Based on the number of articles written about them, two of the great questions of our time are: Why do Republicans stick with Donald Trump? And what happened to all the “Never Trump” people? In recent days, for example, the New York Times has published items about each of them.
In polls, the vast majority of Republicans have consistently given Trump their approval for the job he is doing – even as tariffs and the deficit have risen, even as he rages on Twitter, even as evidence of abuse of power has mounted. His support among conservatives has actually increased over time. During the 2016 primaries, my colleagues at National Review ran a cover package in which various conservatives made the case against Trump. Many of the writers are now behind him.
Yet none of this should really be all that puzzling.
The conservative criticisms of Trump in 2016 fell into four categories. Some on the right thought that nominating Trump meant blowing the election. Some worried that given his history of liberal positions on everything from taxes to abortion, he would not govern as a conservative. Some opposed the positions he was continuing to take on specific issues such as trade, immigration and entitlements. And some felt that his character – his dishonesty, his lack of self-control, his pettiness, his penchant for bigoted statements – made him unfit for office.
These arguments were often jumbled together. But events have been a sieve, and two of the criticisms have fallen away. Trump won, and then he governed the way conservative voters wanted on the issues they care most about. He cut taxes, appointed originalist judges to the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts, imposed few new regulations and rolled back some old ones. His administration has done nearly everything opponents of abortion have asked. While he has made some rhetorical feints to the left on guns and health care, he has not followed through. Trump has changed the Republican Party’s view of some issues, no question. But the party has changed his positions on more of them.
The issues where Trump has broken with previous Republican leaders, meanwhile, are ones on which Republican voters don’t have deep convictions. Take trade. While some Republican voters are unhappy about the effects of Trump’s tariffs, very few are committed on principle to free trade: They didn’t mind it when President George W. Bush put tariffs on steel, and they didn’t mind it when Trump did either. Spending and entitlements are another example. In his first term Bush increased spending and expanded Medicare, and Republican voters stayed supportive. Trump has merely said he would keep entitlements as they are, and he has even been willing to backtrack on that pledge.
Under these circumstances, you would expect the number of Republican figures who remain unreconciled to Trump to dwindle. The ones whose only concerns were that Trump would lose to Clinton and that he would govern as a moderate or a liberal no longer have a reason to oppose him, and therefore don’t. What’s left is a Never Trump remnant made up of three overlapping groups of people: those who place great weight on Trump’s character flaws; those who don’t share the views on guns, taxes and abortion that bind other Republicans to the president; and those who are primarily motivated by their preference for a more interventionist, and less erratic, foreign policy.
A number of theories have been put forward for why nearly all Republican voters are in Trump’s corner. Maybe they like his pugnacity. Maybe they share his sense of grievance. Maybe it’s a kind of tribal loyalty. Maybe they’re reacting to political correctness. These explanations are surely true for some people.
But they aren’t necessary to account for Trump’s support. You don’t have to tour the diners of Wisconsin to understand why Republicans favor a Republican president who is on their side of the political issues that matter to them. He is an extremely unusual politician in many respects, but he has simply tended to his base in an exaggerated version of what politicians usually do: He’s aligned himself with its priorities. People are naturally going to be sympathetic to someone who is on their side of the big political issues – even to the point, unfortunately, of minimizing bad behavior.
You don’t have to like these results. But there’s nothing especially mysterious about them.
Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a senior editor at National Review, visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and contributor to CBS News.