During almost every Republican debate, someone on stage calls Donald Trump a flip-flopper. It’s a fair assessment; Trump has switched parties on numerous occasions during his lifetime. Trump was a Democrat until 1987 when he pondered running as a Republican in 1988. He remained with the Republicans until 1999 when he decided to join what was at the time America’s largest third party, Reform Party USA. Trump mulled over the idea of running on the Reform Party ticket, but decided against it, citing party infighting. Trump switched back to the Democratic Party in 2001, and remained with it until 2009, when he became an independent. In 2011, Trump returned once again to the Republican Party, where he remains today. He flirted briefly with the idea of challenging President Obama in 2012, but, once again, decided not to. Not until 2016 did Trump finally follow through with running for President.
Not only has Trump switched parties numerous times, but his stances on certain issues have also changed dramatically. Take the abortion issue: Trump came out as pro-choice (but against partial birth abortions) during the exploratory phase of his 2000 almost-campaign, but today has become staunchly pro-life. Trump has also flip-flopped on healthcare and gun control, originally standing for universal healthcare and stricter gun laws, but now in favor of opening up competition between health insurance providers across state lines and the “very sacred Second Amendment.”
Despite his change of heart on some contentious issues, I wouldn’t call Trump a flip-flopper per se; he’s no Hillary Clinton, who shifts with the political tides and says anything to get herself elected. Trump has more or less always been right-of-center. The broader issue is that Trump lacks a guiding ideology. Whereas Ted Cruz operates as a so-called “constitutional conservative” and attempts to remain as ideologically pure as possible, Trump only cares about one thing: making America great again. Sam and I might disagree on what exactly that slogan means, if it even means anything at all, but I interpret Trump’s slogan to indicate that his main focus would be on strengthening the U.S. economically, militarily, and in other ways, relative to the rest of the world. This means standing up to our allies and enemies to improve American standing and resolve, renegotiating and/or scrapping “terrible” trade deals in order to decrease the trade deficit and increase our relative gains, and keeping American jobs safe by curbing illegal immigration. Protectionism and fair trade have been part of Trump’s platform for decades. Indeed, they served as major components of his almost-campaigns of 1988 and 2000. The other issues, such as abortion and gun control, are not nearly as important to him, and though he’s articulated stances on them in the past, he’s never had strong opinions on either.
I have two theories about Trump’s campaign. The first is that Trump has purposefully become a demagogue because he knows that’s the easiest path to victory in the chaotic Republican Party. His harsh xenophobic rhetoric is a tactic to appeal to the most disillusioned conservative voters in order to win the nomination, after which he’ll moderate in order to beat Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee. The second is that Trump has actually shifted to the right on major social issues over the course of the last decade and a half, like Ronald Reagan did over during the 1950s and 60s. I find the latter much less plausible, especially considering Trump’s long history of opportunistic changes in party affiliation.
On the popular conspiracy theory that Trump is a plant to destroy the Republican Party by the Clintons, I don’t buy that at all; I think the Republican Party created the situation that allowed for a Donald Trump rise. The party sold its soul to the devil in the late twentieth century by shifting toward social conservatism, and it allowed the Tea Party to rise in response to the election of Barack Obama, feeding its base the idea that compromise is evil and that no politician can ever be trusted. An opportunistic Trump simply managed to play into both of those trends and mount an extremely successful campaign thus far. The other “conspiracy” theory is that Trump is doing this for publicity, with which I also disagree. That theory made much more sense when applied to his 1988, 2000, and 2012 almost-campaigns, but if that were the case, he wouldn’t have let his deals with NBC and Macy’s fall through. It’s possible that Trump got in too deep to turn back and decided to just keep going with it, but he never would have officially announced his intention to run for President if he wasn’t 100% intent on trying to win.
In short, Trump is an enigma like none we’ve ever seen. Is Trump a demagogue? Absolutely. Is he a charlatan? Yes. But is he a flip-flopper? On certain issues definitely, but overall, you could make a case either way. It will be interesting to see what happens on Super Tuesday, after which it will be much easier to make predictions about who will win each major party’s respective nominations.