Last summer, Donald Trump described Mexican immigrants as “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In December, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Many commentators claim that this wild rhetoric helps Trump suck up media oxygen or appear like a straight-talking political outsider. But the most important benefit of the anti-immigrant language is that it inoculates Trump against the charge of being a closet liberal.
Trump has a seemingly fatal vulnerability in the Republican primary: His past support for a host of moderate and liberal positions. In recent years, Trump said he would “press for universal health care,” claimed that he was “pro-choice in every respect,” remarked that “I hate the concept of guns,” stated that Hillary Clinton would “do a good job” in negotiating with Iran, asserted that the GOP was “just too crazy right,” and even said, “In many cases, I probably identify more as a Democrat.”
The problem for Trump is that he’s running for the nomination of a party in no mood for compromise. The rise of the Tea Party pushed the GOP to the right. There is an entire lexicon devoted to condemning Republican moderates: “squish,” “Republicans in name only” (RINOs), “milquetoast,” or, of course, “establishment Republicans.” GOP candidates are routinely assailed for deviating from conservative orthodoxy, including Mitt Romney’s backing “Romneycare” as governor of Massachusetts, Senator Marco Rubio’s past support for immigration reform, or Ohio Governor John Kasich’s expansion of Medicaid.
A 2013 poll found that most Republicans wanted a congressman who “sticks to their principles no matter what,” over someone who “compromises to get things done.” By contrast, large majorities of Democrats and Independents preferred someone who would bargain with the opposition. Similarly, last October, a poll found that 62 percent of Republicans wanted leaders who refuse to compromise on principle even if it risked a government shutdown, whereas more than three-quarters of Democrats favored cutting deals with the GOP to avoid gridlock.
One of the great puzzles of the primary season is why a candidate who so recently espoused…