Throughout the 2016 presidential race, the predominant narrative surrounding the Donald Trump campaign has been this: he is a bigoted, inarticulate blowhard whose every statement is somehow more outrageous than the one that preceded it. His platform has invited comparisons to fascist ideology, and his hair has invited comparisons to that of a troll doll. His enduring lead in the polls is indicative, the story goes, of a deep strain of know-nothing populism that’s always lurked in the shadows of American politics.
But there’s been an alternative narrative to his campaign, one that has made him palatable to not just republicans but independents and even some democrats, which holds that his litany of casually vicious dictums, puerile policy proposals, and balmy demeanor is merely canny pandering to a base he knows full well will eat it up. That his is a winking absurdity, a calculated performance to win the GOP primary, and that he will -- in a general election -- move back to a center that he never really left. That for all his bigoted bluster, Trump is really, at heart, a moderate.
It’s a storyline put forth, with various degrees of skepticism, by publications including Slate, the New York Times, and Politico, and is rooted, like all great lies, in some truth -- that the “tell it like it is” xenophobia, race-baiting, and way-right social conservatism of this and his other recent forays into politics frequently contradicts the fiscally-conservative but socially-moderate Trump of the past.
The Trump who now calls himself pro-life and opposes federal funding for Planned Parenthood, for instance, just fifteen years ago backed a woman’s right to choose. The Trump who now decries any modest gun control measures as an attack on the Second Amendment used to support waiting periods, increased background checks, and an all-out ban on assault weapons. The Trump who now wants to repeal Obamacare wrote, in his 2000 book The America We Deserve, “Our people are our greatest asset. We must take care of our own. We must have universal healthcare.”
These are not just slight changes in his positions -- these are several big issues that he’s done a 180 degree twirl on over the past 15 or so years.
But the trouble with the narrative is two-fold:
First, it extrapolates from his wildly contradictory statements on these issues that his original positions are the real ones and that anything he says now is but lip service he’s paying to the ultra-conservative base he hopes will make him his party’s nominee in the general election. This ignores the very real possibility -- or perhaps even likelihood -- that his positions have simply changed. Just as some politicians’ views have “evolved” on issues like same-sex marriage, it may well be that Trump has devolved. The idea that Trump’s political positions can’t have changed over the past 15 to 20 years is inherently flawed.
Second, giving money to the Clintons, as he did in the 90s, and aligning himself more with democrats on even a handful of issues does not make him a moderate. For all the right wing rhetoric he’s relatively new to, there’s a lot of conservative nails he’s been hammering for years now.
His stance on immigration, for example, has been remarkably consistent over the years. In a 1999 interview with the New York Times, Trump not only advocated closing the border to undocumented immigrants, but those attempting to enter the country legally. “I’m opposed to new people coming in,” he said. “We have to take care of the people who are here.” In the years since, he’s taken part in each new wave of xenophobia the way a teenager succumbs to every fad fashion. From his relentless propagation of anti-Obama “birther” conspiracies to his I’m-gonna-build-a-wall-with-Mexico-and-have-Mexico-pay-for-it talking point to his call to ban all Muslim immigration to the US, nativism and xenophobia have been baked into Trump’s political ideology since well before his current campaign for the presidency.
The same can be said of his draconian policies on drugs and crime, his opposition to public assistance, and his belligerent approach to foreign policy. It may be true that he’s never been as conservative as he claims to be, wasn’t and still isn’t as conservative as some of the people he’s running against -- but that’s not saying much. Being less objectionable than Ted Cruz, less incompetent than Ben Carson, and less militantly right-wing than Mike Huckabee does not make him a moderate garbed in a carnival-barker’s clothing; it makes him the blustery, carnival-barking standard-bearer for a republican party that’s seemed to move further and further to the right.
Whether he’s doing that because he really believes in the stuff he’s stumping or he’s espousing it because his market-research tells him it’s what his base wants, democrats and moderates should exercise some caution in treating Trump’s rhetoric as mere performance. Because in wondering whether he’s something of a sheep in wolf’s clothing, we may just be cracking the door open for a wolf to walk in.