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The Three Types of Trump Supporters and the Future of the GOP Tent

By  |  September 2, 2016, 04:00am  |  @josh_hammer


Two of the National Review stalwarts have recently opined on how to reconcile the GOP and move forward in a post-Trump world.  I’d like to explain the analytical framework that I see jointly emerging from their two pieces, and explain how I see the three distinct types of Trump supporters fitting into that broader framework.  For purposes of this post, I am going to assume that Donald Trump loses to Hillary Clinton—which RealClearPolitics still shows in both a two-way and a four-way matchup, which the 538 gurus peg as about a three-fourths chance of happening, and which I personally—for whatever it may be worth—would put at an even higher likelihood than three-fourths.  If Trump does somehow win, I sincerely hope that this analysis still holds; but the balance of power within right-of-center circles would dramatically shift, and I would thus be much more skeptical.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an incisive pundit with whom I am friendly, wrote about the henceforth tripartite divide of the broader GOP tent: (1) establishmentarian/Chamber of Commerce types, (2) Ted Cruz/Mike Lee-style doctrinaire constitutional conservative types (I am purposely eschewing the term “Tea Party,” as that term has likely gotten muddled beyond all hope of repair), and (3) what Ramesh calls the core “working-class nationalist” vote.  The lattermost group, which Trump dominated in the primaries, has non-negligible overlap with the “alt-right”; but, importantly, they are not one and the same.  Since anti-Trump conservatives cannot ignore the fact that Trump won mostly plurality support throughout the primaries, Ramesh wisely cautions those conservatives from attempting to completely write off the “working-class nationalist” vote:

Republicans should take a second path: Try to appeal to Trump voters on the basis of their reasonable views while rejecting the rest.  Henry Olsen, writing about these voters in National Review this spring…pointed out that Republicans in the past have been able to integrate the theme of national solidarity, which these voters cherish, with other conservative themes, such as individual initiative.  Doing so in the future will require some policy adjustments.  Doubling the number of low-skilled immigrants we accept, for example, should be off the table for Republicans.  Prior to those shifts, though, should be a change in outlook.  Republicans need to do a better job of keeping in mind that not all of their voters have college degrees, or care about corporate-income-tax rates, or find the example of Ronald Reagan immediately compelling.

On a related note, Jonah Goldberg wrote about the need “to John Birch the alt-right.”  I have privately been saying much the same to friends for months now, and I am grateful to Jonah for spelling out the case in such a clear and straightforward manner.  Just as William F. Buckley, Jr. famously once purged the Birch-ers and anti-Semites from the then-incipient conservative movement, so must we attempt to purge the nefarious segments of the core “alt-right” today.  Doing so, of course, is not easy; Jonah admitted as much in his excellent Wednesday radio interview with Hugh Hewitt.

In an ideal world, the modern conservative movement would issue a new Sharon Statement of principles; the obvious problem is that the movement today lacks a singularly towering and unifying public figure as synonymous with the movement as was Buckley when the original Statement was drafted in 1960.  The only three names who come to mind as being within the realm of possible consideration are Robert P. George, Harvey Mansfield, and maybe Leon Kass; but, as brilliant as each of these men are (and I say this as someone friendly with Professor George and who once had the pleasure of introducing Professor Mansfield at a Federalist Society event), each is too academe-centric by vocation and concomitantly lacking in the instant name recognition that Buckley achieved through more popular media like National Review and Firing Line.  Lacking a new Buckley, then, such modern-day purging would have to happen organically, from the ground up—perhaps fittingly, as the case may be, for an intellectual movement with no small degree of fealty to Hayekian “spontaneous order” principles.

