Donald Trump Versus The Conservative Movement

Scott Greer Contributor
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Donald Trump is “finished” once again.

After a heated Thursday night debate exchange with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, Trump spent most of Friday attacking her for being “unfair.” This being The Donald, he went into the realm of personal insults, including endorsing a tweet that called Kelly a “bimbo.”

But a Friday night interview with CNN’s Don Lemon is when Trump is considered to have gone too far. In expressing his dislike for how Kelly treated him during the debate, the billionaire said, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her — wherever.”

That last sentence ignited a firestorm of backlash on Twitter and from conservative pundits. Erick Erickson immediately disinvited Trump from the commentator’s Red State Gathering and fellow presidential candidate Carly Fiorina publicly rebuked The Donald’s tirade. It seemed the entire conservative movement was in agreement that the statement lacked common decency and the real estate mogul deserved a thorough shaming.

Yet, this comment probably won’t even make a dent on Trump’s poll numbers. In fact, Trump’s numbers might even go up as a result of his debate performance. Many viewers thought he won. The Donald wasn’t done in by past gaffes — such as his insult of John McCain’s Vietnam service — that were supposed to finish him off, so there’s not much evidence that this latest one will do the job either.

If there’s one thing to take from all these flare-ups of conservative outrage at Trump, it’s that there’s a widening gap between the conservative movement and the right-leaning voters it’s supposed to represent. The conservative movement is a term to describe the interwoven set of organizations and activists that provide the bulk of the leadership for the American right.

The individuals and groups who compose the movement are pretty much universally opposed to Trump, but, in spite of all of the denunciations and hit pieces, he continues to grow only stronger and increase his numbers in the polls.

That’s because he has managed to connect with conservative people in a way the movement hasn’t in a very long time and has managed to amass a devoted following. Like Germany’s aerial bombardment of Britain during World War II, the attacks on Trump have not resulted in depleted morale among what critics call “Trumpkins,” but in intensified support for the billionaire.

This disconnect between the base and the established movement was actually noted by, of all people, Paul Krugman. In a 2014 column written after the stunning primary defeat of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Krugman pointed out that movement conservatives relied on “stoking cultural anxiety” to win elections and gain traction. However, the movement has always focused on a primarily economic agenda rather than one that dealt with the social concerns of their base.

The liberal New York Times columnist argued that Cantor’s loss could be explained by the base wising up to this “electoral bait-and-switch,” in particular on immigration, and, in turn, dealing a blow to the conservative movement’s power.

The same thing appears to be happening with Trump-mentum. The Donald has tapped into issues, like immigration and national identity, that movement conservatives typically avoid and looked poised to ignore during the 2016 primary. But, thanks to Trump, they’ve now come to dominate the electoral conversation. Even more than that, they seem to be the issues the base cares the most about.

That’s bad news for a movement that has embraced the idea that the future for conservatism lies in making peace in the culture war and focusing mainly on fiscal concerns. The candidate that best represents this mentality is Rand Paul. While his foreign policy views are hotly contested within the movement, Paul’s stances on domestic issues, such as criminal justice reform and support for the flat tax, present the consensus among the organized right.

While some commentators thought the libertarian senator was destined to be the anti-establishment challenger in the race, his campaign is currently in a downward spiral and his message isn’t catching on with GOP voters. And Thursday’s debate only turned out to be another humiliation for his once promising campaign.

Meanwhile, Trump’s message, coupled with his alpha male persona and the failures of Republican leadership, are what’s allowing him to dominate his competitors. The fact that Trump’s agenda doesn’t pair up with movement conservatism and his ability to grow stronger with every attack have driven professional conservatives up the wall.

It seems that Trump’s supporters don’t really care that he’s not a orthodox conservative and hasn’t demonstrated sufficient loyalty to the Republican Party. They like him anyway.

The mogul’s success has even made some of these figures hate their own base, with the implied admission that they don’t have that much influence over right-leaning voters.

That’s why the Red State disinvite could turn out to be disastrous for the conservative movement. As The Daily Caller’s Kerry Picket reported, the majority of Red State attendees appeared to have a positive opinion of Trump and thought he did very well in the debate. The Donald’s exclusion over a gaffe could very well turn into an issue about out-of-control political correctness that will not play well with the base.

And, against the intentions of movement conservatives, it could further boost Trump’s support.

It’s hard to overlook the underlying reason for all the Trump hatred from the right: The Donald undermines their perception of power and makes them irrelevant. All the hit pieces and articles detailing his past liberal positions and ties to the Clintons didn’t hurt him at all. Mocking McCain’s Vietnam captivity — a gaffe met with glee from conservative pundits who thought it would destroy Trump — didn’t hurt him at all.

Deep down, conservatives probably know Trump’s latest comment won’t hurt him either. The remark was greeted with nihilistic fury by movement conservatives on Twitter. They can only gnash their teeth at something they can’t control.

No matter what Trump says or does, conservatives who hate Trump cannot convince their followers to hate him as well. Worse, Trump supporters hate the Trump haters for attacking their guy.

To add insult to injury, these writers and activists can’t even get respect from the mainstream media for hitting Trump, as evidenced by the renewed focus on Erickson’s past “sexist” comments in light of his disavowal of the Republican frontrunner.

No wonder, then, that the establishment right is starting to fear a third-party bid from Trump. Especially when, as some conservative journalists love to point out, the message of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side is not too different from Trump’s.

Several conservatives have come to believe that Trump is a Clinton plant aiming to destroy the Republican Party. But if that’s true (which it’s not), then you have to accept the fact that Hillary knows the conservative base better than its own leaders.

Which begs the question: how does the conservative movement hope to convince America not to vote for Hillary when they can’t even get Republicans to dump Trump?

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