The less sense he makes, the better Donald Trump performs in the polls. It has gotten to the point where there may be a measurable inverse correlation between Trump’s performance in public opinion surveys and his coherence and intellectual consistency. While it will surely only compel his super-fans to dig in their heels further in their display of antipathy toward undefined and yet omnipresent “elites,” it is nevertheless critical to remind those conservatives who maintain some lingering attachment to the principles of conservatism that the GOP’s 2016 frontrunner is not one of them.
It is by now perfectly clear that those who ostensibly value ideological purity above all will forgive untold quantities wishy-washiness from Trump. He was once “very pro-choice” but is now “very pro-life,” and his moment of conversion is vague only because it occurred at the moment of maximum political convenience.
He backed an assault weapons ban and longer waiting periods for firearms purchasers as recently as 2000, but he told an NRA forum this year that he does not even support expanded background checks today. Again, the impetus for this ideological transition is murky, unless you attribute it entirely to his effort to win the GOP nomination.
He was in favor of universal health care and still is for nations like Canada and Scotland where he contends it works well (it doesn’t), but he is now vaguely supportive of the privatization of the expanded insurance market. Don’t sweat the details because they’re not forthcoming.
Trump has been a registered Republican since April 2012, has twice dropped his GOP affiliation, and has sought the Reform Party’s presidential nomination in 2000. But the figure in the race whose conservatism is truly suspect is the immediate relative of two former Republican presidents, Jeb Bush.
All of this cognitive dissonance renders the one-quarter to one-third of the Republican Party’s primary electorate that backs him ideologically suspect, much more so than the rest of the GOP’s 2016 presidential prospects. But seeing as that irrefutable fact has utterly failed to move the needle in the direction of principled Republicanism, maybe clarity is not the problem. Trump’s supporters will contend that “he fights,” “he gets stuff done,” “he’s not politically correct” when most really support him first and foremost because he has positioned himself the immigration hawk in the race. He promises Republican voters who are justifiably anxious about the illegal immigration problem a return to the status quo ante that is no more difficult than making a few phone calls. Those who sweat the small stuff have noted that this supposed return to normalcy would only be facilitated over the course of decades, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, house-to-house searches, enhanced policing powers, and the rustling up of even the citizen children of illegal immigrants and shuttling them onto buses, their destination unknown.
Trump fans that have perhaps convinced themselves that immigration might be the only issue where Trump is possessed of absolute conviction will be shocked to learn that this, too, is an illusion. “Can’t you just become a citizen if you want to?” Trump asked a group of minor children of illegal immigrants, a group that has come to be called DREAMERs, in 2013. He apparently repeatedly asked this question of the activists with whom he was meeting, suggesting he was shocked that they simply could not seek and receive full U.S. citizenship. “You know, the truth is I have a lot of illegals working for me in Miami,” Trump reportedly added, noting that they tend to the grounds of one of his Florida-based golf courses. After the meeting, in which the DREAMERs lobbied Trump to endorse comprehensive immigration reform legislation, Trump replied, “You’ve convinced me.” Two weeks ago, he told Chuck Todd that all illegal immigrants, including those in the group that had once won him over, have to go.
Surely, Trump backers will simply dismiss this incongruity as an example of the candidate’s politeness. Maybe he was just telling them what they wanted to hear. That attempt at exculpation does not bode well for the rest of Trump’s promise-filled platform, but you shouldn’t think too hard about it. After all, adopting positions out of convenience in order to appeal to the audience that is directly in front of him at any given moment is Trump’s modus operandi.
For example, in an interview on Wednesday, Trump declared that he was in favor of amending the tax code in order to raise taxes on himself and others in his financial bracket. “You’ve seen my statements, I do very well, I don’t mind paying some taxes,” he averred. The reason for this policy proposal? Merely to facilitate the redistribution of wealth and to advance subjectively defined social justice. “I know people in hedge funds that pay almost nothing and it’s ridiculous, OK?” Trump asserted. Apparently, these hedge fund managers should pay their fair share – an argument that didn’t carry the day with conservatives when Barack Obama made it in 2012. These are Republican values now?
To be fair to Trump, he might simply not understand the difference between a flat and progressive tax structure. That may sound harsh, but how else to you explain his regular flip flops on the issue. “You can have fair tax, you can have flat tax, you can take the existing plans that we have and simplify,” he told the hosts of “Fox & Friends” before trailing off. “We’re going to simplify; that’s the easiest in terms of getting it done. Later on if we go to a flat tax, that’s something else.” Only later in that same interview did he endorse a “graduated,” or progressive, tax code.
Conservatives who want to defend Trump’s behavior are now bound to twist themselves up into intellectual knots in order to retroactively justify the candidate’s lack of principle. In a recent interview for The Washington Post, the economist Arthur Laffer gushed over Trump’s full-throated defense of his wealth and sharply criticized Senator Marco Rubio for, of all things, emphasizing his humble origins as a candidate.
“They couldn’t make it, is what he’s saying,” Laffer said of Rubio’s often-told story involving how his parent’s immigrated from Cuba to the United States and worked menial jobs in order to propel their son to the upper chamber of Congress. “It shows me that he doesn’t hold in honor the economic success that I do. When I look at a rich person, I don’t think, here’s a lying cheating so and so. I think, here’s a guy who made it!”
How bizarre. How unmoored to anything resembling political reality. By emphasizing his family’s work ethic and the fruits of their labor in the form of his career, Rubio is telling a rags-to-riches success story. By contrast, Trump has also tried to cast himself in the mold of humble everyman “boy from Queens” who, through grit and determination, made it good. In fact, his real estate mogul father blessed him with an inheritance estimated to have been between $40 and $200 million.
At least Laffer is in good company. It seems there is no shortage of conservative commentators, right-leaning pundits, reporters, and average voters who are more than willing to fill in the blanks for Trump. There will, however, come a time when the bloom will be off the rose, and these people will have to account for their intellectual dishonesty.