Donald Trump is a symptom of the GOP's ideological confusion: What his success says about the looming convention battle over LGBT rights

Trump has exposed the rift between the evangelical and mainstream wings of the party

Published April 5, 2016 11:59AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Reuters/Rick Wilking)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Rick Wilking)

Donald Trump is a chameleon. To the extent that he has positions on issues, they're mostly incoherent. This has been the secret to his success: He can flip and flop all over the place but still remain appealing on an emotional level. Such are the benefits of avoiding substance – you remain a blank slate onto which people can project whatever they want or need.

Trump's ideological heterodoxy is exploding the party's core dogmas. On meat and potatoes issues like entitlement reform, taxes, abortion rights, and trade policies, Trump is as heretical as he is nebulous. No one really knows where he stands. What we do know is that he espouses (or has espoused) views that are conspicuously at odds with the GOP's socially conservative agenda. Indeed, Trump's emergence represents a departure from the Republican Party's obsession with "value voters."

The GOP has built its platform around culture war issues like same sex marriage and abortion for decades. The strategy was successful but eventually something had to give. Legislatively, Republicans have lost nearly every major battle. By any measure, the country is more progressive today than it was ten or twenty years ago. If there's a culture war, in other words, the right is losing it.

Against this backdrop, Trump's campaign feels like a mass protest: The base of the party is tired of being a political prop for the GOP, which relies on their votes but fails to translate their grassroots activism into concrete policy. Social conservatives have either lost faith in the GOP or they've retreated from the political sphere altogether, realizing neither party reliably serves their interests.

Trump is exposing the rift between the evangelical and mainstream wings of the party in the most combustible way imaginable. He doesn't fall neatly into either camp - he's just an expression of discontent. Recent Republican presidential contests have been drenched in religious rhetoric and culture war grievances. We've seen a bit of that this election cycle, but not nearly as much as we've come to expect. Trump has controlled the conversation, avoiding complicated issues and instead forcing the media – and the other candidates – to dance to his tune. On social issues like gay marriage, for example, Trump has been anything but clear. He's dog-whistled in familiar ways, saying conservatives "can trust me on traditional marriage," but he's avoided specifics.

This will not be so easy at the convention, however.

Republicans will have to decide what their official platform will be in 2016, and same-sex marriage will be front and center. Normally, the candidate leading the ticket sets the tone, but Trump isn't a normal candidate and, more importantly, he doesn't have a discernible worldview. Given his history of supporting Democrats and taking liberal positions on social issues, it's hard to imagine Trump expending much capital on this front.

In 2012, Romney's team took an active role in shaping the platform. But this year the party is facing a contested convention, with a wild card like Trump as the most likely nominee. Both the mainstream and evangelical wings of the party are approaching the platform battle with unusual interest. As Politico reports, “both sides are mobilizing in anticipation of a bitter clash over whether the party should embrace a more moderate approach to gay nuptials, in keeping with the a public that is more open to it, or maintain the hard line the party's base demands.”

Establishmentarians see this as an opportunity to modernize the party, to make it nationally competitive. Same sex marriage isn't an issue anymore – it's been decided at the ballot box and by the Supreme Court. Party insiders know this, and they're working to make the platform more inclusive. “The party's biggest financiers,” Politio reports, “have been helping to bankroll the American Unity Fund, a group that has launched a well-organized, behind-the-scenes effort to lobby convention delegates who will draw up the platform. It is asking them to adopt language that would accommodate same sex marriage.”

The theocrats who've been empowered by the Republican Party since the 80s will not to gently into that good night, however. They've transformed the GOP into a quasi-religious movement; surrendering on same sex marriage is a heresy. Jim Bopp, an activist who helped craft the party's anti-gay 2012 platform, told Politico that “Conservative forces need to understand there is a serious challenge, and they need to take it seriously.” “We're prepared for the fight,” said another influential conservative.

The incoherence of Trump and the contested convention will only intensify the platform debate. Each wing of the party understands what's at stake. No one can say with certainty who or what Trump is, but it's clear that his rise is indicative of a dramatic shift in the direction of the party. The fight over same sex marriage is but one manifestation of the chaos caused by Trump this cycle - it won't be the last, or the most significant.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Donald Trump Elections 2016 Gop Convention Mitt Romney Republican Party Same-sex Marriage