Despite being under indictment now in four separate criminal cases, Donald Trump remains far and away the most popular politician among Republican voters. He has consistently maintained a lead of almost 40 percentage points over second-place Ron DeSantis in presidential primary polls, even as more criminal charges against him were announced over the summer.
But Nate Cohn’s recent poll analysis in the New York Times provides two interesting new wrinkles. First, Republican support has plummeted for socially conservative measures like banning gay marriage, for cutting entitlement spending, and for an “active” foreign and military policy. Cohn characterizes these as the three “legs” holding up the Republican coalition since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, and all three policies had strong support among Republican voters during George W. Bush’s presidency. Trump either claims he opposes these three stances or is indifferent to them, and today more than two-thirds of Republican voters align with him on this.
Second, a large number of Republican voters who don’t agree with Trump on many of his core issues still support him. A New York Times/Sienna College poll from late July asked Republicans about Trump’s positions on trade, immigration, an “isolationist” foreign policy, and entitlement spending (unlike most Republicans, Trump has been a defender of Social Security, at least rhetorically). Among Republican voters who agreed with Trump on none of the four issues, 30 percent still supported him. Among those who agreed with him on only one issue, 40 percent supported him, and a majority who agreed with him on two or more issues supported him.
It is difficult to prove one way or another whether Trump’s popularity is the cause of Republicans’ shifting views or a result of them. But given his erratic and often self-contradictory statements on most issues, it seems more likely that his followers have shifted their views to reflect his than that he successfully slotted himself into place among an electorate already shifting on its own. In other words, Trump remade the party, or at least a substantial part of it, in his own image.
This malleability also suggests a strategy for those who want to defeat Trump. Pointing out his hypocrisy, or even countering him issue by issue, will likely have limited success. Trump represents not a set of discrete issues but a whole “worldview” that many supporters may not be willing or able to fully articulate (though some certainly are). But that worldview can remain steady in their minds even if one or two pieces of it are knocked away — just look at the way the charges against him are not only failing to make him less popular, but may actually be making him more popular.
Instead, Trumpism will have to be eradicated by a more compelling and equally broad worldview. Joe Biden presented such a message in 2020, making his case by saying, in essence, “I’ll get things back to normal.” The risk with this strategy was always that “normal” represented stagnant wages, constant giveaways to one big industry after another, and skyrocketing rent, health care, and education costs. This slow but constant squeeze, and Democrats’ apparent lack of concern about it, was part of what allowed a buffoon like Trump to take power to begin with.
A return to normal did sound appealing after four years of Trump’s melodrama and the terrible effects of COVID-19. But Biden’s historically bad poll numbers suggest that voters don’t care much for this version of normality. Biden not only let major social spending initiatives that dramatically reduced poverty expire — he is now planning to intentionally increase poverty by restarting student loans, contrary to his promise to cancel them at least in part, and in spite of extreme incompetence on the part of the loan servicers.
During Trump’s presidency, it was perhaps too easy to forget that all of that is in fact quite normal for the Democratic Party. In that sense, the ever-looming threat of Trump is useful for the party’s elites; they can do the bare minimum and scold anyone who wants them to do more by reminding them that Trump would be worse.
But for those who are serious about eradicating the threat of Trumpism, a more compelling alternative vision than “back to 2015” is necessary. Die-hard Trumpers will never be won over and simply need to be marginalized. But the ideological flexibility of even hard-core Republicans shows that many people can be convinced to change. While it wouldn’t eradicate right-wing views or prejudice on its own, there’s plenty of reason to think that an ambitious left-wing economic plan of the kind Bernie Sanders ran on in 2016 and 2020 would dramatically decrease Trump’s appeal.
Sadly, that seems to be off the table for now, with Sanders and his wing of the party apparently lining up behind Biden’s milquetoast normalcy. It’s perfectly possible that the Democratic establishment is right, and Biden will win simply because Trump will self-immolate. But it will be closer than it needs to be, and if Biden stays on track, things will keep getting worse and worse for voters. Unfortunately, for the Democrats, that’s normal.