Donald Trump is hardly running what you would call an issues-based campaign, but issues do matter in defining the contours of his support and could be the key to unlocking the future of Trumpism if its leader is defeated and ultimately fades from the scene.
Trump supporters join mainstream conservatives in being skeptical of government spending and high levels of taxation. But they are less committed than Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio voters to conservative positions on abortion or same-sex marriage, and more skeptical of the idea of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and of the merits of NAFTA.
In short, they look for a version of American conservatism that sneers a little less at the secularism and loose morals of coastal elites and a bit more at their cosmopolitanism. It's not a configuration that is personally appealing to me, but it's at least as coherent as the current conservative politics. And, importantly, it's not necessarily connected to the more outlandish, norm-violating, violence-threatening aspects of Trumpism that make Trump the man so terrifying.
Trumpism could, in theory, have flourished under a more responsible leader in the past. And if Trump is defeated, it might be tamed by some more responsible leader in the future. And even those of us who don't find this brand of conservative nationalism appealing ought to hope that someone steps up to give voice to those who do, because it turns out that if nobody credible will stand up for this set of ideas someone who's not credible will — with terrifying consequences.
What Trumpers want
Conventional poll questions asking voters why they like a certain candidate suffer from massive problems of reverse causation. People who vote for Hillary Clinton say they want an experienced candidate, because they know Clinton is the candidate with the experience brand, not because they have a deep-seated commitment to the value of experience. Indeed, a huge share of Clinton's voters are African Americans who backed the less experienced candidate in the last Democratic primary.
Dan Hopkins of the University of Pennsylvania has a data set that lets him get around this in the form of a panel study that has been following the exact same people since 2007. This lets us see not just what supporters of different candidates say about the issues now but what they were saying about the issues before the campaign started.
On the core issues of taxes and spending, Trumpers are maybe a little bit more moderate than non-Trump Republicans, but the difference is small. They are still quite conventionally conservative in preferring low taxes and low spending over the opposite. There were some indications early in the campaign that Trump was going to take economic policy in a populist direction, but he ended up offering tax and health care plans that are pretty standard conservative thinking — in line with his supporters' orthodoxy.
The difference is that Trumpers are much less committed to social conservatism, in line with previous research showing that they are less likely to attend church and with Trump's evident personal lack of commitment to religion. At the same time, they are more skeptical of immigrants and foreign trade — exactly in line with Trump's stated campaign positions.
European politics is full of Trump-like politics
In foreign countries without America's entrenched system of two-party politics, it is relatively common to find a political party that locates itself firmly on the right in most domestic matters while dissenting from the neoliberal consensus on globalization.
Some of these parties, like the National Front in France or the Sweden Democrats, have roots in fascist movements and are considered unfit partners in government by the mainstream parties.
But other populist nationalist parties, including the Danish People's Party and the People for Freedom in the Netherlands have played a role in offering parliamentary backing to right-of-center coalition governments in exchange for policy concessions. Austria's Freedom Party has served in formal coalition at both the national and state levels, and the Swiss People's Party has regularly been a member of the grand coalition that governs Switzerland.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi even managed to take advantage of a massive scandal discrediting the mainstream center right to become the overall leader of the country's right wing and serve several terms as prime minister.
All of these populist-nationalist movements tend to be inflected with controversial and racially charged rhetoric (not all that unusual in American politics either), but they exist on a broad spectrum of seriousness about governance in a way that shows the "Trump Show" and personality cult aspects of Trumpism aren't integral to the formula.
We could have had Trumpism without Trump
Viewed in this light, the core problem with the Trump phenomenon is not so much Trump himself as the failure of anyone else in national politics to raise the banner he eventually took up. Go back in time two years and you'll find many references to the "deep bench" and "strong field" bequeathed to the Republican Party by its landslide victories in 2010 and 2014.
This bumper crop of governors and senators, combined with politicians' natural ambition, should have inspired someone with a conventional résumé and real governing experience to become the candidate of anti-globalization conservatives.
But instead the Republican Party offered up a field with startlingly little product differentiation beyond superficial style points. You had the aggro Chris Christie, the hip and modern Marco Rubio, the low-key and polite John Kasich, and the cerebral Jeb Bush all selling Reagan-Bush free trade and pro-immigration conservatism, even though a large bloc of Republican Party voters were no longer buying it.
Instead, conventional Republicans all convinced themselves that a donor-friendly agenda was the only way to go. If Trump is defeated, either in the primaries or in November, the temptation will be to try to dismiss the whole thing as a bad dream. But the real lesson ought to be that if party leaders uniformly refuse to speak up for the concerns of the nationalist right, the void will simply be filled by showmen and opportunists — with scary consequences.