Why Has Donald Trump Lost So Much Conservative Support?

If you’re trying to fit in with a conservative crowd, here’s one obvious piece of advice: be conscientious. Show some discipline and restraint, or, at the very least, try not to exhibit a deficit in these areas. As a rule, conservative voters will be attracted to conscientious candidates, and repulsed by impulsive ones because people are socially attracted to those who are similar to them (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001). In politics specifically people vote for candidates whose personality is similar to their own personality and to the ideology of their party (Caprara & Zimbardo, 2004).

In the case of Donald Trump, the impulsiveness and lack of restraint are so noticeable that numerous conservatives have pointed to those characteristics are reasons to shun Trump. The National Review ran a set of 22 short essays by prominent conservatives who oppose Trump. At least half drew attention to Trump’s intemperance: “at least Ross Perot kept his craziness confined mostly to private matters” (David Boaz), “a boor” (Mona Charen), “restraint is clearly not in his vocabulary or his character” (Steven F. Hayward), “Trump says he would order the military to kill the families of terrorists . . . a direct violation of the most basic laws of armed conflict” (Michael Mukasey), and “the id is supposed to be balanced by an ego and a superego ... Trump is an unbalanced force” (John Podhoretz).

One would expect liberals to impugn Trump differently, drawing attention to Trump’s racism and sexism, but even liberals are pointing to his impulsivity. When Hillary Clinton had the convention floor, her criticism of Trump built up to this line: “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

As this punchline shows, opponents can easily portray Trump as a threat, a maniac whose recklessness will cause an immediate disaster. 

According to some social scientists, the most significant psychological feature underlying conservatism is sensitivity to external threats (Hibbing, Smith, & Alford, 2014). This makes Trump particularly repellent. In fact, conscientious people become more conservative when a nation is under systemic threat, which partially explains the link between those traits (Sibley et al., 2012).

Given human frailty, every conservative candidate is likely to have some flaws, but in many cases these flaws do not appear directly threatening. In the past fifty years, the U.S. has had Republican presidents who have variously been senile, clumsy, doltish, and paranoid. Though unappealing, these characteristics convey unreliability, not explicit danger. Only two candidates—Goldwater and Trump—have shown a level of impulsivity that allowed their opponents to portray them as direct threats. Goldwater came across as impulsive because he seemed overly keen on attacking the Soviet Union militarily. He was portrayed as a harbinger of nuclear war, and this, among other reasons, caused him to lose in a landslide. Trump is not only sanguine about nuclear war, he also expresses other forms of imprudence that Republican national security experts have evaluated as direct threats to American safety. Moreover, he has derided Gold Star families and retired members of the military, an institution that defends America against threats.