Can Republicans maintain a conservative-populist alliance? An interview with Henry Olsen

On February 5, AEI and the Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC) hosted a panel discussion regarding a YouGov/EPPC national survey of 1,000 self-identified Trump voters, conducted on January 11-14. In this discussion, Henry Olsen, the primary author of the survey, outlined two central factions within the Republican Party: those who primarily support the Republican Party and those who primarily support Donald Trump. These two groups form a coalition in the Republican Party in which each faction relies on the other even as the two groups are in tension.

To further unpack the nature of
this conservative-populist coalition, the two of us recently conducted a
follow-up interview with Mr. Olsen. We discussed the motivations and policy
preferences of Trump supporters, as well as whether they can be reconciled with
the pre-Trump Republican Party’s platform and the preferences of the broader
American electorate.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he studies American politics and the impact of populism. Henry is also an opinion columnist for The Washington Post, and he is the author of the 2017 book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

The following is a lightly edited
transcript of the conservation.

Bowman: Henry, I know you’ve done an enormous amount of
work on the Republican Party over the years — in particular, looking at
different factions within the Republican Party. So tell us a little bit about
how this survey came to be.

Olsen: The survey came to be when
YouGov contacted me and asked whether I’d be interested in doing a poll on the
future of the Republican Party or the status of the Trump coalition. We moved
in the latter direction — the status of the Trump coalition — and worked with
the YouGov (US) affiliate, which is based in the West Coast.

I conceived of it as a way of
answering a question that’s on a lot of people’s minds: What is the state of the Republican Party? But this
survey looks at the perspective of the voters, rather than the perspective of
the elected officials, because ultimately the elected officials are trying to
appeal to the voters. And if you know what they’re looking for and what their
current state of mind is, I think you learn a lot about how the elected
officials will try and navigate the coming months — and maybe even the coming
years.

We found a lot of interesting
things, some of which are surprising and some of which confirm what we had
already thought. I think that’s the work of any good survey research: Sometimes
you confirm your priors, and sometimes you find them challenged.

Konicki: Given Trump’s loss in 2020, the coalition between
GOP supporters and Trump supporters that you’ve described is currently insufficient.
Is it possible to bring back Romney-Biden voters while also expanding the more
Trump-leaning,
working-class populist appeal? If so, what
would this message and platform look like? And if not, which of those two paths
is more worthwhile for the GOP to take: reverting to the pre-2016 coalition or
doubling down on working-class populism?

There are really three questions
there, so let me tease each of them out. First, any party that wants to return
to the pre-2016, Romney-era Republican coalition is signing its own death
warrant. There is no way in which you can recreate that on the grounds on which
it was formed — which is to say, underplaying cultural issues and religious
issues (both in priority and in rhetoric) and playing up economic issues.
There’s no way to do that while also having a unified Republican Party, because
close to half of the Republican Party now probably cares more about cultural
issues than economic issues. And there’s also no way to do that while keeping a
large number of the Trump era’s new blue-collar voters.

People attend a campaign rally held by U.S. President Donald Trump at Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport in Butler, Pennsylvania , U.S., October 31, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

So you’re basically rearranging
the deck chairs on the Titanic and moving from an electorally efficient
minority, which can compete for the Senate and the Electoral College, to an
electorally inefficient minority which would concede the Electoral College,
likely concede the Senate, and still have a difficult time winning the House.
So that question is pretty easy to answer.

As to the second question, if you
had to choose, I think the only rational choice is to double down on the
working class, because the rising share of nonwhites in the electorate are
disproportionately non-college graduates. Republicans have a tendency, as they
have for decades, to focus on minority or immigrant groups’ professional
classes. But the vast majority of Latinos are not going to be college graduates
in the next 20 years. The vast majority of African-Americans are not college
graduates, nor will they become college graduates in the next 20 years. And
even a large number, if not a majority, of Asian voters are not college
graduates.

