Can Donald Trump Lead A Conservative Movement He Barely Understands?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a rally Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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It is as if Donald Trump just walked into a 40-year conversation on conservatism and instead of standing there, nodding his head politely as he got acquainted with the topic at hand, began shouting over the crowd.

It is essentially what Trump has done to conservative policy gurus this year. Trump has reached over anti-abortion diehards, foreign policy neocons, and supply siders to tell base voters directly what he thinks they want to hear and it’s working. But he still doesn’t have a grasp on how what he’s promoting fits into long-term movement conservatism objectives — nor does he seem to particularly care. Not only is Trump not beholden to the conservative movement, he seems more or less indifferent to it. And that as much as anything strikes fear deep in the hearts of longtime conservatives who see 2016 as a generational opportunity to control Congress and the White House simultaneously.

“If you are a more traditional conservative, someone who has been active in issues like abortion or tax policy and market regulation, yeah, I could see some of those people being quite anxious about Trump because he is a total wild card,” said Matt Dallek, an professor of political management at George Washington University who studies the conservative movement. “They don’t know him and he doesn’t know them. It is not clear that he supports their policies on many issues. Conservatives who have been successful politically did not spend years shouting from the hilltops.”

Typically, Dallek says that candidates who catch conservative lightening in a bottle do so because they spent years building a network and immersing themselves in the lingo. Take Ronald Reagan, for example, who Dallek says spent years talking to conservative organizations and emerged out of the anti-communist and pro-market wings of the conservative party, or Pat Robertson, the 1988 evangelical challenger to George H.W. Bush, who emerged from the Moral Majority movement.

Trump has come right out of left field.

The problem for conservatives goes beyond Trump’s own positions, which over the years departed from the conservative orthodoxy. Trump lacks a basic sense of the values of the conservative movement, its jargon, or the deals struck over the years to hold the different elements of the movement together as a unified force.

As conservative columnist George Will put it, “Trump is indifferent to those conservative tenets.”

For at least two generations, conservatives have been playing the long game on taxes, the judiciary, and abortion, to name a few pillars of the movement. They have carefully crafted plans to make incremental gains when the political winds were against them, and be well positioned to make dramatic gains when the winds shifted in their favor. They talk about their issues in highly refined, well-tested ways, and avoid the rhetorical pitfalls they’ve discovered the hard way.

Does any of that sound like Trump or his modus operandi?

Like so many other aspects of Trump’s confounding rise, the business mogul has somehow captivated primary voters without fully following the movement’s rules or understanding it. Trump says the words and attracts applause, but conservatives aren’t convinced Trump truly grasps the gravity, the intricacies, and the nuances of the policies he’s promoting.

In a Meet the Press interview in August, Trump said that “as a real estate developer and as what turned out to be a world class businessman based on what I’ve done, you don’t ask questions about, ‘Gee, are you pro-choice? Are you pro-life?”

“It’s just something that is not really discussed. As a politician, they discuss it all the time,” Trump said.

On foreign policy, Trump’s saber-rattling rhetoric carries echoes of conservative candidates of the past. How will Trump handle the Islamic State? He’s going to “bomb the shit outta them.” But past the surface similarities, it’s not clear that Trump embraces any particular foreign policy school of thought, or has even given it much thought.

“I don’t think he can get up to speed,” says Dov Zakheim, a Republican national security advisor who has worked for GOP heavyweights from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney. “You cannot view a few slide briefings or an oral briefing and become a national security expert. It does not happen. You need some experience.”

Other candidacies are plugged into the conservative tenets of foreign policy and most have their own crew of advisers to turn to. Trump, meanwhile, still has not publicly announced a foreign policy team and in August when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Trump to disclose his military advisers, Trump responded, “I watch the shows.”

“He has made it pretty clear that he follows his own advice,” Zakheim says. “He rejects Washington-type policy people. So the very people he would need to get him up to speed are the people he holds contempt for.”

The Club for Growth, whose super PAC spent $1 million in ads against Trump in Iowa highlighting his past positions such as supporting single-payer health care, eminent domain and higher taxes, says Trump is taking conservatism off track just as the GOP has a chance to retake the White House in 2016.

“I think the conservative movement has waited long enough and if there are these concerns that Trump is not the full-orbed conservative he claims to be, then people need to be making that case,” says Doug Sachtleben. “It is not like we are left with no one running. There are good choices. That argues all the more for why the conservative movement should speak up.”

Some have tried. The anti-abortion movement, specifically, has shown a lot of skepticism toward Trump, who more than a decade ago billed himself as pro-choice.

“There are a lot of folks that distrust where Trump stands on life because of his track record and even his recent vacillations on Planned Parenthood,” Lila Rose, a prominent anti-abortion activist, told TPM in August.

But other key conservatives have been reluctant to jump in to attack Trump’s lack of policy knowledge or his detachment from their movement. David Keene, the longtime chairman of the American Conservative Union and a former president of the National Rifle Association, says the while he is always worried about any candidate coming up short on Second Amendment rights or seeing a candidate “talking about something they don’t understand,” he feels comfortable with Trump’s basic stance on guns today even if Trump once supported a ban on “assault weapons.”

“We believe in redemption,” Keene said.

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