There is some truth to the claim that President Trump is not the most “conservative” candidate running for president, but he doesn’t have to be.
Republicans who prefer a non-Trump nominee, particularly former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and current candidate Ron DeSantis have recently attempted to shed light on what they deem a lack of conservatism in Trump in an attempt to hurt his standing with primary voters. However, history shows us Republican voters have never cared much about how conservative Trump is or isn’t.
Trump has always shied away from the staunch conservative label. When campaigning in 2016, he coined the phrase “Commonsense Conservative,” creating a healthy distance from many of the ineffective members of the conservative movement while signaling he did hold many of the right-leaning viewpoints necessary to secure the Republican base. While he has been a registered Republican often throughout his life, his voter registration has varied over the years from Republican to Democrat, to Independent, and even a stint as a member of the Reform party. Despite his lack of lifetime Republican party loyalty, he went on to receive the most votes for any Republican nominee ever in 2016 before adding 12 million more votes to that total in 2020, which broke the record for votes by a sitting president. And now, he appears more popular than ever within the party as polls show him with a historic lead for a non-incumbent.
If being a staunch conservative was the most important thing to voters, America would have looked a lot different over the past 15 years. John McCain would have prevented the Obama presidency, but after 8 years under the “conservative” George W. Bush administration that resulted in a recession and multiple wars, a sense of national conservative fatigue delivered us the Obama presidency instead. Even after the initial shine of Barack Obama quickly wore off by the 2012 election, Paul Ryan’s proud conservatism was not enough to propel the Romney-Ryan ticket over the finish line to make Obama a one-term president.
Americans typically don’t like when one party rules for too long. But even when that same fatigue that opened a path for Democrats in 2008 was presenting itself for Republicans in 2016, none of the well-known conservative candidates in the race such as Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz (or any of the other 14 non-Trump candidates) were able to seize the opportunity. Instead, the “non-conservative” became the people’s champion.
Even today, as the country yearns for drastic change, labeling oneself as a conservative doesn’t seem to be enough to win significant support. Mike Pence and his vow to return America to “old-school conservative values” never even made it to the starting gate. Ron DeSantis has openly named conservatives George H.W. Bush and Paul Ryan as people he admires, so he continues to sink lower in the polls as the primary rapidly approaches. And Nikki Haley, who has surpassed DeSantis as the number two in numerous polls, is not cutting into Trump’s national polling lead in any significant way, likely due to her stances on Israel and Ukraine that echo that of the Bush years.
Trump has always played by his own set of rules, which prevents him from being tied down to ideological boundaries. His time as president was no different, as he differed from previous conservative administrations in two key ways: War and trade. America’s economy and its presence on the world stage desperately need revamping. This is why what he describes as his commonsense approach to governing, whether it is viewed as “conservative” or not, is more appealing at this current moment than rigid conservatism.
The case could be made that Trump’s non-conservative open-mindedness is what makes his message resonate more than traditional conservatives. Republican voters are weary of returning to the type of conservatism from the second Bush administration, which ushered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. After four years under Trump’s “peace through strength” approach to foreign affairs, it is easy to see why voters reject candidates who appear open to returning to pre-Trump republicanism.
In addition to world conflict, America’s finances are top of mind for voters. One of the more favorably viewed conservative presidents, Ronald Reagan, was a “free-trader.” As America continues to see endless amounts of money sent all over the globe while our government neglects our pressing issues at home, anything viewed as free is not a popular stance to take during a time of financial crisis. This makes Trump’s trailblazing “fair-trade” philosophy for a Republican a lot more favorable amongst voters.
Trump-appointed justices ended Roe v. Wade. He cut taxes, strengthened the military, and reigned over a booming economy. To voters, actions speak louder than words. Detractors’ attempts to negatively frame Trump’s official conservatism report card are irrelevant. As Americans are eager to rid themselves of the chaos of Biden-era policies, Trump’s presidential resume will undoubtedly be more influential than his level of conservatism, whatever that even means.
Matt Kane earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Stony Brook University. His work has been posted by President Trump, RealClearPolitics, and American Thinker. X/Twitter: @MattKaneUSA Truth Social @MattKane