Elites and Public Opinion: How Trump Trumps the Party

“FFFFffffff! Fpfffffffffffffff!”

It’s mid-August, which is officially the second-worst time in the worst month for American culture or political news. (The worst time, of course, is late August.) So I’m doing what every writer on Earth is doing. Yep, MOAR TRUMP.

Josh Barro in the NYT notes an interesting and under-remarked upon aspect of Trumpism: behind all the bluster and macho affect, Donald Trump is actually a pretty squishy moderate on several issues, displaying a pragmatism and lack of ideological purity in areas that we’ve been conditioned to believe are non-negotiable for a 21st century Republican politician.

As perhaps befits someone who lived in Manhattan their entire life, Trump doesn’t seem very interested in the social conservative trinity of god, guns, and gays. Nor abortion. As Barro points out, Trump has also expressed qualified support for single-payer healthcare, and opposes cuts to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. He’s also refused to sign Grover Norquist’s silly tax pledge. Finally, perhaps most dissonant with party dogma, he doesn’t advocate smaller government for its own sake, but just says we need smarter (i.e. Trumpier) leaders in charge.

While this serial apostasy has made his opponents for the nomination furious, the Republican electorate doesn’t seem to mind. A northern candidate with his record of heterodoxy and moderation would normally be a classic New Hampshire-or-bust candidate. Yet, here we are approaching late August and not only is the “single-payer health care works great in Canada” guy leading big in New Hampshire, he’s leading in Iowa too.

How can it be that Iowa Republicans, fresh from voting ultra-reactionary Joni Ernst into the Senate, also seem enamored with a moderate blowhard from godless liberal New York City?

Part of it is the delivery. Trump’s macho affect and his deliberate rudeness “code” as super conservative, allowing him to get away with more moderate underlying policy ideas. (There is a related, but inverse effect happening with someone like Scott Walker, who holds a raft of very extreme right policy views but makes them palatable with his sheepish midwestern bland persona.)

There is also an effect at play in which ideological deviation in one sacrosanct policy area¬† (abortion say, or entitlements, or taxes) can be “made up for” merely by out-crazying everyone in some other sacrosanct issue (in Trump’s case, illegal immigration). Voters (for now) give him the benefit of the doubt on his deviations because (to them) he just sounds so damn sensible about immigration, not to mention the way he sticks it to all those…well, whomever they want it stuck to.

His seemingly inexplicable support among very conservative voters also reveals a truism in the political science literature: public opinion is shaped by the views of elites, not the other way round.

Are voters so sensitive to elite opinion? Pretty much. Most normal people don’t spend much time thinking about public policy, or developing a coherent ideological worldview. They need reliable quick cues from trusted sources so they can go on with their lives. The strongest shortcut we have is the political party. Once you do the minimal upfront work of picking a side (or you can even skip the upfront work by just picking the party of your family or friends), you can pretty reliably go to the polls, mark all the names with the -R or the -D, and know that you’re doing a decent job trying to promote your likely somewhat incoherent and not-strongly-held policy views.

We can see the strength of parties in cuing public opinion from the fact that parties flip-flop on issues all the time, largely dependent on whether they are in power or in the opposition. And their voters generally flip and flop right along with them. The deficit, the filibuster, wars, executive power, entitlements, all perfectly flippable. The two sides then shout hypocrisy at each other and we rinse and repeat. Fun times.

So parties are indeed powerful. But Trump’s success, very much in spite of universal party opposition, suggests that it’s not merely the parties themselves that matter. No, perhaps the base units for transference of policy cues to the electorate are individual trusted elites, not the party line per se. As the party normally contains within it your favorite trusted political elites, it usually acts as a good proxy in this regard.

But right now that’s not happening. For whatever reason, the GOP establishment is having a rough time claiming collective Trusted Elite (T.E.) status. And due to some magical admixture of Trump’s cultural celebrity, nativism, economic populism, and dickish affect that somehow comes off as truth-telling, he is the T.E. alpha dog right now, and Republican voters are following him wherever his truly dizzying intellect takes them. This is further evidence that people’s specific political beliefs are rather conditional, and often receptive to change at the slightest plausible-sounding justification offered by a T.E.

Now the usual caveat that this glorious Trumpist epoch of American politics could all end tomorrow, rendering the above analysis irrelevant. But for now America, today, Trumpism lives, Trump is your trusted elite, your molder of minds, and we are face to face with something commensurate to our capacity for wonder. Oh August.

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