What to make of Donald Trump’s willingness to work with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer on the debt ceiling, over the objections of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and Trump’s subsequent negotiations on immigration policy, including an alleged deal to grant legal status or even the possibility of citizenship to young, law-abiding people brought to the United States by their parents?
Thomas Edsall marshals political-science research and survey data to argue that “Many Republican voters, including self-identified strong conservatives, are ready and willing to shift to the left if they’re told that that’s the direction Trump is moving … partisan identification is more a tribal affiliation than an ideological commitment.”
The writer and cable-news host Chris Hayes aired the provocative hypothesis that Trump could sign “comprehensive immigration reform,” including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. and tougher workplace enforcement of immigration law, “with minimal losses among his base,” because the thing that they care about most is a member of their tribe being president, rather than a member of the other tribe—particularly a black man like Barack Obama, who ended centuries of rule by white men—and that has already been accomplished.
In this telling, policies that Trump’s base perceived as a grave threat during the last administration suddenly “don't have the same existential sting for his most ardent voters.”
W. James Antle III digs into the divides among the restrictionist right.
The cartoonist Scott Adams, a self-proclaimed interpreter of the president and his appeal, has long argued that Trump is a master persuader capable of moderating the views of the far right on immigration, getting them to accept reforms that they once rejected.
But what are Trump supporters themselves saying?
Intent on finding out, I tuned into parts of the Rush Limbaugh talk-radio program and read through transcripts of recent phone calls that he took from Trump supporters.
Obviously they are not a representative sample of Trump supporters.
Still, their calls convey perspectives that are useful to consider alongside social-science research, survey data, and analysis from commentators. And by virtue of speaking on that radio program, their views have now reached millions of Americans. To consider their words is to complicate most descriptions of what is going on, if only because the way most voters—and not just conservatives—talk and think strays from logical coherence.
Let’s begin with Bob from Coronado, California, who evinces a fascinating mix of contempt for congressional Republicans and a desire to elect more Republicans to Congress:
Caller: Rush, what I think’s important is that what I see the Democrats are doing is they’re willing to work with Trump. And I’m willing to give away some of my ideals as long as Trump does something even with them. That’s very disappointing, but if Ryan and McConnell aren’t gonna cooperate at all, I would rather see Trump pass tax reform—even tax-reform light—with Democrat policies involved than see the Republicans stymieing him. So I’m not gonna give up on Trump even if he starts to move to the left to get something done with tax reform. Doing nothing is no longer an option.
Limbaugh: Let me ask you something here, Bob. What if what he gets done…? Because Chuck Schumer said back in January that the only way they’ll work with Trump is if he moves in their direction, if he moves their agenda. What if that’s what happens? What if a tax-reform package soaks it to the rich and gives some tax relief to the middle class? It won’t be much if the Democrats are involved. What if that’s how it happens?
Caller: Well, Rush, to me that’ll be horribly disappointing. But that being said, if we just sit and follow McConnell and Ryan and say, “Well, nothing’s gonna happen at least until 2018…” I mean, this is an opportunity of a lifetime to wipe out about 10 or 12 more Democrat senators next year.
Next up is Ken from Marble Falls, Texas, whose faith in Trump is undiminished by recent news:
Caller: I believe that those of us that voted for President Trump because of who he was will not be dissuaded by the media or those that think they voted for him just to vote against somebody. I truthfully think he will drain the swamp, and he’s showing people that the swamp has nothing to do with party affiliations. He’s showing both sides have no core beliefs and they’ll turn on a dime on anything.
Limbaugh: Ehhh… (chuckling) It’s a challenging concept. The left has core beliefs, Ken.
Caller: Well, ideology.
Limbaugh: Yeah. They’re not yours or mine, but they’ve got core beliefs, and they are damn loyal to ’em. But I get what you think.
Caller: But my point—
Limbaugh: You think Trump has the ability to prevail against them while making them think they’re winning?
Caller: Yes, sir! I think he’s already playing both sides against each other, and they don’t even realize it. He’s a lot smarter than these politicians we have.
Limbaugh: All right. What was your first thought when you first heard today that Trump had negotiated away the wall in exchange for letting the DACA people stay in the country?
Caller: Well, when I first heard it, it came from the media so I assumed it was a lie and that they were coloring it to fit their liberal agenda.
Caller: I do not believe he will give away the farm. (chuckling)
Limbaugh: Okay. You really thought that? I know. That’s a smart thing to say; that’s what I would say. But did you…? There was no fear? You didn’t have even a flash of temporary, momentary panic?
Caller: No, sir. I really do believe that he’s playing them.
The next caller, Angie from Dayton, Ohio, shared the reason she began supporting Trump, which isn’t affected by whether or not he works with Democrats on immigration:
Limbaugh: Angie in Dayton. Your turn. What do you think about all this?
Caller: Well, first, I’m not a Trumpster. I voted for him, but I’ll get to my point. I think that he’s always three steps ahead of Pelosi, the Democrats, and the Republicans. So I think this was a power play that he did.
Limbaugh: You think this is a grand Trump strategy in other words?
Caller: I do. They always wanted to be in the limelight. They never want to be outgunned. They always want to be the center of attention. So if he moves to Pelosi and they start to work with him a little bit, he’s pushing others toward him as well who never wanted to work with him to begin with.
Limbaugh: You know, this is an interesting point. So you were kind of iffy on Trump, you voted for him anyway, but you’re not a big-time supporter. Now you’ve become one because you think he’s three moves ahead of everybody?
Caller: Well, I became a Trump supporter after the Billy Bob or Billy Bush incident, actually.
