From the moment Donald Trump first launched his unlikely ascent to the presidency, Republicans fiercely debated whether they could consider him a true conservative. Now, there’s evidence that Trump’s conquest of the GOP is causing activists to redefine “conservatism” itself.
In a paper presented last week at a conference in Chicago, two political scientists compared Republican senators’ voting records to their perceived levels of conservatism among grassroots activists. (You can read a detailed description of the paper’s methodology here, but it’s worth noting that the surveys were conducted throughout the 2016 election.) What they found was that some of the senators with the most traditionally conservative voting records—like Arizona’s Jeff Flake, and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse—were viewed among activists as fairly moderate. Meanwhile, former Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions—whose record is considerably more moderate than many of his peers’—was viewed as one of the chamber’s most conservative lawmakers.
The explanation for these discrepancies?
The paper’s authors—Daniel Hopkins, from the University of Pennsylvania, and Hans Noel, from Georgetown— have a theory: Sasse and Flake were both outspoken Trump critics during the election, whereas Sessions was one of the president’s earliest and most vocal cheerleaders.
Indeed, it appears many of the grassroots-level Republicans surveyed for the paper—the kind of people who make small-dollar donations to candidates, volunteer for phone banks, and staff local campaigns—believed that the more loyal a senator was to Trump, the more conservative he was. Needless to say, that’s a controversial assumption in elite right-wing circles, given Trump’s open disregard for conservative orthodoxy on issues like trade, foreign policy, and government spending.