooke writes of Trump’s heresies, “Honesty requires us to acknowledge that had President Obama endorsed exactly the same policies and rhetoric, the reaction from the Trumpkins would have been little short of nuclear.” He’s right, and if he’s right about that, how is Schmidt wrong? If anything, Cooke’s error is in assuming that Trump convinced people to discard principles that were dearly held rather than considering that it was something else all along about conservatism that’s been dearly held and that the principles were accepted only because they were assumed to be part and parcel of that something else. If Trump can protect that “something else,” whatever it may be, who cares if the policies that have traditionally been bundled with it get thrown away?
Two important caveats to HuffPo’s study, though. One: Trump was the only Republican they tested, a bad oversight given the assumption that he has some singular talismanic ability to move conservative opinion on policy through his cult of personality. I’d be curious to see how voters would react if they thought Ben Carson or Marco Rubio or Scott Walker supported the Iran deal or universal health care or whatever. I doubt the effect on righty opinion would be as great as Trump’s endorsement, but I bet it wouldn’t be zero either. To some unknown extent, what you’re seeing in these numbers isn’t a “Trump phenomenon,” it’s a partisan phenomenon. Tell a group of low-information Republicans that someone on their side, whom they respect, has endorsed affirmative action and you’ll see the numbers move, assuredly. The question is, by how much?
Caveat two: It ain’t just Republicans who suddenly find themselves questioning their principles when they learn that some famous political figure supports or opposes one of their core beliefs. Which party moved more in this test of universal health care upon learning that Donald Trump thinks it’s a good idea?
Republican support for universal health care rose 28 points thanks to Trump’s seal of approval. Democratic support for universal health care dropped, however, by … 36 points. How many Dems out there are true believers in the ObamaCare dream and how many are mindlessly in favor for no better reason than that Barack Obama thinks it’s a keen idea? Note too that it’s not just a matter of the sheer number of Dems changing their position here, it’s a matter of going from heavy majority support to less than 50 percent in favor. Trump’s backing can turn an 82 percent Democratic consensus into a 46 percent plurality. And if you think that’s a fluke result, try this one:
Republican support for affirmative action rises 18 points with Trump’s backing but it’s still a small share of the party that’s in favor. Democratic support for affirmative action drops 19 points with Trump’s endorsement, once again crossing from a majority consensus (64 percent) to a plurality one (45 percent). Many more issues would need to be surveyed in this way to try to draw a firm conclusion about which party has more hacks willing to go along with whatever their leadership says, but there’s at least as much reason from this to believe Democrats would win that contest as Republicans would. Any lefties out there up for some Cooke-style soul-searching about how quickly liberals drop their principles once they find out that the guy from “The Apprentice” agrees with them?
Exit question: How do you do a poll like HuffPo’s and not test people on what Trump’s support does to opinion on whether we should tax the rich? That’s probably his most prominent break from conservative orthodoxy to date, one that threatens to upend partisan polarization in Washington if it catches on. Someone test that, please.