Friday, February 12, 2016

Slowly he turned*... -- more on Trump and the Nixon Pivot

A quick point: while discussions of Trump's ideology can be interesting, productive, and even important, any attempts to explain his political success using ideology are largely doomed to failure. If you are asking how Trump was able to rise so quickly in defiance of conventional wisdom, you should start by looking at the flaws in that conventional wisdom. After that you should probably focus on the collapse of substantive journalism, the role of celebrity in the 21st-century, and, my personal favorite, the effects of cognitive dissonance on a Republican base that has been asked to believe a steady stream of incredible and contradictory claims for the past couple of decades.

With that out of the way, I wanted to revisit a post from a couple of weeks ago (followed up here). Here's the main argument:
One of the things that struck me about the past two presidential elections was how completely the Nixon pivot had been taken off of the table. Both McCain and Romney dutifully followed the first step during the primaries, but whenever they tried to move back toward the center during the general election, the reaction from the base quickly sent them scurrying back to the right.

Conventional wisdom saw this in terms of ideological extremism but my take-away was quite different.  The GOP base has grown more conservative in the 21st century, but even taking that into account, their willingness to give their nominees any slack is much less than it was at any point in the second half of the 20th Century.

My argument is that this has relatively little to do with ideology and much to do with trust. Many in the base feel (with some justification) that the social contract with the party has been violated. They are no longer willing automatically to extend credit to their party's nominees.

With Trump, however, the Nixon pivot suddenly becomes not only viable but remarkably easy. He has a great personal bond with his supporters, his appeal is not particularly ideological, and he has been able to hold heterodox positions without paying a political penalty.

A pivot to the center would not even require covering any new territory. Trump's "platform" has been so erratic and unpredictable that all he would have to do would be to embrace some of the positions he held then implicitly or explicitly abandoned over the past 12 months. It would seem unlikely that significant portion of his core supporters would abandon him if he changed his mind once again and decided he was for high taxes on rich people.
Fast forward to this recent post by Jonathan Chait:
Trump’s campaign initially emphasized his nativist position on immigration, which caused him to be identified with the Republican right. But Trump has repositioned himself increasingly as the candidate of the populist, disaffected center. Even though Trump has proposed a huge tax cut for the rich, he draws support from Republican voters who are most heavily in favor of raising taxes on the rich. (They have no other candidates to choose from within their party.)

Trump’s populism has slowly intensified. "I don't get along that well with the rich. I don't even like the rich people very much," he recently said. "It's like a weird deal." He has proposed to let the federal government negotiate lower prices for Medicare prescription drugs, a plan horrifying to conservatives (and drug companies). Like other Republicans, he proposes to eliminate Obamacare and replace it with something undefined but wonderful. The reason Trump’s vague repeal-and-replace stance makes them so nervous is that he once advocated single-payer insurance, and he has emphasized, in a way other Republicans have not, the horrors of leaving people who are too poor or sick to afford insurance on their own. Trump’s shorthand description of the travails of the uninsured before Obamacare — people “dying on the street” — alarms conventional conservatives precisely because it captures the broad reality of the suffering that justified Obamacare in the first place, and which would intensify if the law is repealed. The Republican fear is that Trump’s vague promise to replace Obamacare with something terrific is not just a hand-waving tactic to justify repealing Obamacare. Their fear is that he actually means it. Trump's populist positions may place him farther away from the Republican Party's intellectual and financial vanguard, but they draw him closer to its voters.
* In case you were wondering, "Slowly I turned..." aka "Niagara Falls" was a popular vaudeville routine. Pretty much everyone tried their hand at it.

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