The Trump cult

IN A CLOSING pitch to voters in Milford, rural New Jersey, Leonard Lance offered a definition of his party that sounded like a lament. Republicans, said Mr Lance, who is campaigning for a sixth term in the House of Representatives, “believe in fiscal responsibility and treating everyone with respect.” That is hard to reconcile with a unified Republican government that will double federal borrowing this year, to over $1.3trn. It is also at odds with the closing arguments of President Donald Trump, which include a promise of more unfunded tax cuts and abuse of his opponents, even as the threat of political violence roils the country. Asked to account for the dissonance, Mr Lance said carefully: “This is a highly educated, sophisticated district. Its voters can distinguish between me and any other person, including President Trump.”

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Unhappily for Mr Lance, who is known for his decency, bipartisanship and opposition to last year’s tax cuts, they may not. Having won his district, a belt of New York commuter-country packed with affluent college graduates, by 37,000 votes two years ago, he is now trailing his opponent, Tom Malinowski, a former human-rights specialist for Barack Obama. That represents a broader recoiling of well-educated voters against the Trump party. Yet while coverage of the mid-terms has focused on such ways in which Mr Trump has rearranged the electorate, the degree to which he has not done so is far more remarkable.

He may take a different tack from Ronald Reagan, on trade, Russians and racists, but their coalition is essentially the same: most white Americans, with a stress on evangelicals and small-government and gun enthusiasts. Mr Trump is not president mainly because working-class strugglers flocked to him. The vast majority of his 63m supporters were regular Republican voters, and most consider his presidency a roaring success. That is why the president’s party could yet hold both the House and Senate. And if it does not, it will not be because the Democrats filched many Republican voters, but because they did a better job of turning out their own. The media focus on Mr Trump’s appalling behaviour can make this hard to fathom. An evening spent with a crowd of Mr Lance’s remaining supporters, in a community hall tacked onto a fire station near the congressman’s house, made it easier to understand.

Several of the assembled activists and other loyalists, around 30 in all, including men and women and many retirees, acknowledged that Mr Trump’s behaviour could be suboptimal. That was typically expressed as a wish that he would tweet less. One woman, a carer for the elderly, said he could be “crass”; another wished he would “dial it down a bit”. Yet even these mild reservations came with an apologetic smile and an inevitable qualifier. Mr Trump was a reality TV star, a New Yorker, a fighter, not a politician, so what else could he do? Everyone was strongly supportive of him.

Asked to explain why, most said it was because they liked his policies. “Who said ‘poopy’ today in the media? That doesn’t interest me,” said Steve, a firefighter who had looked in from next-door. For a few, this seemed self-explanatory. A couple of retirees from Wall Street, Mike and Sharon, were concerned about over-regulation, and Mr Trump is cutting rules faster than his predecessor. A trio of evangelical women, Lisa and Debbie and her daughter Heather, said they could never vote for a pro-choice party. Yet many struggled to name a policy of Mr Trump’s they liked. Across America, most Republicans would probably say his tax reform, but that is harder in New Jersey, where Mr Trump’s changes combined with high state taxes have left many worse off.

It must be said that the characterisation of Mr Trump and his administration offered by everyone except Mr Lance, a cautious critic of the president, was extremely selective. No one thought him a particularly divisive figure. Mr Obama was polarising too, said Bev, which is true, though arguably he, unlike Mr Trump, did not want to be. Beth insisted there had never been any allegation of racism against the president’s businesses. When it was put to her that there had been, she said, “I mean allegations against him personally.” She was also angry that Mr Trump was reported to have said there were good people among the white supremacists in Charlottesville last year. But he did say that. “I don’t think his policies are those of white supremacists,” her friend Todd chipped in.

The main reason most people loved Mr Trump did not seem to concern his qualities or policies at all. It was because above all they hated Democrats, a force political scientists refer to as “negative partisanship”. Hardly anyone said what they liked about Mr Trump without in the same breath lambasting his opponents. This, more than Mr Trump’s nationalism, populism or chauvinist dog-whistling, is the essence of his divisive appeal. It is what he strives to amplify. It was why Hillary Clinton, the right’s favourite bogie, was his perfect opponent. “I wake up every day and thank God she is not president,” said Beth, when asked how Mr Trump is getting on.

Teflon Don

This is also why the attacks on the administration from liberal journalists are far more noticeable to his voters than whatever Mr Trump has done to provoke them. They reconfirm that he has the right enemies. At the root of this is a feeling of cultural anxiety and resentment, against populous liberal America, with its right-on values and snarky comedians, that the president is only the latest Republican to exploit. The state senator who introduced Mr Lance said pollsters had him behind because they were hoity-toity libs who wanted Republicans to feel like losers. No one blinked.

Polling in 2016 suggested partisan Republicans voted for Mr Trump despite having doubts about his character and policies. His ironclad ratings among them now suggest that, in matters of political allegiance, which tend to be emotional, that dissonance was unsustainable. Mr Trump’s character and policies are largely unchanged, yet partisan Republicans have allayed their doubts. It is hard to imagine what Mr Trump could do to make them return.

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