A couple weeks ago political scientists Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins published an essay at Vox.com explaining why the Democratic Party in Congress doesn’t have a “Freedom Caucus” and the Republicans do. In short, they argue, it is because the Democratic Party is a network of group interests bound together by programmatic demands on government, while the GOP is organized around ideological orthodoxies. Grossmann and Hopkins’s research expands on a long standing theory in political science known as the operational/symbolic paradox, which holds that average Americans are attracted to liberal public policies that further their self-interest, while also being attracted to conservative symbols, values, and anti-government principles.
If capturing Democratic hearts and minds requires programmatic promises, while Republican support requires ideological cheerleading, then its pretty easy to understand why Donald Trump chose the Republican Party for his hostile takeover bid.
The contemporary Democratic Party could never be hijacked by a populist demagogue because it is a coalition of special interest constituencies with concrete demands. Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” was a populist campaign organized around left wing ideological orthodoxy. He had clear and ambitious policy goals, but no realistic plan for actually achieving them. He never got close to winning because he couldn’t deliver the goods, or even explain how he would try to do so. It’s no accident that Sanders’ support came largely from young people who have not yet developed concrete interests in specific public policies. As such, they were more susceptible to inspiring values rhetoric and what amount to motivational speeches. Clinton framed that race perfectly. She knows that her party is a network of overlapping groups with specific policy demands. To be successful, Democratic politicians have to understand the policy making process and be able to explain the details and prospects of a wide range of public policy options.
Whether you are a revolutionary whose heart is in the right place (Sanders), or an ignorant blowhard on a vanity joy ride (Trump), there is no route to success in the Democratic nomination process for those without command of the details because the party faithful know what they want from government and how to get it.
Republicans, on the other hand, are ripe for the pickings because they are not bound together by concrete demands of government. The glue that holds Republicans together is cultural identity. A key element of that identity is a cultivated distain for the government, and an often inarticulate and irrational reverence for “capitalism.” For this crowd, promises of specific government programs are less useful because the intra-party networks in the GOP are organized around abstract moral and political values, not specific policy demands. The few specific pleaders in the broader GOP community, like the NRA, large corporations, and small business associations, are looking for protection from government regulation, not programmatic solutions. Republican voters respond to symbolic appeals, and because values are the coin of the GOP realm, facts are always negotiable and always subordinate to faith-based principles.
Anti-science and anti-intellectual appeals are the stock-in-trade of successful national Republican politicians because their constituents are interested in “higher truths” and believe that the pursuit of these more than justifies the dismissal or discounting of empirically verifiable facts. They are not hypocrites for condemning the Clintons as liars; they are just measuring the integrity of politicians by their fidelity to “higher truths,” not mere factual accuracy. They may cite what seem like factual misrepresentations when trying to justify their condemnation of Democratic pols like the Clintons, but that is only because they can’t say what they really mean in partisan political debates. For example, when you talk to a Hillary Hater and demand evidence that she is a liar, they rarely say what they really see as evidence of dishonesty, which is either Hillary’s commitment to progressive policy, or her lack of commitment to progressive policy (Remember, Hillary Haters come from both extremes). Instead, they cite conventional political framing from Clinton, unsubstantiated charges of lying, or petty misrepresentations perpetrated by everyone contending that these are clear evidence of unprecedented dishonesty and corruption. To conservatives, progressivism itself is a big lie, but since this argument and spin on truth is a nonstarter with voters who benefit from government programs, conservatives have to employ an intellectually dishonest definition of dishonesty in order to defeat progressive politicians. For Republicans, this tactical employment of anti-intellectualism provides the rhetorical ammunition necessary to maintain and defend their values-based social, cultural, and political commitments.
Democrats do not chose their leaders because of who they are or what they represent; they choose leaders who can convince them that they have the best shot at delivering the public policies Democrats want, and/or of defending those existing policies Democrats need. Donald Trump is a train wreck when judged by his actual words and deeds, but he has successfully tapped into the symbolic imagination and worldview of a sizable chunk of the GOP electorate; a big enough chuck to emerge victorious from a very crowded Republican nomination field. Trump has tapped into the shared cultural resentments of conservative voters at a time when those resentments can very easily be projected onto the Democratic nominee, a tact that will make it possible for most GOP voters to justify casting their vote for the GOP nominee in the interest of “the truth,” which is that progressivism is a lie that is destroying America. To Trump supporters, Donald lies, but Hillary is a liar. For Trump, dishonesty is just a tactic. For Clinton, according to the folks who would support Trump even if he shot a man in broad daylight on 5th Avenue, lying is who she is and what she represents.
It’s worth noting that many, if not most, conservative intellectuals and establishment figures are aggressively opposing Trump. Conservative opinion shapers, like newspaper editors, columnists, and prominent former Republican officials are actually endorsing Hillary Clinton because although they share the values-based commitments of the Republican Party, they also understand that electoral politics is as much about math as it is about morality and that a Trump presidency would not be in the long term best interests of the conservative movement or the conservative political party in America.