In fact, many of the strong GOP
gains among Asians under Trump have been in working-class Asian communities,
not in the upper-income communities. So if you are serious about looking at the
rising nonwhite population, you must address the fact that, for the foreseeable
future, the vast majority of them will be taking over, from whites, the working-class jobs in the American economy.
And that means that you need to double down on the working class.

So now to the third question: Is it possible to be Trump-plus? Can the GOP take the current coalition and grow out? I think it is possible. Now, we’re not talking about getting back every single person who voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. I think a lot of those people decided that if push comes to shove, they’re actually kind of conservative Democrats, which is what David Brooks declared in a column in 2020 — that he considers himself to be on the rightward flank of the Democratic Party. And he’s content with that.

Instead, you want to get back the
people who aren’t content with that —
the people who do value many of the things that the current Trump coalition
does but also have a personal disagreement with Trump and also may value these
things in different orders. One example I’ll give is the suburbs of Kansas City
in Johnson County, which were one of the places that dramatically moved against
Republicans across the board between 2016 and 2020. But before that, it had
moved dramatically against Republicans in reaction to Governor Sam Brownback’s
supply-side tax cuts, which did not produce the growth and the revenue he
promised after four years of giving it a try. They participated in an alliance
with Democrats to throw conservatives out of the state legislature in primaries
and then override the governor’s veto of the repeal of his tax cut.

The example shows that these
voters are interested in an active government — a limited but active government
to address their concerns. And that’s exactly what blue-collar voters want: a limited but
active government to provide the services and the protection that they can’t
provide themselves, and then gets out of the way. You adopt that as your
principle, and you can adopt policy points that simultaneously appeal to the
educated and the less educated. That’s how you grow out a Trump-plus coalition.

Konicki: I’ll accept that the GOP establishment has been out of step with much of its base on economic issues. But it also seems true that Trump’s policy preferences and priorities tended to be somewhat malleable, especially when shaped by establishment-GOP figures in Congress and his administration. Also, in terms of shaping his popularity among his base once in office, Trump’s policies were perhaps secondary to his posturing and purported willingness to “fight” — to quote a recent Kristen Soltis Anderson column.

How do you reconcile those two things? What do you say to those
who push back and argue that Trump’s appeal was much more symbolic and less
substantive than others might assume? And if Trump’s ultimate economic policy
agenda was more establishment-minded than he had originally sold, and his
supporters either didn’t notice or didn’t mind because a lot of his appeal came
from his ability to perform or be a symbol, how does that affect your view that
the GOP needs to substantively moderate on economics?

Well, it doesn’t affect my view at
all, because the conservative-populist alliance is a coalition. It’s not that
the next Republican president needs to be entirely populist — that would divide
the coalition, too. What you need are things that are prioritized by all the
subgroups in the Republican Party, prioritizing them in equal measure. And
that, in fact, is something Donald Trump did.

If you asked the GOP establishment
wing whether they liked his trade policies, they would either loudly or sub
rosa tell you no. But in fact, that’s one of the things that his populist
people liked. Whether he achieved what he wanted to do or not, they liked the
fact that he was fighting with foreign governments in order to protect American
jobs. They liked the fact that, whether he succeeded in building the wall or
not, he said that protecting American jobs for American citizens was a priority
of his. And again, that’s something that typical Republican economic policy
would either downplay or avoid entirely. And so what you need to have is a
balance between conservative priorities and populist priorities.

What most people who are still
pushing back against this balance want is to not make any substantive
overtures. They say, “If we put on an angrier tone and wave the modern version of the bloody
shirt, we don’t actually have to give populists any ground on the things we
care about.” And I don’t think that’s right at all. There’s a very thin
line to walk.

Let’s take a look: Donald Trump
got almost 47 percent of the popular vote. If you lose a couple of percent of
that, then that means you have to get an even larger share of the centrist
voters. And the more you try to appeal to them, the more of intra-party stress
you’ll have, because one of the things that you’ll need to do to do that is
appeal to things on culture that increase the stress from the party’s most
fervent base — culturally conservative Christians and people who are concerned
about the fate of America.

