Donald Trump figured something out about the Republican Party. Maybe it was a flash of insight, or maybe he stumbled into it and doesn't even realize what he found. But here it is: Even in this most ideological of parties, ideology has its limits.
This is a party, after all, that has spent the last few years on its own miniature version of the Cultural Revolution, a tireless search for ideological heretics who can be exposed, shamed, and banished. It has made compromise into something beneath contempt, and required all who would wear the name "Republican" to demonstrate that the hatred of Barack Obama and all he touches vibrates within every cell of their beings. When the party confronts a policy development it doesn't like, it demands not just that the idea be opposed, but that it be opposed again and again and again, no matter how fruitless the blows battered against it (the number of votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act is well past 50, all failed).
Yet the party's effort to find a leader is now led — by a wide margin — by a man who at best is a piecemeal conservative, taking a harshly right-wing stance here and an oddly liberal one there. This seems to be a result of the fact that Trump has never thought much about policy, and doesn't really care.
If you want to understand Trump's appeal in the primaries — both its power and its limits — there are two articles that came out in the last few days that you should read. The first, from The Washington Post's David Weigel, explains how Trump's talk about foreign countries stealing American jobs is resonating with economically troubled voters, particularly in places where manufacturing has declined. Instead of talking about job retraining or anything else realistically modest, Trump all but promises that he'll go to China and punch the commies in the face until they give us our jobs back.
The second, from Bloomberg's Melinda Henneberger, describes how Republican voters, besotted with Trump's style, barely notice that his positions on issues are a hodgepodge of conservative and liberal ideas. "After he finished talking in New Hampshire on Friday night, I asked half a dozen Republicans who said they liked him what they had heard in his long, stream-of-consciousness oration that struck them as conservative," she writes, "and none of them could point to anything in particular." But it didn't matter.
The approach Republican politicians have taken toward their voters in recent years is a combination of policy and posture. The policies are a version of what they've always offered, just a little bit more conservative and a lot more pure. The posture is one of opposition to Barack Obama — unyielding, inflexible, even petulant or downright angry. The easiest way to assure Republican voters you're one of them is to show them how much you hate the guy in the White House.
Which may be understandable, since the president is the axis around which elite politics revolves. When your party is out of power, you're inevitably going to define yourself in relation to him. But then along comes Trump, who has an entirely different posture.
Though it may be odd coming from a guy who waged a campaign to prove that Obama isn't actually an American citizen (and apparently still believes it), Trump seems to barely have time to talk about this administration, except as the most recent example of larger problems he's promising to fix with a sweep of his hand. His message isn't, I'll reverse everything that happened in the Obama years, it's, Everyone else is a bunch of losers, and I'm a winner. That applies to Democrats, Republicans, everyone. The force of his persona is such that when he displays some lack of fealty to conservative ideals — like saying that single-payer health care "works well in Canada" — ideological conservatives may be horrified, but he just rolls right past it. And that tells us that ideological purity isn't all that important to Republican voters, at least not all of them.
If it was, Trump would be pulling 5 percent in the primary polls, not 25 percent. His flirtation with a third-party run would also be bringing him down, but it isn't, which suggests that there are lots of Republicans for whom party loyalty isn't all that important.
Of course, 25 percent isn't a majority, and it's probably necessary to demonstrate both ideological fealty and a fundamental commitment to the GOP in order to get the nomination. But Trump has shown that there are other impulses within the Republican electorate, like resentment, dissatisfaction with targets bigger than Obama, and the desire for a confident leader who will promise the moon.
Even in a party now defined by its ideological extremism, it isn't always about ideology. Whether any of the party creatures who make up the rest of the field can capture and exploit those impulses is something we'll have to wait and see.