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Opinion Why Republican attacks on Donald Trump are missing the mark

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

As a number of folks (myself included) have pointed out, one interesting thing that the Donald Trump phenomenon has revealed is that a lot of GOP voters do not necessarily believe that idealized notions of free markets and limited government contain the keys to their economic salvation.

Today political scientist Alan Abramowitz has published some new research that sheds a bit more light on this dynamic. Abramowitz conducted a poll of 1,000 Republican voters nationwide, and found a strong correlation between support for Trump — and support for protecting entitlements, and raising taxes on the rich.

The poll found:

Fully 68% of Republican voters were opposed to cutting spending on Social Security and Medicare to reduce the deficit, 56% favored raising taxes on households with incomes above $250,000, and 39% favored raising the minimum wage.

The poll also found that a bare majority of Republicans — 51 percent — who tended to support those positions also rated Trump highly. By contrast, among those Republicans who did not tend towards those views, only 23 percent rated him highly.

The poll also tested Republican support for what Abramowitz labeled “nativism,” which was gauged by asking respondents whether they support a variety of Trump’s proposals on immigrants and Muslims. It found:

Nativism was measured by three questions asking respondents to agree or disagree with a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, a proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border, and a proposal to deport all illegal immigrants currently living in the United States….
Fifty-one percent of Republican voters strongly favored building a wall along the Mexican border, 57% strongly favored deporting illegal immigrants, and 37% strongly favored a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. Fully 28% of Republican voters strongly favored all three of these proposals.

Among those Republicans who tended towards these “nativist” views, 60 percent ranked Trump highly. Among those who tended against those views, only 16 percent ranked Trump highly.

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Abramowitz’s conclusion is partly that Trump support is driven heavily by a combination of nativism and support for Trump’s unorthodox (for Republicans, anyway) economic positions. (There’s a lot more to his argument, which you can read right here.)

One of the best explanations I’ve heard for Trump’s appeal comes from this Post story, which describes a private conversation between conservative scholar Henry Olsen and a senior adviser to Marco Rubio. As the Post relays it, Olsen suggested to Rubio’s adviser that to better combat Trump, Rubio should develop a “message with a more visceral appeal to working-class Americans who feel left behind,” one that would signal that “he’s got their backs.”

If all this is right, then Trump is somehow conveying to these working class Republicans that he has their backs by vowing to crush the dark forces that apparently make them feel threatened economically and physically (immigrants, Muslims), while also vowing not to touch the entitlements of aging Republicans. Also key to Trump’s message is that he’d make better deals on their behalf — better trade deals, and better deals with Congress. He’d run government in a smart way, not a stupid way. He does not argue that all dealmaking is bad, just that dumb dealmaking is bad. Trump’s message isn’t anti-government. It’s anti-bad government and anti-dumb government. (Obviously liberals would argue that mass deportations and a ban on Muslims are bad and dumb government, while they might be more inclined to agree with him on entitlements.)

The point is that, in a general sense, Trump is not telling these voters that free markets and rolling back government are the answer to their economic problems — and this represents a break with the sort of limited government conservatism that mostly animates his GOP rivals. He is breaking with his rivals both in this way and in his virulent, explicit xenophobia, as expressed in the vow of mass deportations and a Muslim ban. Yet he’s succeeding with a lot of Republican voters, anyway. It’s hard to say which of these is more responsible for his success; Abramowitz concludes from his research that the mix of these policies, and the way they scramble traditional ideological categories, help account for his success. This persuades GOP voters that he “has their backs.”

Interestingly, taxes on the wealthy figure into this, too. Remember, last fall, Trump repeatedly made the argument that he would tax the rich in a way his GOP rivals would not, as his popularity and notoriety among Republicans rose. That turned out to be a scam — Trump’s tax plan, it turned out, would instead lavish a huge windfall on top earners. As Abramowitz’s research shows, pointing this out would be a potent argument against Trump, since a lot of Republicans who support higher taxes on the rich also have gravitated towards Trump (apparently they are unfamiliar with his actual plan), so that might undermine faith that he “has their backs.” But, as Jonathan Chait points out, Republicans who are trying to Stop Trump cannot make this case against him, because all of them favor tax policies that would do pretty much the same thing.

Meanwhile, Stop-Trump Republicans are constrained from attacking Trump in all the ways that his plans actually do deviate from conservative orthodoxy. They aren’t attacking him for refusing to touch the entitlements of aging Republicans or for being critical of bad free trade deals. If Abramowitz is right, that’s because a lot of Republican voters like the fact that he deviates from conservative orthodoxy on economic questions. Nor can the Stop-Trumpers attack his nativism, because, after all, a lot of Republican voters appear to agree with that, too. So they are going after his murky business dealings, his cluelessness about policy and government (though they keep that very general), and his disgusting personal conduct. That might prove to be enough to derail him. But right now, it doesn’t look like it will be enough.


UPDATE: The new study cited above was authored not just by political scientist Alan Abramowitz, but also by Ronald Rapoport and Walter Stone.