With Donald Trump’s somewhat surprising rise in the polls, many progressive commentators have attempted to tie Trump and his outlandish statements to a sometimes-hidden and sometimes-not-so-hidden xenophobic/racist/sexist/anythingnegativeist history of the Republican Party broadly and the conservative movement in particular. Rick Perlstein, the author of three books of descending quality chronicling the rise of the conservative movement, compared Trump’s rise with the fall of the Confederate Flag, writing, “Removing the flag of the Confederacy, raising the flag of immigrant hating: the former doesn’t spell some new Jerusalem of tolerance; the latter doesn’t mean that conservatism’s racism has finally been revealed for all to see” — the implication being, of course conservatives have been intolerant and borderline racist for some time now.
Heather Cox Richardson, an historian from Boston College, connected Trump’s popularity with a longtime Republican electoral strategy of denying reality: “Trump,” she writes, “is the product of a deliberate Republican strategy… to attract voters with an apocalyptic redemption story rather than reasoned argument.” Republicans and conservatives who are against the Trump candidacy are merely reaping what they sow. Trump is merely the latest and most gargantuan example of conservative politics in action.
The specifics of these arguments are, well, lacking. Richardson claims that Barry Goldwater’s grassroots appeal and Richard Nixon’s appropriation of new technology and media were somehow examples of Republicans denying reality. She claims that Ronald Reagan abandoned the Fairness Doctrine in order “to avoid niggling fact checkers,” instead of, you know, perhaps holding to a principle of free speech. She then lists off a number of Republicans who have either lied or said false things. If she thinks that it’s only Republicans who have issues with the truth, I think someone needs to introduce her to the family Democrats are currently attempting to push back into the White House.
In making his case, Perlstein argues that History is moving away from conservatives: “Conservatives understand that the direction of human history is not on their side — that, other things equal, civilization does tend toward more inclusion, more emancipation, more liberalism.” That’s quite a 19th–century opinion to have for a guy who is arguing against people he decries as “reactionaries.” That, or maybe he is just a Marxist.
The specifics of these arguments aside, this position — that Trump is somehow a product of conservatism — strikes me as bizarre and perplexing.
Let’s take Trump’s history. In the not-too-distant past, Trump characterized himself as more Democratic than Republican; praised Hillary Clinton as a leader; was for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants; was “very” pro-choice on abortion; was in favor of socialized medicine. Read Jonah Goldberg and Kevin Williamson (both from National Review, the most influential conservative magazine for more than 50 years) for more on Trump’s faux-conservatism. Heck, here is Al Sharpton convincingly arguing that Trump is a secret Democrat. There is nothing in Trump’s history to suggest that he is remotely Republican, let alone conservative.
Let’s take where his support is coming from. Many have theorized that people who are fed up with Washington, politicians, “weak” politicians, and the inability to do anything about illegal immigration are the ones flocking to Trump. However, this is not true. In reality, nobody, not even Republicans like Trump — a majority in his supposed party have an unfavorable view of him. And those who do like him like him for reasons other than what analysts have said. He gets his support from moderate-to-liberal voters just as much as he does from conservative voters.
The reality is, Trump is by far the biggest celebrity among the candidates for president. With his business “success,” television show, and gig on Fox News, he has a much higher name recognition than any other candidate. The best guess about his support? It’s coming from low-information voters, the kind of people who either haven’t started paying attention to the campaign or never really will.
Nothing about Trump is conservative — neither his history or whence his support comes. He is just some blowhard whose turn it is atop the pile, and who will eventually fall. It’s already started — the media are latching onto his incendiary comments about John McCain, but more troublesome to Republican voters were his religious comments in the same interview. “If I do something wrong, I try to do something right,” he said, regarding seeking repentance from the Almighty. “I don’t bring God into that picture.” He continued: “When we go in church and I drink the little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and I eat the little cracker — I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness.”
Trump understands and represents conservatism about as much as he understands and represents Christianity. Which is to say, he doesn’t.