Ross Douthat revisits his assumptions about Trump and the GOP:
So to catalog my wrongness: I overestimated the real commitment of both factions’ leaders to their stated principles and favored policies. (Even though I didn’t agree with many of those policies myself, I assumed from the party’s longstanding resistance to change that someone did!) I overestimated their ability to put those principles ahead of personal resentments. And yes, since to acquiesce to Donald Trump as the Republican nominee is to gamble recklessly with the party’s responsibilities to the republic, I overestimated their basic sense of honor.
That all makes a certain amount of sense, but it still misses something. If Trump has been able to draw supporters from both sides of the GOP, and if he has been able to assemble a broad base of support among Republican voters, it isn’t just because they aren’t very principled or driven by resentments against other candidates. That may be part of the explanation, but it isn’t the whole story. For example, Boehner and Christie have ended up in Trump’s camp because they have had good personal relationships with him, and they definitely have not had good relationships with Cruz and Rubio respectively. As Cruz discovered too late, those relationships matter in politics as much as they do in any other field. Insofar as Boehner and Christie consider themselves to be “pragmatists,” they are presumably more comfortable with a candidate with malleable positions than they are with party-line ideologues.
Certainly there are some other high-profile Trump backers that have rallied to him because of “their stated principles and favored policies” on a few issues. It is almost certainly the case that restrictionists are being taken for a ride by Trump, but many of them believe otherwise. Thanks to the unreliability of all of the other top candidates on immigration, Trump ended up winning a lot of them over almost by default. More recently, there is Bob Corker, chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, who has been trying to convince himself that Trump is a realist. No doubt most (all?) Trump supporters are projecting their policy preferences onto his jumbled, inconsistent, and incoherent positions, but they are nonetheless supporting him because they think that he agrees with them or at least might be open to their views. They may be wrong in their judgment of the candidate, but they’re not simply casting aside their beliefs.
To his supporters and many other Republican voters, Trump seems like a competitive general election candidate. I happen to think that’s very wrong, but most Republican voters think otherwise. In getting behind him, they think they are making the same trade-off between conviction and electability that they have been asked to make in every previous election. If someone had told me last year that Republicans would end up nominating another relative moderate businessman from the Northeast because they thought he would be the best general election candidate, it would have seemed boringly predictable. Trump’s die-hard opponents didn’t see him this way because they were so preoccupied with his unique flaws and liabilities, but he won in large part by repeating the success of the relative moderates from previous cycles. He benefited from a primary system rigged to give this kind of candidate a significant advantage, and the candidate that was supposed to fill that role (Bush) was perfectly ill-suited to the current political environment and Republican electorate.
Two things persuaded me last fall that Trump could really be the nominee, and the same things convinced me by February that it seemed very likely that he would be. I had originally dismissed his candidacy like almost everyone else, but his consistently high poll numbers nationally and in early states over many months made me realize that he wasn’t going away and he wasn’t going to implode. He consistently led across almost all states where there was any polling, and that never changed over the course of the campaign. He was drawing support from all ideological groups in the GOP, and he wasn’t limited to one or two regions of the country. To keep insisting that Trump wouldn’t be the nominee required ignoring all of that.
The other thing was Trump’s incompetent, divided opposition. Even if Trump is in some respects a weaker nominee than his predecessors, someone still had to defeat him in most contests across the country to stop him. None of his rivals was up to the task, and that was confirmed after he took three out of four contests in February. At the same time, his most determined opponents kept expecting him to collapse, and then many of them assumed that the party would rally behind Rubio to beat him if he didn’t collapse. That unwarranted confidence in Rubio meant that they kept waiting for him to prevail, but there simply weren’t enough Republican voters that thought he was ready to be president. That was all driven by wishful thinking, and that is what it seemed to be at the time.
Trump’s foes believed that most of the party would refuse to go along with his nomination, and so they thought that Trump would lose once the field shrank to two or three candidates. All of that was wrong, and the reason Trump’s opponents got it wrong was that they ignored or spun primary polling to fit the story they were telling themselves instead of using it to understand the political landscape. That ended up sabotaging their own efforts to stop Trump because they ultimately didn’t believe that there needed to be a major effort to stop him.