In the wake of the GOP convention, there could be little doubt that the party remained in deep turmoil, especially in contrast to the Democrats. Sure, they had their own deep divisions as well, but with a far more civilized, content-rich process leading to unified public display of shared moral purpose, presented by a stellar cast of officeholders, activists and celebrities folks actually know, rather than sort of remember.
Meanwhile, the GOP was supposedly wracked by a revolution upsetting decades of conservative orthodoxy. No past GOP presidents or nominees showed up for the convention, except for the almost-forgotten Bob Dole, and a long list of conservative pundits have denounced Trump and refused to support him as the GOP nominee. There's no end to the furor over how Trump has remade the GOP, including complaints — from Erick Erickson, Ron Paul, the National Review and Damon Linker on the right-of-center to Robert Reich on the left — that he's an authoritarian, not a conservative. But authoritarianism has been tied to the GOP for quite some time. In fact, a chart of state results in 2004, from "Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics," by political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler shows how overwhelmingly important authoritarian attitudes — revealed in parenting — were:
As the authors explained:
Of course, we do not argue that preferences for disciplining children are causally related to individuals' vote choice. It is absurd to think that spanking children led people to vote Republican in 2004 ... Instead, support for spanking likely emanates from a particular worldview which has a range of ramifications, including political ones.
By worldview, we mean a set of connected beliefs animated by some fundamental, underlying value orientation that is itself, connected to a visceral sense of right and wrong. Politics cleaved by a worldview has the potential for fiery disagreements because considerations about the correct way to lead a good life lie in the balance. Specifically, we demonstrate that American public opinion is increasingly divided along a cleavage that things like parenting styles and "manliness" map onto. We will call that cleavage authoritarianism.
One striking piece of evidence in the book came from comparing the results of two Pew surveys, in 2003 and 2007, which showed a significant (5.2 point) increase in polarization on a set of authoritarian-structured values and preferences, such as “There are clear guidelines about good and evil,” and “Newcomers threaten traditional American customs.” At the same time polarization decreased 1.9 on a set of traditional political values and preferences, including economic ones, such as “Government must take care of those who can't care for themselves.”
In short, this worldview shift had nothing to do with the primary concerns of fiscal conservatives — many of whom, after all, are libertarian on social issues — but it was far from being incoherent. And it was already well under way before the financial crisis and 2008 election, much less the emergence of the Tea Party and Donald Trump — both pulling the GOP in a distinctively more nativist and protectionist direction, more in line with paleoconservative ideology, represented by figures like Phyllis Schlafly, Paul Weyerich, William Lind, Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan.
Yet, at the same time, state-level presidential election results — and early polling this year — show remarkably little evidence that voters are moved, as these changes remain quite modest, Princeton neuroscientist and election analyst Sam Wang pointed out in early June, at his Princeton Election Consortium site. It's as if Trump switching the party from one brand of conservatism to another had less impact than the introduction of “New Coke.” Or maybe not.
“There are more undecideds this year than four years ago, and Trump is running way behind Romney in red states from 2012,” Wang told Salon. “It is consistent with the possibility of a major enthusiasm gap among Republican voters, especially in states where being Republican is the norm.”
So perhaps Trump is the "New Coke"? We'll have to wait and see. But in early July Wang's 2016/2012 comparison looked like this:
“There is remarkably little reshuffling, which means that partisan divides are where they've been for the last few elections,” Wang said, as the Democratic Convention got under way. “There are some changes at the margins,” he said, with Pennsylvania trending more Republican and Virginia more Democratic, “but overall things look pretty similar.”
Of course, this doesn't mean things can't change in the months ahead. But so far, there's surprisingly little sign that voters are much impacted by ideological turmoil that's roiling the GOP and frightening groups Trump has targeted. Which reinforces the notion that the underlying worldview is a lot more important than the precise niceties of ideology.
Another voice supporting this notion is cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose 1996 book "Moral Politics" (my review) first advanced the idea that differences in child-rearing attitudes structure the ideological divide in our politics: “strict father” conservatives, and “nuturant parent” liberals, each of which could result in different sorts of ideological flavors. In early March, before the GOP primaries ended, Lakoff wrote an explanation of how Trump's style of politics fit into the strict father worldview. In particular, he noted:
In a world governed by personal responsibility and discipline, those who win deserve to win. Why does Donald Trump publicly insult other candidates and political leaders mercilessly? Quite simply, because he knows he can win an onstage TV insult game. In strict conservative eyes, that makes him a formidable winning candidate who deserves to be a winning candidate. Electoral competition is seen as a battle. Insults that stick are seen as victories — deserved victories.
One more point is worth noting. Utah is a state where Trump has lost a lot of GOP support. It's a clear outlier in Wang's chart. But it's also an outlier in the 2004 chart from Hetherington and Weiler. In a footnote, they call attention to Utah, saying its outlier status may be “because the Mormon Church, a dominant force in the state, is quite conservative politically but makes it clear to members that they should not employ corporal punishment.”
The November election is still a long ways off. But don't be surprised if Trump's radicalism has less impact than it might seem to warrant. Despite what conservative elites want to believe, he's not nearly as different from them as they'd like to pretend. There's a wealth of historical data to prove it. And just like Trump, they'll almost certainly continue to ignore it.