Again, the idea that somehow you
can turn the clock back and go back to a time when the Republican Party’s
economic consensus was between supply-side and business — which is essentially what the consensus
was, because even if they had their differences, they had very large overlap in
consensus which came through in the establishment aspects of Trump’s economic
policy — is simply whistling past the graveyard. And if they have a death wish,
they can exercise that wish, but they won’t avoid their fate by wishing it
weren’t so.

Konicki: Your point is well taken that libertarian and
establishment Republican economic policy wishes are out of step with Trump’s
base. But to come at this from the other direction, what substantive
differences are there between, say, what Democrats are offering when it comes
to economic policy and the economic policies that GOP populists would like to
see?

In other words, are you making a “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” argument, but from the Republican side?

No, there’s a very large
distinction, but it really depends on how Republicans view it. What Democrats
tend to offer is universal programs that are cloaked in the guise of meeting a
need but, in fact, extend far beyond what is necessary to meet that need. That
was Ronald Reagan’s criticism of the Great Society and the policies that
eventually became the Great Society — that the way to address this problem is
to actually meet the need and to be aggressive in meeting the need. And so
Reagan always advanced a third way between the libertarianism of Barry
Goldwater and the soft socialism of the Great Society. What the Republican
Party needs to do is understand and capture that.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is pictured waving to well-wishers on the south lawn of the White House on April 25, 1986, before departing for a summit in Tokyo. Via REUTERS/Joe Marquette

The temptation is not to try and
be Democrats-lite and offer the same thing but say you can make it cost less,
which was essentially what the response of liberal Republicans in the 1960s
was. Rather, what you need to do is offer an alternative moral vision and say,
“There are people who need help. And these are the people who need help a
lot. And these are the people who don’t need help. And these are the people who
shouldn’t get help a lot.”

The COVID relief bill is a perfect
example. The Democratic proposal is to give people who haven’t lost their jobs
and make hundreds of thousands of dollars an extra $1,400 per person. All the
studies show that the people who have received these checks in the last year
have used them to pay down their loans and save. How does that help the
economy? How does that help anybody with need? What we should be doing — rather
than mimicking this idea as Trump tended to do, because he had instincts rather
than thought — is take a thoughtful conservative populist approach, being
generous with people who need help and absolutely tight-fisted with people who
don’t.

And if you actually articulated
that view, you’d find that’s where Americans are — particularly Americans in
the center. They think Republicans don’t care about people who need help, and
they think Democrats are willy-nilly with their tax dollars and are happy to
help people who either don’t work or don’t need help. And I think if you
advance that, you would be exactly in the position where you wouldn’t outbid
the Democrats, but you would change the rules on them in a way that makes you
likely to win the game.

Konicki: One aspect of Trump’s influence on the right has
been the increased rejection of — and maybe even derision towards — Bush-era
military intervention. We’ve recently seen some populist Republican pundits and
politicians criticizing “endless wars,” for instance. So what does a
post-Trump GOP’s foreign policy views look like?

We first have to look in the
mirror and say, “Why did the United States do things in the Bush-era that they did?” They did
things because there was no overriding government that posed any legitimate
threat to the United States. Russia had nuclear weapons, and that was really
the only thing that could be used to threaten any American interests. There was
no substantial conventional military threat that any country could use to pose
any serious threat to the United States. This meant that second- and
third-order threats could be prioritized and dealt with. And that’s what 9/11
crystallized: Terrorism was not something that could topple the United States,
but it could scare American citizens and damage our interests on the periphery.
And so we focused our military efforts on that.

