The Perfect Lose-Lose: How Donald Trump’s Attempts to Moderate Will Cost Him His Core Constituency

As the race for the White House has dragged on across 2015 and 2016, Donald Trump has outlined many of his ideas and policies, often contradicting his own earlier statements in the process. In many instances, these gaffes have been largely ignored or written off as Trump just being Trump. In others, as when the eventual Republican presidential nominee suggested defaulting on portions of US debt, swift rebuffs have led to equally rapid abandonment of the candidate’s stated position. On the whole, Trump has weathered these storms well, possibly because of his seemingly nonexistent concern with contradicting himself. Now, however, as Trump tries to broaden his appeal for the general election, he finds himself running into a signature issue on which his constituents may not allow him to reverse himself without consequences: immigration policy.

When Donald Trump entered the race, the general public and even the professional press were unclear on his positions (if he even had any at the time) on many important issues. His campaign started with just two key ideas: renegotiate trade deals and take a hard line on immigration. Certainly, his views on trade helped him with his core constituency of white middle-aged males, many of whom found themselves becoming economically irrelevant in the increasingly global economic context of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. However, Trump was far from having a monopoly on economic populism. Among his fellow Republicans, many already stood in opposition to free trade deals such as the TPP, while on the left Bernie Sanders espoused a brand of economic populism far more extreme than anything Trump could propose as a candidate for a fiscally conservative party.

What Trump did command exclusivity in, however, was his view on immigration. Of course, many other Republicans had strong positions about increased border security and immigration law enforcement (remember, if you will, the discourse around so-called sanctuary cities). Even in the context of the GOP, though, no one else was taking immigration policy to the extremes of Donald Trump. His proposals to build a physical wall across the southern border and to deport some 11 million predominantly Hispanic illegal immigrants living in the US were accepted widely by certain factions of both parties, now collectively known as the Trumpites. The problem, from the standpoint of Donald Trump in 2016, is that these voters took Donald Trump in 2015 literally.

Now, Trump isn’t trying to play divide and conquer within a field of 15 other candidates where a mere plurality of votes would ensure an easy victory. In order to secure any hope of a general election victory, the Republican candidate must broaden his appeal and gain new support among demographics he has previously failed to appeal to. Included in this list are moderate Republicans, many of whom fear the extremism of a Trump presidency and the toll it could take on their party’s electoral future. Accordingly, Trump has attempted to moderate his stances on some issues so as to turn that fear into at least nothing more than conventional political disagreement. On immigration, this has taken the form of a proposal that illegal immigrants be allowed to remain, provided they pay back taxes on any and all earnings while living and working in the US. However, his attempts to moderate have gained him something he never expected: ire from his own supporters.

“If Mr. Trump were to go down a path of wishy-washy positions taken on things that the core foundation of his support has so appreciated…then, yeah, there would be massive disappointment,” said Sarah Palin, one of Trump’s longtime supporters in the right-leaning populist branch of the GOP known as the Tea Party, with regards to his attempts at moderation. Others have even predicted that an attempt to gain broader support through more moderate positions will effectively destroy what limited hopes Trump still has for securing an electoral victory in November, as those positions will alienate his core constituency. As sad as it is to reflect on this fact as an observer of American politics, those who are making that prediction are entirely correct. Any attempt to move away from insane extremism toward a more moderate center policy will be the end of Donald Trump.

When Donald Trump began talking about a gigantic wall and deportation squads working to identify, detain and ultimately eject millions of illegal immigrants, many of us paused and envisioned Donald Trump’s America. Ironically, it looked, in some ways, a lot like the USSR in the height of the Cold War, complete with squadrons of military police running around with virtually limitless and unchecked authority demanding papers, a wall separating us from another nearby country and little consideration given to the civil liberties constitutionally guaranteed to all American citizens (including, keep in mind, the American-born children of illegal immigrants, whom Trump wished to deport with their parents despite birthright citizenship). To myself and many others, this is a truly dystopian view of America’s future. To Donald Trump’s core supporters, those who cheered him as each of these policies was presented on the campaign trail, however, this is not a future to be avoided at all costs. Quite the contrary, in fact. This future is exactly what they want, and any attempt on Trump’s part to distance himself from it will lose him votes among the people he has already sold on his presidency.

Trump supporters have always said that they do not want Donald Trump to be a politician. Unfortunately for the Republican nominee, this means that they will oppose him at every turn as he tries to moderate himself and appeal to wider demographics, because that’s exactly what a politician would do. Perhaps there’s a matter of principle at play here, and The Donald’s supporters would rather see him lose than see a victory gained by diluting his message. Or, perhaps, Trump voters have managed to avoid looking at polling data or electoral maps and have thus managed to delude themselves that they truly do represent the majority views of the American electorate. Whatever the case may be, Trump can lose by sticking to his core constituency and failing to gain votes elsewhere or moderate to broaden his appeal and lose by alienating that constituency. Either way, the New York billionaire, infamous firebrand and now presidential candidate has managed to force himself into the perfect lose-lose situation.

— Duncan

On the Mind is a collaborative news and opinion project headed by three politically-minded millennial contributors. To see more of our content, view regular posts and listen to our weekly podcast, follow us on Facebook.