Limbaugh: After it?
Caller: Yes, I did.
Limbaugh: After it?
Limbaugh: God, I love you even more! Could you walk us through that process? How in the world did you become—’cause this is in total, total opposition to what the Drive-By Media thinks people should think and how they should have reacted. The Billy Bush episode moved you closer to Trump. How? Why?
Caller: Well, I have always had a lot of male friends. I’ve heard a lot of male talk, and believe me, women are just the same, and I believe they just threw this out of proportion. There are women out there who do this, as men who are the groupies, men and women and groupies, and there are women who allow this. And to think that, oh, my gosh, men don’t talk like this, women don’t do this, women don’t talk like this, men aren’t groupies. It’s absurd, and I think it was sort of nitpicky, and it threw me.
Tammy in Naples, Florida, suggested that her friends and extended family all have basically the same attitude toward Trump, a trust so powerful that there isn’t any need to verify:
Caller: Trump was just up the street at the mobile-home park. But I called to say that my whole entire family, my brother, my husband’s family up in Pennsylvania, we all love Trump, we all trust Trump, half of us don’t even pay attention to the things he does because we know that he has a plan and I don’t think for one second he’s ever gonna lose that base unless he does something really outrageous. You know, he’s kicking out the criminals. There’s less people coming in.
Limbaugh: Tammy, time is short and I need to ask you a question. Have you ever trusted a politician before like you trust Donald Trump?
Caller: Not for one second.
Limbaugh: Sounds like it.
Caller: I’m a hundred thousand percent for him, and so is everybody I know. I’m sure there’s people, but the ones that really know that he loves people, I really believe he loves people, I really believe he sincerely tries to help people.
Limbaugh: All right, Tammy, thanks.
Caller: If the Democrats had treated him nice from the beginning, he would have been working with them from day one.
Limbaugh: That’s a good point. Good point. I gotta go on that one, but she said something, we gotta talk about this because this is why the media thinks that you Trump people are a bunch of cultists.
And finally, here’s Donna in Frederick, Maryland, who isn’t simply going to believe that Trump is making deals with Democrats just because the media reports that it is so:
Caller: Hi, Rush. My pleasure. As a listener, I often feel like I’m faced with the ultimate challenge because the news sometimes leaves us dazed and confused and I’d even venture to say somewhat feeling gullible and naive, I guess hence the very definition of fake news. And when I hear about, you know, scary deals with devil Democrats, I think it requires a certain amount of discernment. And it really does, I think, put emphasis on your statement where they want to divide voters from Trump because the left is banking on the effectiveness of their propaganda.
Limbaugh: Exactly, because everything else they’ve tried to throw at him hasn’t worked. We had the story in the Politico, they’ve done their market research or focus groups. None of this stuff, the Russian collusion, none of it is working. It just bounces off Trump. They’re frustrated. That’s why they’re focusing on trying to separate Trump’s base from Trump. That’s the objective now. And it has been for really the whole period of time, but now they’re just changing their tactics about bringing it back. But it’s not working on you, it doesn’t sound like.
Caller: No, it is not. I thought about it long and hard. If anything, it made me want to shift further to the right, not to the left, by any means.
Limbaugh: You’re not the first person I’ve heard say that, either. That none of this that’s designed to make you distrust Trump and eventually abandon Trump, it isn’t making you more inclined to join the opposition. In other words, there’s a backlash. In other words, you might say it is backfiring.
Again, these callers are not a representative sample of Trump supporters. But they all seem to be committed Trump supporters who aren’t going to abandon him if he cuts a deal with Democrats on immigration. And if Limbaugh is telling the truth about his off-air conversations, the callers are representative of Trump supporters he encounters.
“Every Trump person that I’ve talked to—everyone from every walk of life—has said pretty much the same thing. If Trump has to work with Democrats to get some of what he wants done, so be it,” Limbaugh said. “I haven’t run into anybody … Now, and this is purely anecdotal, and I don’t talk to a lot of people. I’m just telling you in my universe, people that I know who voted for Trump and want the Trump agenda or most of it, I don’t know anybody who is content for nothing to happen, status quo while the Republicans and Trump bicker. I don’t know anybody who wants any more of this.”
I’ll bet you there are a lot of Trump people out there who say, “If he has to work with Democrats to get what he wants done, then so be it.” Even when Trump did the first deal with Chuck and Nancy on expanding the debt limit … I had people saying, “You know what? I love it!” I’m talking about rock-ribbed, lifetime Republicans who said to me, “I love Trump sticking it to Mitch and Paul, but I not sure I like it being done this way,” meaning doing deals with Democrats—Chuck and Nancy—on expanding spending, expanding government. But the anti-Republican leadership sentiment among people who want Trump to succeed is palpable.
I think the people are fed up with everything being static, no movement, nothing happening. They’re fed up with every attempt that Trump makes to move it forward being thwarted by his own party. So the Democrats are coming along, and Chuck and Nancy have made it look like, “Hey, we’re willing to work with the guy. Hey, we’ll help him get what he wants, but it’s gotta be what we want.” That’s where we are right now.
These aren’t the sorts of comments that I would have expected from Limbaugh and his listeners. But so long as they’re reacting this way to negotiations and deals with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, I suppose it’s reason to think Trump will keep doing them, or at least worry that much less that they’re upsetting Ann Coulter and Breitbart. Wouldn’t it be wild if, having already failed to oust Ryan in a primary, Trump throws his support behind his Democratic challenger in 2018? What would Limbaugh say then?
I’d sure tune in to find out.
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