Let’s now look at 2021. Russia is
coming back and modernizing its military. China is now, by some measures, a
larger economy than ours (and by other measures the second largest economy) and
is rapidly building up a technologically sophisticated large military which,
while it cannot project global power, is increasingly able to project Asian
power. What this means is that we have state actors who are hostile to us and
whose power to affect our interests is substantially strengthened.

So a rational conservative-populist
policy would say, “We no longer are the world’s unitary superpower. We are
back to a cold war with other state actors, and we need to concentrate on
fighting and building alliances against those state actors.” And that means
withdrawing American troops from the periphery. Whether or not the Taliban or
Al Qaeda are able to re-establish a base
in Afghanistan is tertiary at best compared to whether or not Taiwan is
invaded, whether South Korea is invaded, or whether the NATO allies on the
Eastern periphery are subverted and ultimately invaded either by Russian forces
or by so-called volunteers who are merely Russian troops with a different
uniform.

These are the threats that the
United States faces today, and they require a substantial rebuilding of the
military and a substantial refocusing of our alliance structure to address America’s
genuine interests. And it means toning down our military commitments to
fighting tertiary threats. So you can be both against “endless wars”
and for a strong international involvement that’s properly focused on a conservative-populist foreign policy.

The problem, again, with the
establishment is that they seem to not want to be willing to deal with the changes
in power on the ground. In 2001, the United States spent close to 4 percent of
its GDP on national defense, and it now spends under 3 percent. And our
adversaries in foreign governments have ramped up their spending dramatically.
That matters, and that should mean that we husband our resources better. But
there seems to be a willingness to fight wars we don’t need to fight with
resources we can’t afford to lose rather than admit that facts on the ground
have changed.

It’s as if the Roman Empire in Trajan’s
time just decided to send all of the legions into Mesopotamia to fight for a
region that they had only recently gained from the Persian Empire and
consequently left open the Rhine to invasion from the barbarians. That would
have been foolish. They didn’t do it. They retreated from Mesopotamia because
it was a non-essential part of the empire. That’s what America needs to do now.
And if you’d find that the conservative-populist alliance would be perfectly
happy with a strategy that does that.

Konicki: What advice would you give to pro-immigration
Republicans who want to hold together the coalition, but who also still believe
in the vital importance of pursuing the economic benefits of immigration?

If such a person wants to play
within the Trump coalition while also pushing for immigration that’s
beneficial, they need to aggressively do two things. First, aggressively push
for mandatory E-Verify. As the survey shows, the Trump coalition is much more
favorable to legal immigrants than illegal immigrants. Non-legal immigration is
a problem because it invokes national security fears — if a million people can
cross our border without very many checks, how many of them are here to work,
and how many of them are here to do something bad? It doesn’t take too many in
the latter category to really disturb American society. And that’s also the
group that places downward pressure on unskilled American wages at the very time
when job opportunities for people with lower job skills and lower formal
education are rising.

Immigrants participate in a socially-distanced outdoor naturalization ceremony to become new U.S. citizens, as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues, in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 5, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

So if you want more immigration,
the first thing you need to do is say mandatory E-Verify is absolutely
essential because it dries up the demand for non-legal immigrants. Once you
have established that, then you focus strongly on a skills-based policy. And
that doesn’t mean necessarily an H-1B-style policy, which can effectively be
manipulated — not to provide skills that are in short demand, but rather to drive
down wages and reduce the wage signals to Americans to take up studying the
skills themselves.

What you need to do instead is
have a rational skills-based policy with a long-term outlook that is trying to
attract people with particular skills who are willing to settle in this country
permanently. And if you did that, you would find that the Trump coalition would
support it. Overall, that would lead to virtually cutting off non-legal,
non-refugee migration, because when people can’t find work here, they won’t
come to find the thing they can’t find.

In the short term, you would find
a dramatic decline in the number of immigrants who come in, because the vast
majority of legal immigrants either come in through family reunification
policies, which are not skills-based, or through these semi-skilled based
programs, which are in fact attempts to drive down wages. But in the long term,
we would be competitive with the countries that have such policies — like Canada
and Australia — that attract people with skills who are willing to settle here,
people with money who are willing to invest here, and businesspeople who want
to use our rule of law to create an entrepreneurial environment. So you would,
I think, find an increase in skilled immigration after an initial decline.

