Policy—even good, popular policy—plays a limited role in moving the electorate. Critics of the Democratic Party, particularly those on the left, will often point out that ballot initiatives for progressive policies outperform Democratic candidates. In Florida, more than 60 percent of voters backed a minimum-wage hike, while Biden and down-ballot Democrats got rinsed.
Left-wing critics argue that if Democrats would throw themselves behind popular, populist economic messaging—things like the minimum wage—they’d have more success with some of the voters drawn to Trump. There’s a lot to that! But Biden actually supported a minimum-wage increase, and he spent some time discussing it in the second presidential debate.
What if those kinds of policy fights offer only limited returns? What if we are conflating two different issues? What if the overwhelming number of Trump supporters simply won’t vote to give control to the Democratic Party, even if the party is pushing agenda items they like? What if the driving imperative for the large majority of voters—but particularly for those on the aggrieved right—is that they want their people in control?
The contemporary GOP is on a strange trajectory. Republicans are growing more radical, extreme, and dangerous on core questions of democracy, the rule of law, and corruption, while simultaneously moderating on policy in some crucial ways.
The Republican Party is a fusion of two distinct elements with very different desires. The first is the donor class, a combination of self-serving plutocrats and genuine ideologues who are also very rich and who possess extensive and granular policy aims. Their main goals are tax cuts, deregulation, and resistance to redistribution of any kind. These goals account for the two main domestic-policy pushes during the Trump administration’s first two years, when Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House: repeal of the ACA and massive corporate tax cuts. But after failing to accomplish the first and succeeding at the second, the GOP made little further effort to legislate. The donor class is more focused on the courts, where it can achieve a huge part of its objectives; the Senate spent much of its energy over the next two years confirming conservative judges.
As for the party’s base, what policy issues are MAGA rally-goers wound up about? Not the deficit or taxes, and not the ACA. In the past, those issues gave expression to their underlying grievances, but no longer. After the election, one GOP polling firm asked Republicans about their biggest concerns for a post-Trump Republican Party. Forty-four percent wanted a party that would “fight like Donald Trump,” while only 19 percent worried that a post-Trump GOP would “abandon Donald Trump’s policies.”
And what were Trump’s policies, exactly? In a few places, he deviated from GOP orthodoxy, particularly on trade and, to some extent, immigration. Polling showed that his views on these issues were quite popular among his target audience even before he took office, so in that crucial respect, Trump did move the GOP toward its voters. But I think the lesson is larger here: As long as a Trumpist GOP is sticking it to the libs, standing up for its heritage and identity, and, crucially, using every possible tactic—including flatly antidemocratic ones—to battle for power, the modern base of the GOP is willing to accommodate, or even heartily support, all kinds of wild deviations from conservative orthodoxy. If Trump had come out strongly for a $15 minimum wage, the party’s base would have backed him.