A Different Policy Agenda Won't Win Over Donald Trump's Supporters

New endorsements from GOP representatives make clear that Trump backers don't care about policy.


Gage skidmore / Foter

If you want to understand the essence of Donald Trump's appeal, look to California Republican Duncan Hunter endorsement.

"We don't need a policy wonk as president. We need a leader as president," Hunter told Politico this morning. Hunter's endorsement, one of the first for Trump from a sitting representative, makes explicit a point I tried to make yesterday: Policy is utterly irrelevant to Trump's campaign.

It's not that Trump's supporters don't have issues they care about; immigration is certainly a priority, as are jobs, health care, and trade. But even the most basic policy details are unimportant to both Trump and his fans. Instead, they are attracted to his attitude and to his rhetoric. As New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins said in his endorsement yesterday, he likes Trump because he has "guts and fortitude." Trump's supporters view him as strong and capable and direct, and that's enough.

That is why I am somewhat skeptical when I see pundits and political analysts argue, as Ross Douthat of The New York Times does today, that, in the aftermath of a Trump nomination, the voters Trump is now winning could be brought over to a more conventional Republican party candidate through the advocacy of a policy agenda.

So in a post-Trump-as-nominee landscape Republicans will face a pretty clear choice: Either continue to ride the tiger, or try to actually craft an agenda that might appeal pan-ethnically, to middle-class Hispanics and blacks as well as Rust Belt whites. And for all that I make mock of the party's donors and consultants, at bottom I'm confident they don't want Trumpism, they don't want to work for a trending-toward-ethno-nationalism party, they don't want to go through this agony every four or eight years. So I think there will be some real impetus, in the wake of a Donald-wrought degringolade, to actually try some new things — things that might not work, yes, but if they did work could actually succeed in bringing a better Republican Party out of the Trumpian wreckage.

Douthat is right, I think, that a Trump victory in the GOP nominating contest could spur panic and innovation in the Republican party, a willingness amongst politicians, donors, and intellectuals alike to experiment, and perhaps even to reexamine some of the party's most cherished and long-held ideas. And that sort of experimentation and change, born from hitting bottom, could be interesting and perhaps even valuable for a party too stuck in its ways. 

The problem is that there's precious little evidence that policy-focused experimentation would be successful at winning over the Trump enthusiasts who are currently driving the candidate's primary wins. Yes, it's true that a Trump victory in the primary would prove that sticking with party dogma on key policy issues isn't necessary to winning the GOP nomination. But what Trump's campaign really suggests is not so much that the GOP agenda is wrong but that policy agendas don't matter much at all.

Trump barely understands the policies he talks about, blatantly lies about the positions he's held and the policies he has proposed, and he has cynically switched positions enough times on enough issues that anyone who is looking for a particular policy or coherent policy agenda, or even the suggestion of one, would have jumped off the Trump-train a long time ago.

But as Hunter's endorsement makes clear, Trump's supporters are looking for no such thing. They are backing Trump based on generalized dissatisfaction with the political status quo and long-simmering cultural resentments that cannot be easily satisfied with white paper solutions and legislative tweaks.

Indeed, what many of his supporters appear to like about Trump is that he is not running a policy-focused campaign. So the problem with trying to win his voters over with a new and better policy agenda wouldn't be the specifics of the agenda but with the basic fact that it's a policy agenda.