So deal with the social and
economic pressures first, and you’ll get what you need in the long run: a
committed group of immigrants who bring needed skills and financial resources
to the United States — as well as a commitment to the US as their new home, as
opposed to a place where they’re parking the bus to make money but plans to go
back home, whether that person is a low-skilled laborer for Guatemala or a
high-skilled person from India.

Bowman: Henry, what does the poll tell you about John’s generation
— Gen Z — and how Republicans can appeal to them?

Here’s one thing we have to
remember about Gen Z: Most people think about this generation as people like
John — college-educated whites — but actually, over 60 percent of Gen Z are
non-whites who are largely going to be working class. A substantial number of
the whites in Gen Z are people who don’t have a college degree and aren’t going
to get a college degree, and they have a very different perspective. So a lot
of people in Washington say, “Oh, we have to deal with millennials. We have
to deal with Gen Z. We have to look at college-educated whites like John who
want to go get a PhD,” but that’s actually the last group we need to be
looking at.

Very frankly, if you want to deal
with Gen Z, that means dealing with children of immigrants and children of
African-Americans who want to progress upwards in America and be treated fairly
in American society. And often, they have many of the same concerns
economically and socially as working-class whites.

Now certainly, even in those
groups, you find more liberal cultural views. So if you want to deal with young
voters, you will need to deal with them in a less theological nomenclature. But
you can address many of the same concerns. For example, Ontario’s
conservative-populist alliance won its provincial election by talking in part
about social issues. One of the planks in their platform was eliminating the Liberal
Party government’s aim to put transgender education into the second-grade curriculum. And they won the
immigrant areas. They won Brampton, Mississauga, and Scarborough — areas that
are dominated by South Asian and East Asian immigrants. They liked practical
social conservatism, but they weren’t lectured to about faith in Jesus Christ.

So I would say you have to
understand who the Gen Z voters are and you have to meet them on their own
terms. And that requires social conservatism without theological doctrine, as
well as hand-up economic policies rather than hands-off neo-libertarian
economics — making the same sort of compromises that you would make to attract a
white voter will also attract nonwhite Gen Z voters.

Konicki: That’s a perfect segue into my next question.
It’s a common explanation in Democratic and mainstream circles that Trump’s
rise — his appeal as both a candidate and president — is partially, or
primarily, driven by racial attitudes and racial prejudice. Some will go as far
as to say it’s a “mask-off” moment, where Trump’s rise was a
culmination of the Republican Party’s 50-year transformation into a white
grievance party.

Now, one response to this, at least to an extent, would be to
point to Trump’s improved performance in 2020 among certain demographic groups,
like Hispanics. So the racial politics theory is not some perfect,
silver-bullet explanation for Trump’s success. But, with that having been said,
what does this explanation get both wrong and right?

Well, I would like to start by
quoting Ronald Reagan from 1964: “The trouble with our liberal friends is
not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t
so.” You have to understand that the left has been trying to delegitimize
the right since the New Deal. Back then, they called the conservative
opposition to the New Deal fascist. This led to the rather laughable exchange
Reagan had with Barry Goldwater, which Goldwater recounted when Reagan gave him
the Medal of Freedom. He said, “I seem to recall you called me a fascist
SOB when we first met” — referring back to when Ronald Reagan himself was
a liberal.

These progressive attempts to
demonize the opposition rather than understand it were supplemented in the
1960s as people who used to vote for Democrats in the South started to vote
against them because, in many ways, there was anger over race. Then, people who
attempted to appeal to those voters without an explicit racist appeal were then
said to be talking in code. So the whole idea that the Republican Party is a
white grievance party goes back to the 1960s. And it is, again, an attempt to
demonize legitimate disagreements, not an attempt to actually describe things.

