Would Trump Voters Really Revolt If He Kept DACA?

Infinite pixels have been spilled over what motivated Trump’s voters in the 2016 election, with an endless barrage of research and anecdotes to bolster each competing analysis. But Trump’s reported deal with Democrats to salvage the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will provide a real-world test of what motivates most Trump partisans and what sort of compromises they will tolerate.

If cruel racism was the core driver, then most of Trump’s voters will abandon him in droves for allowing the children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the country in exchange for relatively minor increases to border security. If not, his supporters will shrug it off and stick by him, trusting him to accomplish other objectives. Trump’s poll numbers may even rise as a result after cratering during nine months of overt bigotry.

Certainly, the hardline conservative “nationalist” media apparatus is treating Trump’s ostensible pivot as a life-or-death breaking point. The likes of Ann Coulter, the openly racist Steve King (R-IA) and the editors of Breitbart are all but announcing that they will abandon Trump over it, and loudly proclaiming that they speak for the Republican and even independent/Democratic crossover base that elected him.

But as Greg Sargent sagely notes, white nationalist propagandists seem to be protesting a bit too much. The three-alarm-fire sirens blaring from The Drudge Report and AM radio sound less like genuine panic over immigration policy and Trump’s allegiances, and more like the shouts of blustering con artists fearful lest it be revealed that they and their ideas lack as much pull with Trump’s voter base as is commonly believed.

Sargent cogently speculates that ending DACA just might not be so important to Republicans outside of a relative few committed deplorables. After all, DACA is overwhelmingly popular even among Republicans: almost seven in ten Republicans think that those covered by the program should be able to stay. That doesn’t mean the committed 29% of registered Republicans who want to deport the Dreamers couldn’t cause havoc for Republicans in primary elections, but it’s likely a stretch to say that Trump’s base would abandon him en masse.

Chris Hayes speculates that Republicans might stick by Trump even in the face of revolt from the white nationalist conservative media complex out of personal loyalty to their God-Emperor Trump. But this is part of what I derisively call the “Pied Piper Theory of Politics”: the notion that seeming ideological movements are truly cults of personality that will follow the Leader’s dictates almost no matter what they may be. This argument is somewhat ludicrously used (as in this Joshua Holland piece) to argue that Trump’s heretical stances on free trade and libertarian economics were not core parts of Trump’s appeal to a Republican electorate that had rebelled from Paul Ryan’s economic royalists on those issues, but rather that Trump’s GOP base was inorganically dragged to those positions having first swarmed like moths to Trump’s Blood and Soil racist nationalism. (Similarly sketchy Pied Piper arguments are made about Sanders supporters’ ideological and policy convictions as well.)

In this telling of affairs, even if Republicans don’t revolt from Trump for playing nice with Democrats and keeping DACA even without getting a border wall in exchange, it wouldn’t be because such policies weren’t the biggest motivator for his base. Rather, the theory goes that having secured their loyalty through promises of deportation, Trump would be dragging a deluded and captivated electorate with him to oppose deportation. This is a risible notion, especially given the strong show of support or DACA among registered Republican voters. If Trump’s supporters fail to break with him for preserving DACA, it will prove exactly what it seems to: that the issue just wasn’t that important to them in the first place.

Interestingly, the current situation leaves much of the center-left commentariat siding with Ann Coulter in assuming that if Trump betrays white nationalism and goes “soft” on DACA and the border wall, his base will revolt. Unlike Coulter whose relevance depends on her being right about this, the liberal commentators here reserve the right to blame a failure to revolt on Trump’s blinkered devotees being willing to follow him anywhere, but this is a flimsy fig leaf.

If Trump’s base sticks by him in the wake of a DACA and his poll numbers rise after cratering dramatically in nine months of vicious bigotry, it will say something about why he got elected. If his base throws Trump overboard and demands his removal over it, then it will confirm what many suspect about that animus of those who sent him to the White House. It will be an interesting test.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.