Thursday, August 18, 2016

Donald Trump Is a Conservative—But Not Much of a Republican

The news that Donald Trump has hired Stephen Bannon of Breitbart News to take over his campaign has amazed the political press since it broke late Tuesday night. Bannon lacks the experience in practical politics conventionally deemed necessary for a position atop a major-party presidential campaign (although it is unclear how responsibilities will be divided between Bannon as "CEO" and pollster Kellyanne Conway, simultaneously named campaign manager). Perhaps more importantly, he comes to the campaign from a website that has repeatedly cheered on Trump's candidacy since before the Republican primaries began, defending many of his most controversial actions. Trump is clearly signaling—as much of the reporting around the hire reveals explicitly—that, in his view, the main problem with his campaign is that it hasn't been aggressive enough in promoting its existing message, not that it needs a new one.

One can almost feel hearts sink across the professional Republican Party. Trump is currently running well behind in the polls while suffering near-daily media crises, and most Republican leaders are no doubt desperate for him to adopt a more traditional approach to running his campaign that would tamp down the day-to-day drama, build a strong organizational infrastructure, and appeal to wary swing voters. Instead, Trump seems to believe that he has been excessively muzzled by "establishment" Republicans—personified, apparently, by now-sidelined campaign chairman Paul Manafort—who fail to appreciate his unique strengths. "I don't want to pivot. I don't want to change," Trump told a Wisconsin TV station. "You have to be you. If you start pivoting, you're not being honest with people."

Many Trump critics, especially within the Republican Party, are fond of claiming that Trump is not a conservative, pointing to his departure from ideological orthodoxy on entitlements and international trade as well as his history of inconsistent issue positions and previous support for Democratic politicians. But whatever Trump's private political beliefs might be, he is very much running this year as a conservative—albeit a conservative whose priorities hew closer to the populist/nationalist style of Breitbart, Sarah Palin, and Bill O'Reilly than the more intellectual tradition of George F. Will, Bill Kristol, and National Review. Debates over who is or isn't a member of the club are a favorite conservative activity, but Trump is solidly aligned with key elements of the American right, not the center or left, as the Bannon hiring further confirms.

What Trump is not, however, is a loyal Republican. His personal and institutional ties to the GOP are weak, and he instinctually resists engaging in even minimal displays of partisan team spirit (as demonstrated by his ostentatiously perfunctory endorsement of Paul Ryan after previously suggesting that he would not support the speaker in his Wisconsin primary election).

Republican leaders might have hoped that Trump would proceed from now until November with some awareness that his behavior could have a significant effect on the short- and long-term fortunes of the party as a whole. But the hiring of a campaign chief executive from the ranks of the conservative media universe, where the strategic concessions usually deemed necessary to defeat Democrats in national elections are often ignored or ridiculed, suggests that Trump's high-risk behavior is certain to continue. Now it's time for the rest of the Republican candidates on the ballot this November to figure out how to position themselves with respect to their unorthodox presidential standard-bearer, who cannot be relied upon to care about the interests of anyone but himself.