In reconciling Ramesh and Jonah’s articles—both of which I think are spot-on—we thus arrive at a mild conundrum.  Ramesh is no doubt correct that simply hoping Trump’s core voters will go away will not suffice.  But Jonah is also no doubt correct that the true “alt-right,” with all of its execrable white nationalist/racist/anti-Semitic baggage, must be wholly expunged from inclusion in any morally serious intellectual movement.  To ensure that all readers are on the same page, I will quote Jonah’s explanation of what I have been calling the “true ‘alt-right,'” since I think it is a very good one:

There is a diversity of views among the self-described alt-right.  But the one unifying sentiment is racism—or what they like to call “racialism” or “race realism.”  In the words of one alt-right leader, Jared Taylor, “the races are not equal and equivalent.”  On Monday, Taylor asserted on NPR’s “Diane Rehm Show” that racialism—not religion, economics, etc.—is the one issue that unites alt-righters.

If you read the writings of leading alt-righters, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion.  Some are avowed white supremacists.  Some eschew talk of supremacy and instead focus on the need for racial separation to protect “white identity.”  But one can’t talk about the alt-right knowledgeably without recognizing their racism.

The issue, then, frankly becomes one of delineating amongst different types of Trump supporters.  The necessary cuts—pursuant to this more decentralized, less leader-driven purge—must occur somewhere on the margin between the true “alt-right” and the more mainstream Trump supporters merely sympathetic to a more overtly nationalist, populist, Pat Buchanan-esque message.  I see three distinct types of Trump supporters, and I see the necessary cutoff point—from the perspective of proper inclusion in a post-Trump GOP coalition—as occurring between groups (2) and (3).  There are clearly borderline cases; the framework is hardly scientific.

1. Those Who Would Only Reluctantly Vote for Trump to Try to Save SCOTUS, or Because He Is Perhaps Less Terrible Than Hillary Clinton – Though I am firmly #NeverTrump and have thus arrived at a different conclusion, I sympathize with these voters.  Heck, when the emotional sting of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death was still raw, I wrote that I was one of these voters.  (That changed quickly.)  And while I have explained why Trump’s SCOTUS judges list is irrelevant and have described Trump as having a 10-15% chance of being an actual would-be fascist, the reality remains that Hillary Clinton is irredeemably putrid at not just formulating public policy, but frankly at doing pretty much everything in life.  She is a living, breathing dumpster fire, and I strenuously oppose her unique brand of evil.  For those who—incorrectly, in my view—truly do view the election as a binary choice, voting for Trump is a perfectly defensible option.  I do not begrudge these voters; heck, I even have many indisputably conservative friends who will be doing precisely this in November.  These voters are clearly an integral part of the conservative movement, and thus are also part of the post-Trump GOP coalition.

2. Legitimate Trump Supporters Who Are Rational, Reasonable People – I am not sure I can easily conjure up a pithier title for this specific subgroup of Trump supporters.  This group primarily refers to Republicans who supported Trump in the primaries and still strongly support him now, but who demonstrably fall short of being tinged with the ugly, largely racist stain of being “alt-right.”  There are also some borderline cases between groups (1) and (2); for example, while my friend Joel Pollak at Breitbart probably—I’m not quite certain, but I can say probably—supported a different candidate (likely Cruz) during the primaries, Joel has become so publicly pro-Trump in the general election so as preclude him from being included in the “reluctant voter” camp of group (1).  Similarly, Michelle Malkin would probably be in the group (1)/group (2) borderline.  For that matter, so would millions of Republican primary voters who supported other candidates but would happily—i.e., not reluctantly, or out of desperation—pull the lever for Trump over Hillary Clinton.

Others here in group (2) are true-believing Trump supporters—many of whom have previously been active in GOP circles and are simply more receptive to a more overtly nationalist, populist, Buchananite/paleoconservative message.  An example here would be my friend A.J. Delgado, who is so close to the Trump camp that she frequently appears on Fox News—most often Sean Hannity’s show—as a “Trump campaign surrogate.”  A.J. has been active in GOP circles for years, and even has a National Review byline; she is without question a capital-“R” Republican, and she has either an inner conservative philosophical core or something not too different from that.  Now, I think A.J. clearly went wayward this cycle by hopping on the Trump bandwagon so early, but she is a rational actor without a hint of racism or any other “alt-right”-tainted faults.

