By Brian R. Merrick
In any normal campaign season the lead story might have been a former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator and First Lady poised to become the first woman presidential nominee of a major party. It could have been a successful former governor of a major swing state, the son and brother of former presidents, languishing in single digit popularity.
Instead this year’s sensation is a bombastic, ludicrously-coifed narcissist without political experience who has stunned politicians, journalists and most of the public by holding fast in polls at about one-third of potential Republican primary voters despite a incessant string of outrageous comments about women, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, the Russian President and the German Chancellor.
Donald Trump’s poll numbers change little when he flippantly expresses superficial judgments on the issues and crude, personal ad hominem attacks on his opponents. They are unaffected when he demonstrates ignorance of the Nuclear Triad or Chinese non-participation in the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership or imagines “thousands and thousands of Muslims celebrating” in New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks.
Historically there has always been a large group of conservative Republican voters who, regardless of the effect on a general election, express and vote disdain in primaries for “me too” candidates they consider too amenable to Democratic positions on social and economic issues. They nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 and nearly replaced the sitting Republican President Ford in 1976 with Ronald Reagan who they did elect in 1980. In 1992 they gave insurgent Pat Buchanan 37% of the New Hampshire primary vote against incumbent President George H.W. Bush That is not what is at work here, however.
Donald Trump is no conservative Republican. He seems to have no carefully thought out philosophy and has spent a lifetime candidly speaking whatever thoughts – often disorganized, conflicting thoughts – come into his head. He has reversed earlier support of single-payer health care, a 14.25% wealth tax, and an assault weapons ban. He has made use of eminent domain to support private development for his own benefit. He has long played the political game with gusto, generously contributing to political campaigns – until the last few years, mostly to Democrats, explaining that a businessman needs to stay friendly with everyone.
No, the Trump followers are not the Republican conservative base. They are not partisan at all. They do not trust the establishment of either party. They have been “lunch pail” Democrats, Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and “Reagan Democrats.” They have no particular problem with Big Government, as long as it provides a muscular defense and protects Social Security and Medicare but they resent being told to stay off the beach to protect plovers or to replace their light bulbs with ugly, expensive ones.
And Trump’s followers hate political correctness. Even when they think he is over the top, as when he mocked John McCain’s heroic efforts as a POW, they generally relish the howls from the media and political class at each new Trump sally.
Trump benefits from their perception that most politicians are primarily interested in retaining office and beholden less to the voters than to those who provide financial and other support to their campaigns. To them a change of parties in Washington means a switch from one set of crony capitalists, social issue warriors and special interest groups to another. They dislike what they see as catering to government employee unions, litigious trial lawyers, race baiters and climate change zealots as much as they do big business, Wall Street and the 1%.
They are not unaware that the Trump effort, if unsuccessful, may actually help elect their nemesis, Hillary Clinton, and it may be that Trump’s followers will be more pragmatic when it comes time to actually cast a ballot. On the other hand, history shows us that polls often under-count the support for candidates who are widely disparaged as supported by ignorant bigots. Some voters will not admit to the pollster that they like the despised candidate.
Donald Trump is not going anywhere. Whether he can collect more than 50% of the delegates to the Republican Convention is another question entirely. Those delegates are not chosen by the candidates and generally are bound to vote for the winner of the state’s primary only on the first ballot.
For a political junkie this year’s presidential campaign would be fun, if it weren’t so important.
Brian R. Merrick of West Barnstable is a former Massachusetts District Court Judge and Visiting Scholar in the History Department of Suffolk University.