So I think what’s been going on is
this: The only people who have been unmasked in the last few years are the
progressives who view the world through their own darkly tinted glasses. And if
you wear blue glasses, you’re going to see blue shades. That’s what they’ve
been seeing — they’ve wanted to demonize the conservative and center-right
opposition for 75 years. And they think they have the evidence to do it.

A protester holding a sign against racism and hatred is removed from U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign rally at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Morgan

So let’s look at what the evidence says. The evidence does say that there are some people within the Trump coalition who hold views that we could legitimately say exhibit some racial resentment. Emily Ekins looked at data from the Voter Study Group, which Karlyn and I participated in which I actually created and directed for a while. She did a typology and found roughly 20 percent of Trump’s 2016 voter base could fairly be said to have views that counted as racial resentment, which meant that 80 percent did not. That was of the 2016 base, and we now know that the 2020 base is more nonwhite than the 2016 base. So what we would say is that the racially resentful are now a smaller share.

So yes, there are people within
the Trump coalition who have views that seem to be triggered or motivated in
part by racial resentment. But the vast majority of Trump’s voters are people
who do not share those views. They may share an opposition to immigration, but
for different reasons. They may share a concern about Muslim terrorism, but for
different reasons.

Turning to both my own work and
Emily’s work, take a look at the 2016 exit polls and do some backward math to
see what issues or characteristics were shared by virtually all Trump primary
voters. This is going to be the core of the core — the sort of people who voted
for Trump in the primaries, which would be less than half of the total
Republican primary voters, which would be a smaller portion of his total vote
share. What you find is that immigration did not unite Trump’s voter base — a
substantial number of people who voted for Trump oppose deporting illegal
aliens and/or did not name immigration as their top issue.

Yes, immigration was important,
and Trump was overrepresented in those groups who cared the most about it. But
if that had been what drove his voter base, he would have had between a third
to half the support that he had in the Republican Party. The only issue that
united his voters in the 2016 primary — the position shared by at least 85
percent of his voters in every state that voted was support for the Muslim
immigration ban. You can support the Muslim immigration ban for many reasons
besides a dislike of Muslims. Remember, he adopted this in the wake of the
horrific shooting in Paris followed by the Muslim terrorist act in San
Bernardino.

Emily Ekins looked at a different
set of works when she created her typology, and she too found — on a much wider
range of issues with a much larger voter base — that of the five groups that
comprise 100 percent of the Trump coalition, the only issue they agreed on was
the Muslim ban. They agreed on it with different degrees of intensity and
support, but that was the only thing that united all of them. And again, surely
some of them did it because they don’t want Muslims in the country for less
than noble reasons. And surely, some of them did it because they were afraid of
terrorism, which is something that surveys show across the globe — voters on
the right in Europe and the United States are more worried about terrorism and
terrorist attacks than voters on the left.

So here’s what I would say: First, take what the critics say with a grain of salt. As
Nietzsche said about the historians, “They’ve dug up what they themselves
have buried.” And second, to the extent they have described something,
they have described a minority — a small minority, rather than a majority or
even close to a large group — within Trump’s general election base of support.

Konicki: To push back, it’s worth noting that it’s really hard to measure racism. It’s often more of an implicit attitude than a policy position, and there’s also a social desirability bias that leads people to underplay their racist beliefs. There are ways to try to get around this, but none are perfect. Feeling thermometers are probably a bit too on-the-nose and therefore under-measure racism. And then there’s the racial resentment scale, which may measure things other than racial attitudes — or at least may measure things that are prior to those attitudes.

So when you say, “Listen, if you look at Trump
voters’ stated motivations at face value, you see far less racism than these
narratives warrant,” is it possible that the implicit attitudes that you
can’t really pick up in typical polls actually fuel more underlying prejudices
motivating Trump’s supporters?

