As a candidate for the Republican nomination for the presidency, Donald Trump has succeeded far beyond what most politicians and commentators thought possible, and he seems to be on track to continue succeeding. Those conservatives and Republicans who regard Trump as a problem need to consider—or perhaps reconsider—the causes of his success. Without such an inquiry it is difficult to see how he could be stopped.
One common explanation of Trump’s success is that his supporters are irrational. Many conservative commentators have observed that Trump’s legions stick with him, even in the face of repeated explanations of his many deficiencies. Many of Trump’s supporters are traditionalist conservatives and Evangelical Christians, but they are evidently willing to overlook his multiple marriages, his unseemly public rhetoric, and his past support for abortion. Many others are “tea party” conservatives, but they are evidently willing to overlook his open defense of eminent domain and government entitlements. What is this except the unreasoning fanaticism of people who have been entranced by celebrity?
This explanation of the Trump phenomenon has the advantage of relieving his rivals of any responsibility for their failure to beat him. After all, how can you persuade irrational people? It has the disadvantage, however, of being rather impolitic. In 2012, the Republican Party lost the presidency by four points and five million votes. The party, and the conservative coalition that it represents, cannot afford to spurn voters. It needs Trump’s supporters, or at least some of them, in order to compete for the presidency in 2016—and telling people they are crazy is hardly a way to bring them into the fold.
Fortunately, however, there is an alternative account of the behavior of Trump’s supporters—one that does not dismiss them as irrational but, on the contrary, respects them as rational actors. This account has the disadvantage, for Trump’s rivals, of placing some of the blame for his rise on them. But perhaps the personal vexation they might feel at such an explanation would be outweighed by its ability to point to a way to compete with Trump and maybe even beat him.
Voters’ Arguments for Trump
In the first place, it is worth noting that, in sticking by their man, Trump’s voters show no more irrationality than is shown by practically all supporters of all presidential candidates. There is never a perfect candidate for the presidency. Accordingly, when any candidate’s supporters stay with him or her, despite obvious drawbacks, it is because they find something in that candidate that they do not find elsewhere. Such voters are not irrationally blind to the candidate’s deficiencies. They are rationally calculating that those deficiencies are outweighed by other considerations.
In this light we can see that many of Trump’s detractors within the Republican Party and the conservative movement have, in accusing Trump’s supporters of irrationality, actually made unreasonable demands themselves. They have indeed identified real problems with Trump, but they have expected that his supporters will receive those problems as absolute deal-breakers. There is, however, no reason for his supporters to be driven away from him even by his real imperfections if they find no other candidate addressing their concerns.
This brings us to the rational calculation I think many of Trump’s supporters are making. It can be summed up in a few sentences: They think that mass immigration, especially illegal immigration, is contrary to their interests and not good for the country. They think that the trade policies America has pursued for the last quarter century are contrary to their interests and not good for the country. And they think that, for too long, American foreign policy has been animated by a foolish spirit of altruism that is not in their interests and not good for the country.
Every one of these opinions may be mistaken. None of them is irrational. They depend on people’s perceptions of complex political phenomena that anyone can see are capable of being judged differently by different, but equally reasonable, people, depending on their interests and circumstances. And because they are opinions that are capable of being held rationally, it is in principle possible to deal rationally with the people who hold them through straightforward public argument.
Effective Ways to Oppose Trump
The statesman who wants to try to beat Trump on his own territory—as opposed to ignoring him and hoping he will go away, or criticizing him on other grounds that Trump's own supporters view as possibly relevant but not compelling—has two basic options. First, he could agree with Trump and his supporters. He could openly admit the country’s immigration, trade, and foreign policies have been mistaken—unduly idealistic and cosmopolitan—and therefore harmful to the country in general and middle-class Americans in particular. Such a statesman could then add that, despite this, Trump himself is unsuitable for the presidency for any number of fairly obvious reasons. Such an argument would actually give Trump’s supporters a reason to switch their allegiance.
The alternative would be to argue that Trump and his supporters are themselves mistaken. The statesman pursuing this course would try to convince Trump’s voters, or some of them, that the country’s approach to immigration, trade, and foreign policy has not in fact been as misguided as they think. Whatever difficulties or hardships these voters think they have endured, such a statesman would try to show them that these are attributable to other causes and can be addressed by other solutions.
Either of these approaches could be perfectly honorable. Neither would represent a betrayal of conservatism. Conservatism generally seeks to preserve the rule of law, and it therefore cannot look with indifference on the issue of illegal immigration. At the same time, conservatism respects the role of prudence in politics, and therefore conservatives can acknowledge that the law cannot in all cases be enforced rigorously, regardless of the consequences. Conservatism seeks to perpetuate America’s founding principles as good, and it therefore cannot help but regard the progress of those principles abroad as a good thing. At the same time, conservatives are realists who recognize that different countries have different interests and therefore that a responsible government cannot seek to promote some universal good while ignoring the particular well-being of its own citizens. Conservatives are in favor of free markets. At the same time, they would have to admit that the question of the extent to which trade policy should seek to preserve certain industries within the US is clearly a matter of prudence and not one that can be settled by a dogmatic appeal to the absolute necessity of free trade.
In short, there is a responsible, genuinely conservative way to agree with Trump on the core issues that generate his appeal, and therefore to appeal to his voters, and an equally responsible, genuinely conservative way to dispute with Trump, and therefore try to appeal to his voters. Either approach would require respecting Trump’s voters enough to reason with them about the common good and their own interests.
Trump’s Rivals Don’t Take his Supporters Seriously
Remarkably, however, Trump’s rivals have made no sustained effort to do this. Many of them began by trying to ignore him, which obviously did not work. More recently they have taken to attacking him, but on grounds that his own supporters must regard as non-compelling. Those people may not like the abuse of the power of eminent domain. They may well wish that Trump’s pro-life credentials were more solid. They probably wish that he had shown a better understanding of American constitutionalism and had a more certain grasp of what kind of judges a president should appoint. These problems are not enough to drive them away from Trump, however, when no candidate will trouble himself to talk to them about the things about which they seem to be most worried.
What is particularly perplexing about this failure is that many of the conservatives—both politicians and commentators—most critical of Trump understand themselves as trying to promote the vision of political life that we learn from the American founders. They regard Trump as ignorant of or even hostile to certain vital principles we have inherited from the founders and therefore see him as a threat to a principled conservatism. What they forget is that, for all their genuine commitment to their principles, the founders were unremittingly realistic about the fact that most people act politically on their perceptions of their own interests. The founders themselves would therefore remind us that no amount of lecturing about principles will persuade voters who think that their interests are under assault. What is required instead is a direct argument that seeks to address their interests in a way that is in harmony with the regime’s essential principles.
It seems, then, that the most likely way of trying to stop Donald Trump is by respecting his voters enough to argue with them in an open and candid way—in other words, by engaging in the kind of public discourse that is supposed to be characteristic of democracy at its best. This approach might seem hopelessly naïve to the experienced, cynical observers and practitioners of politics. But some presidential candidate might as well try it, since nothing else seems to be working.
Carson Holloway, a political scientist, is the author of Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration.