The Trump Transformation: Redefining ‘Conservative’ for the GOP

Back in 2016, on the brink of the presidential primaries, the esteemed conservative platform, the National Review, took a stand. In an entire edition of their magazine, they boldly declared the ideological argument “against Trump.”

More than 20 of conservatism’s big names penned essays outlining why Trump’s campaign was, in their view, a “menace to conservatism.” Their denouncement of the then-Republican Party frontrunner was harsh, claiming him to be a “philosophically unmoored political opportunist” who would dismiss the GOP’s broad conservative ideology for an undefined populism with hints of autocracy.

Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric, which strayed from the party’s ideological consensus on issues such as government spending, free-market restrictions, and isolationist foreign policies, it was hardly shocking that he didn’t fare well with the ‘very conservative’ voters in the 2016 Republican primaries.

Fast forward to the run-up to 2024, and things have taken a U-turn. According to early polling, those ‘very conservative’ Republicans seem to have warmed up to Trump. He’s gone from gaining only 27% support among ‘very conservative’ voters in a February 2016 Quinnipiac University poll to a remarkable 61% support in the same category by March 2023.

Several other early polls mirror this shift, showing Trump commanding the approval of the majority of the ‘very conservative’ crowd while performing less impressively with other Republican voters. The question now is: what brought about this dramatic change from 2016 to 2023?

Trump’s time as president has dramatically altered the conservative landscape in U.S. politics. His influence has shaped not only the perceptions of GOP activists but also how the everyday Republican voter perceives conservatism.

Studies reveal that GOP activists now view Trump critics as much less conservative than their voting records would suggest. Conversely, those who endorse Trump are seen as the most conservative politicians. Furthermore, data from the Cooperative Election Survey confirms that Republicans nationwide now see Trump as more conservative than they did before the 2016 general election.

A prime example is how Utah Republicans’ perception of Senator Mitt Romney shifted after his February 2020 vote to convict Trump during his first impeachment trial. Romney was seen as significantly less conservative afterward. And let’s not forget former Rep. Liz Cheney, whose reputation as a staunch conservative evaporated entirely after she voted to impeach Trump in January 2021 and became one of his most vocal critics in Congress.

The story is similar for the seven Republican senators who voted to convict Trump during his second impeachment trial. All of them were rated much less conservative than their Senate voting records would suggest.

These trends suggest that Trump has not only remolded the Republican Party in his own image but also redefined what it means to be a conservative. It appears that the term ‘conservatism’ is becoming increasingly synonymous with ‘Trumpism’ in the minds of GOP voters. As such, unless there are drastic changes, we can expect Trump to continue gaining considerable support from self-identified “very conservative” Republicans in the 2024 primaries.