In the course of a smart post demolishing the myth of Donald Trump's electability, Ross Douthat raises what is, I think, one of the most interesting questions of this political cycle: Could Trumpism exist — hell, could it be even stronger — absent Trump himself?
Trump’s positions won’t get a hearing with groups that might find them appealing otherwise, precisely because they’re associated with, well, Donald Trump himself.
Are there Hispanic swing voters who would vote for a Republican who promised to protect entitlements and avoid messy foreign wars? Sure. Are there upper-middle-class white women who would vote for a Republican who seemed to be friendly to gay rights and favorably disposed to Planned Parenthood? No doubt. Are there African-American voters who would support a candidate who wants to renegotiate trade deals, limit low-skilled immigration and spend more money on U.S. infrastructure? I’m certain there are.
But will any of these constituencies vote for Donald Trump? For Trump the rank misogynist, Trump the KKK-flirter, Trump the deport-the-Mexican-rapists candidate? If you read seven of Trump’s positions to the median Hispanic voter, they might agree with five or six of them … but Trump’s favorability/unfavorability ratings with Hispanics are 12/77. If you go back to last August, before the campaign began, Trump had a 20 percent favorable rating with African-Americans; by Republican standards that’s not terrible. Six months of race-baiting later, he’s winning 5 percent of the black vote against Hillary Clinton. And women … well, he’s losing women, let’s put it that way, on a scale that no Republican nominee ever has before.
My colleague Matt Yglesias has also made a version of this case, and I find it compelling. But, then, I would find it compelling, wouldn't I? I'm so interested in policy proposals that I've made covering them my job, and so it's going to be appealing to read Trump's appeal as driven by his policies, and limited by his outlandish personality.
But the other view of Trump is that his appeal is driven by his outlandish personality, and limited by his policies. In this telling, Trump's core connection with his audience is that he'll say what the other politicians won't, do what they can't, stand up where they'll back down. What's more, that connection can only exist because of the media's wall-to-wall coverage of the outlandish, offensive things Trump says. A Trump who didn't say outlandish, offensive things wouldn't get any media coverage.
Actually, it may be worse than that: A Trump who strayed from party orthodoxy but didn't offend elite sensibilities would be starved for media coverage, starved for party support, and starved for fundraising, and so would be crushed in a presidential primary.
Put another way, ideological parties tend to be pretty effective at quashing heretics, and in recent years, the conservative movement has been particularly effective at quashing heretics. Any analysis of Trump's rise needs to begin with the way he not only survived the GOP's onslaught, but actually seemed to be strengthened by it. And I think the answer to that question lies with "Trump the rank misogynist, Trump the KKK-flirter, Trump the deport-the-Mexican-rapists candidate," and the way those messages have been enabled by Trump the media-savvy, superrich celebrity. I'm not sure the Trump who occasionally speaks up for Social Security and Medicare and Planned Parenthood is an important part of the mix, and I'm even more skeptical that those policies could break through if transferred to a more conventional GOP candidate.