I have used harsh language—for example, “Branch Trumpidian” and “personality cultist”—to describe Trump’s hardcore supporters, but I actually really respect A.J.  Erick is fond of noting how conservatives and progressives must be able to sufficiently compartmentalize politics and their personal lives so as to be able to enjoy a friendly meal or conversation with someone of a different political persuasion.  I feel the same way about Trump supporters like A.J., with whom I had a pleasant message exchange just yesterday where we both expressed mutual respect.  Just as pro-lifers and pro-choicers can still be friends while acknowledging they disagree on a moral issue of the most profound importance, so can pro-Trump and anti-Trump conservatives reach a similar level of mutual understanding.  These reasonable pro-Trump folks can view me as making a grave moral mistake by being so resolvedly #NeverTrump; similarly, I can (and do) question the instincts and intentions of all those who did not line up unapologetically behind Ted Cruz when the GOP had its make-or-break referendum between constitutional conservatism (Cruz) and nationalist populism (Trump), and lamentably chose the latter.  But as long as these substantive disagreements are hashed out without animus—or, as the case may be on Twitter, without frequent invocations of the useless slur, “cuckservative”—then they are fair game.

Whether folks here are more borderline group (1)/group (2) cases (e.g., Joel or Michelle) or truer group (2) cases (e.g., A.J., or likely Laura Ingraham), they are still not at all tainted by the white nationalist/racist/anti-Semitic features inherent in the truer, purer “alt-right,” and they thus are unambiguously a crucial part of the prospective post-Trump GOP coalition.

3. The Actual “Alt-Right” – A lot of this unfortunate group can be easily identified using the crude method made famous by Justice Potter Stewart in his concurring opinion of the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of Jacobellis v. Ohio, which dealt with the identification of obscene material: “I know it when I see it.”  Oftentimes, we are talking about really fringe actors here.  David Duke would obviously belong here.  So would all the Trump supporters at the openly neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website.  So would all the white nationalist/”race realism” groups affiliated in some capacity with the aforementioned Jared Taylor, including American Renaissance, New Century Foundation, and the National Policy Institute.

The website VDARE, perhaps the most well-known of all the white nationalist outlets in that most unfortunate corner of the Internet, would also belong here.  Though the site tries to present itself as more mainstream, it routinely traffics in “race realism” and anti-Semitism.  (It is worth noting that VDARE tweets actually were not vetted by the RNC and were featured inside Quicken Loans Arena at the Cleveland convention, which says something about the specific influxes of passionate support Donald Trump induces and also hopefully means some intern or two at the RNC were fired on the spot.)

Funny—or really not so funny—anecdote about VDARE involving yours truly, actually.  A few weeks ago, I tweeted to Hugh Hewitt about the need for a Buckley-style purge of the “alt-right.”  VDARE saw my tweet and quoted it in defending the very Birch-ers whom Buckley purged long ago.  Less than twelve hours after unfortunately having my tweet quoted by VDARE (and thus making it visible to all accounts who follow VDARE’s Twitter account), I began being harassed by a prominent white nationalist Twitter account with 80,000+ Twitter followers.  I quickly blocked the account, but as I discovered the harassment while lying in bed overnight, the damage was largely done.  Over the next twelve hours, I received in my Twitter “@ mentions” some of the worst anti-Semitism I have ever received in my life.  I had to block and/or mute dozens of anonymous Twitter eggs and accounts with anti-Semitic caricatures as their avatars—all of whom were sure to have “#MAGA” (“Make America Great Again”) and/or something to do with either “cuckservatives” or Jews in their account bio descriptions.  Truly terrible stuff—but no one who has closely followed some of the crazies that the Trump campaign has brought out of hiding should be unfamiliar with this horrible phenomenon, by now.  And, for me, it was all thanks to VDARE intercepting my tweet to Hugh Hewitt.

