Donald Trump has puzzled many of us here inside the Beltway. "Sui Generis," they call him. "Unprecedented" we repeat.
Unprecedented he is, in many ways. But in some important regards, Trumpism represents a return to the norm.
We have lived through an unusually ideological half century, which culminated with Barack Obama and the Tea Party. Donald Trump's rise reflects the revenge of non-ideological, which again, may be the historic norm in this country.
When my old boss and mentor, the late Bob Novak, would speak to crowds of young conservatives last decade, he would always get questions about the "RINOs" (Republicans in Name Only,) such as Sens. Jim Jeffords, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, Arlen Specter, and Lincoln Chafee. Novak would respond by pointing out that the conservative questioner could count the liberal Senate Repubilcans on one hand—that there used to be dozens of liberal GOP senators, some more liberal than the median Democratic senator.
The parties weren't sorted along ideological lines until recently. Maybe it started with LBJ, but by 2010, we had achieved maximum sorting: Obamacare killed off the Blue Dogs, and the Tea Party cleared out the RINOs.
Ideological sorting makes sense to political professionals. If we spend our time working in and writing about policies and movements, we see politics in that light. We assume politics is about imposing policy views that flow from policy frameworks.
Voters are probably more ideological today than in decades past — MSNBC and Rush Limbaugh and Daily Kos and Fox News teach voters here's what we believe. Even churches have become more ideological.
But ideology isn't a virus that keeps spreading. It's fairly contained. Most voters aren't deeply ideological, most don't have deeply held policy views on more than one issue. Politics is about something else to most people. It's largely about identity and personality.
I first met Brenda and Bob Krivanek at a 2008 Democratic Caucus in Council Bluffs, on the Western edge of Iowa. They were Biden supporters. Bob in 2008 thought Biden, with his decades on the Foreign Affairs committee, was the only one who could handle the mess in Iraq. This year, Bob caucused for Trump because he liked Trump's straightforwardness and toughness.
Alexis Chiparo voted for Obama more recently — in 2012. Romney struck her as "totally out of touch" and an "elitist snob" (thanks, in part to his "47 percent" comments). Her husband is a lifetime member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. "I haven't been involved in politics for many years," he told me outside a polling place in Concord, N.H., on the day Trump won the state.
It wasn't their polling place. The Chiparo's were standing there with Trump signs. Alexis, in fact, was the Merrimack County chairwoman of Trump for America.
She likes that Trump isn't raising money from special interests, because she thinks big money distorts politics. "I do agree with Bernie on that."
Trump's strongest group is registered Democrats.
"I will have more crossover votes than anyone who has ever run for office," Trump said in a special Donald Trump Townhall on MSNBC Wednesday Night. This typically Trumpian statement is not as absurd as it sounds.
In Washington, we assume voters stand somewhere along a political spectrum. Poll questions presume that — and in many polls, Trump ends up as the candidate of the moderates. But most people's politics are neither Left nor Right nor even in-between. They're on a different axis altogether.
In explaining the Trump phenomenon, my AEI colleague Charles Murray recently quoted historian Richard Hofstadter: "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one."
Politicians like George W. Bush and John McCain like to say that America is an idea. But maybe that idea is just, "America!"
A billion barrels of ink have been spilled by conservatives explaining that Trump is not a conservative. Sure enough, Trump doesn't believe in natural or constitutional limits on government power, he hasn't read his Burke, his Kirk, his Adam Smith, or his Thomas More. Trump lacks any clear policy principles and he shows no grasp of most policy areas.
But that just makes him like most Americans. His lack of ideology makes him an odd-ball today, but he fits fine within American history, as Hofstadter points out.
"He is for America," Erica Walters told me at a Trump rally in South Carolina. "And that's what we need — we need someone for America. A lot of people — they don't really understand what that means."
Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Tuesday and Thursday nights on washingtonexaminer.com.