That’s an excellent question — one
I’ve thought about a lot. I am working to fund some work with Emily Ekins to rethink
the standard racial resentment scale. That survey will be fielded sometime in
the next couple of months, and the data will show what they will show.

What I want to say, on a more
abstract level, is that the left has chosen to conflate prejudice and racism
over the last 15 years. Racism would have been understood in the 1930s or 1940s
as a belief in the inferiority of a certain group’s
members across the board, which often resulted in
certain types of legal barriers. Obviously, Jim Crow is an expression of that.
The left has tended to conflate that with prejudice, while at the same time
exalting their own prejudices as beyond reproach.

So one of the things we found in
the VSG survey, which hasn’t been published yet, is that Democrats have about
as negative of an impression on a feeling thermometer about groups like white
men, rich businessmen, or white evangelicals as Republicans feel towards
Muslims and illegal immigrants. Why is one prejudice exalted and the other
condemned? A rational response should be is to distinguish racism from
prejudice, and to try and accurately measure that.

Having said that, I would tend to
agree with you that feeling thermometers — which ask people to use a 0-100
scale to describe how “warmly” they feel towards various social groups — will
be inhibited to some degree by a
social acceptance bias, so it may misrepresent genuine feelings. Whether it
understates racism or understates prejudice is a separate question. And look, the
same thing is true of progressives — they presume that certain answers on the
racial resentment scale indicate underlying racism, whereas anyone on the right
would say, “Well, actually I’m responding to this because it’s testing my
view on individual responsibility and individual initiative.”

A rational scientific approach
would be open to the possibility of multiple forms of measurement error and
would be actively trying to define what they’re measuring and find ways to
accurately measure it. The academy does not have the slightest bit of interest
in doing that.

Bowman: What does your survey show about how much support
Trump has for 2024?

Trump initially starts in a very
strong position: Close to 80 percent of the current Trump voter base said that
they would either definitely or probably support him if he ran again. Now,
there are other polls outside of this survey that include the Republicans who
are not Trump supporters — those who voted third party or voted for Biden.
Obviously, in those polls, Trump does significantly less well. And there are
polls that don’t ask
“would you support Trump?” in the abstract and instead ask
“would you vote for Trump over all of these potential people?” And
his support goes down in those polls. But certainly, at this moment, I would
say if Trump wanted to run again, he would have to be rated a strong favorite
to win the nomination.

But one thing we know about
American politics is, as I like to say, the “what” — that is, the
general groupings of people around particular issues of concern — changes
slowly, while the “who” changes rapidly. And so right now, Donald
Trump is viewed by a large majority of his supporters — and probably a majority
of Republicans — as somebody who shares their values both attitudinally and
across a host of issue positions. That means that the supply side economics
people can say Trump’s one of them because he voted for the tax cut, and the
people opposed to immigration can say he’s one of them because he’s fighting
for the border wall. They enter the Trump coalition from different gates, but
they end up in the citadel regardless of how they got there. But that can
change. That can change depending on what Trump says and does, and it can
change depending on whether people establish themselves within the Republican
Party as credible alternative voices.

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts at the end of his campaign rally at Ocala International Airport in Ocala, Florida, U.S., October 16, 2020. Via REUTERS/Carlos Barria

So if the election were held
today, Trump would probably win the nomination pretty easily, but the election
isn’t held today. So let’s see where it stands then.

Bowman: To conclude, what is your top takeaway from the
survey?

The top takeaway I have from the
survey is that the conservative-populist alliance is real. It requires mutual
forbearance and understanding, but building out from it — rather than trying to
ignore the fact of it — is the only way forward for the Republican Party. You
cannot add by subtracting. That means populists can’t throw out conservatives
or establishmentarians, and conservatives can’t throw out populists. That’s the
way to division and defeat.

A conservative-populist alliance is workable. It’s already there. The way to go forward is to build from it and not to form an intra-party circular firing squad.

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