Other situations here in group (3) are less clear-cut, and there exist real borderline cases between groups (2) and (3).  An interesting example is Ann Coulter, perhaps the most hardcore Trump fan idolator under the sun.  I’m honestly not sure what there is to say about Ann Coulter that hasn’t already been written at some point this cycle, but it is simply astounding that she tweeted this during Trump’s immigration speech Wednesday night in Phoenix and we cannot be sure whether she was deadly serious or was just merely trolling.

Coulter, of course, was formerly a huge fan of Republicans like Chris Christie and Mitt Romney, and was more or less a fixture in GOP establishment circles before becoming a leading spokesperson for the “immigration is literally the only issue that matters” position.  I mean, she actually tweeted this a little over a year ago.

I’ve never been much of a fan of Coulter, but I do not claim to know what is in her heart.  I do know that she has a pretty extensive VDARE author byline—though the articles there appear to just be her nationally syndicated columns.  Someone in a similar borderline group (2)/group (3) borderline position would be Milo Yiannopoulos, who serves as de facto “alt-right” apologist and actually tweeted some legitimately anti-Semitic things—including toward his former Breitbart colleague Ben Shapiro, upon the recent birth of Shapiro’s baby boy—before having his Twitter account suspended.  Again, I do not claim to know what is in Milo’s heart.  But people like Coulter and Milo so purposefully and conspicuously fan the flames of legitimate “alt-right”-ers so as to warrant immediate suspicion about their future role in any post-Trump GOP coalition.

Then there are people like the Trump supporter who Ted Cruz memorably confronted the day before the fateful Indiana primary.  Remember the guy who repeatedly just yelled “Lyin’ Ted” at Cruz’s face as Cruz attempted to hold a substantive conversation with him on the issues?

This Indiana man probably represents a lot of Trump supporters, unfortunately.  They don’t obviously fit neatly into the framework here, without knowing more information.

The best I can say about those here in the group (2)/group (3) borderline category is to evaluate on a case-by-case basis.  As a rule of thumb, it is incumbent upon post-Trump conservatives to try to pull people such as the Indianan “Lyin’ Ted”-yelling Trump supporter closer to group (2) and away from group (3).  Conservatives can try to persuade these Trump supporters—without even knowing precisely where they stand on racial issues—on the merits that they must reject actual racists and white nationalists, but that their frustrations with a feckless GOP establishment that is overly obsessed with white-collar issues such as corporate income tax rates and not focused enough on blue-collar issues such as stagnant middle-class wages are worthy and appropriate.  We should always first try the best we can to pull fringe/borderline cases back into the tent before attempting to purge anyone.  Given the emotional salience of the immigration issue this cycle, perhaps those best suited to make this argument are anti-Trump border hawks such as myself.  But, crucially, if actual racist, white nationalist, or anti-Semitic sentiment is detected, then the person cannot be part of the GOP coalition—period.

I’m just not sure, unfortunately, if there are any brighter lines to draw, or any clearer guidance to be had.  Frankly, the fact that a prominent pundit like Coulter finds herself in limbo is itself revealing.  And, in general, hopefully the wisdom of the crowd can sort out these borderline cases in true Hayekian “spontaneous order” fashion.

***************

Ramesh Ponnuru is absolutely correct that anti-Trump conservatives must not attempt to purge all of Trump’s supporters from the post-Trump GOP coalition.  And Jonah Goldberg is also absolutely correct that the nefarious, actually racist segments of Trump supporters—comprising the true “alt-right”—must be purged from the coalition and left to wither away on the proverbial ash heap of history.  Without a Buckley figure to lead the way, reconciling these two truisms will require serious, grassroots-oriented, ground-up deliberative work from what remains of the ethereal conservative movement.  In my framework here, groups (1) and (2) are clearly acceptable, with the sole point of contention thus being the need to delineate between the legitimate GOP coalitionists in group (2) and the repugnant racists in group (3).  Oftentimes, those lines are clear enough, but sometimes they are not.  It is in that murky area that conservatives must work together and utilize their collective discernment to weed out the miscreants, malcontents, and apostates.  It is what Buckley and Russell Kirk themselves would have wanted.