Conservatives Wonder, Will The Real Donald Trump Please Stand Up?

Dec 23, 2016
Originally published on December 31, 2016 11:01 am

Here are some of the ways Donald Trump has described himself during the 2016 presidential campaign:

"Very conservative."

"A common-sense conservative."

"A conservative with a heart."

But talk to conservative activists, and it's not unusual to still hear things like this:

"Well, I remain a skeptic," says activist and GOP campaign veteran Rick Tyler, who adds, "I don't know that Donald Trump is a conservative."

Billionaire businessman, reality TV star and first-time candidate Trump challenged, insulted, befuddled, shocked and, finally, took over the Republican Party on his way to becoming president-elect. He managed that accomplishment without adhering to traditional conservative principles. In fact, at times it was hard to discern any ideology at all besides a loyalty to himself and a determination to completely upend the American political process.

With just weeks until he is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, conservative activists — like many Americans — will be watching to see just how conservative a president Trump is.

Cabinet picks encourage some; Trump tweets don't

Tyler was communication director for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign. Cruz entered the race thinking he would secure the nomination with help from the GOP's most conservative members — especially evangelicals and members of the Tea Party, who viewed him as a hero for his repeated efforts to repeal Obamacare.

Cruz lost, and eventually endorsed Trump in late September, prompting Tyler to say, "It's mourning in America for conservatives. We lost our leader today."

On Election Day, Tyler says, he voted not for Trump, but for independent candidate Evan McMullin.

Still, he says, he's been watching closely as the president-elect assembles his team, and thinks there are at least some indications that Trump will change as president, and actually govern as a conservative.

"If you look at his Cabinet appointments, I can't imagine a more conservative Cabinet than he's picked so far," Tyler says.

Then he adds something he never imagined during the campaign: "Some might say it would be even more conservative than Ted Cruz's Cabinet."

He cautions, though, that Trump's position on free trade and trade deals remains anything but conservative.

Then there's Trump's undisciplined use of Twitter — unprecedented for someone in his position — and a very un-conservative approach to communicating.

He's talking about the @RealDonaldTrump Twitter account, but also Trump's unscripted rhetoric at his rallies.

"You can say you're joking around, but it confuses a lot of people," Tyler says. It may be OK to say things to confuse our enemies, he adds.

"That's certainly true in war," he says, but "I don't think it's OK to confuse the world in diplomacy and foreign policy."

Evangelicals backed Trump, but say they demand results

Bob Vander Plaats is one of the country's top evangelical voices. Based in Iowa, Vander Plaats backed Cruz for president, but says he voted for Trump and has been friends with him for years. He recalls a meeting with candidate Trump this summer, after the primaries were over.

"At that time I told him, 'I'm not going to endorse you, but I'll be your friend. And that means when you do things that are worthy of cheering you on, I'll cheer you on,' " Vander Plaats says. But he also told Trump, "When you do things that are outside the lines, outside the boundaries, I'm gonna try to hold you accountable."

In fact, when the infamous Access Hollywood tape emerged, in which Trump talked about being able to force himself on women because "when you're a star you can do anything, grab 'em by the [expletive]," Vander Plaats called for Trump to quit the race. He says it was just one of many times he thought Trump's campaign was over.

He was wrong.

Vander Plaats did vote for Trump, but says his approach going forward with the new president will be the same as he told the candidate at that meeting in the summer.

One thing that Vander Plaats has always been happy about was Trump's selection of Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. To evangelical voters, the presence of Pence as vice president is very reassuring.

"Mike Pence is one of us," says Vander Plaats, "He comes from us, not just to us."

Very early on, he says, Trump will face an important test, when he decides on a nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Vander Plaats puts it succinctly. "The real test: Who does he appoint to the Supreme Court."

For the Tea Party, perhaps a chance to relax?

Finally, to a group that has been an uncompromising attack force against Democrats — and even some Republicans — the Tea Party. Tom Zawistowski leads a Tea Party group in northeast Ohio, where he says they are basking in Trump's victory, and even relaxing a bit. He says it's like they've been at war for almost eight years, and that war is over. Their guys won. That, he says, will allow them to shift the focus from Washington to home.

"It's kind of a takeoff on Trump's 'Make America Great Again,' " he says. "But now it's kind of something like, 'Make our communities great again.' "

Zawistowski says the transition has been everything he has hoped for so far. He applauds Trump's Cabinet choices, including Rep. Mike Mulvaney of South Carolina, picked to be budget director.

"For the first time our people are in the room, you know? At the meeting." So Zawistowski says they now have the luxury of sitting back and watching people you trust go to work. "I think you owe them that. You owe them that respect, because they are where they are because you put 'em there.

But if it's strange to hear a Tea Partly leader say "stand down," Zawistowki says they'll still be watching.

And if Trump goes astray, or if GOP leaders stand in the way, he promises the Tea Party response will be very loud.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So Donald Trump took over the Republican Party on his way to becoming president-elect. And he did so without adhering to traditional conservative principles, which means conservative activists, like many Americans, will be watching to see just how conservative a President Trump will be. Here's NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Donald Trump has described himself as very conservative, a common sense conservative and a conservative with a heart. But talk to conservative activists, and it's not unusual to still hear things like this.

RICK TYLER: Well, I remain a skeptic. I don't know that Donald Trump is a conservative.

GONYEA: That's Rick Tyler, a GOP campaign veteran who was a key player in Senator Ted Cruz's White House bid. Tyler says he didn't vote for Trump, casting his ballot for independent Evan McMullin instead. But he does offer this about the president-elect.

TYLER: He may change. And if you look at his Cabinet appointments, I can't imagine a more conservative Cabinet that he's picked so far. Some might even say it would be more conservative than Ted Cruz's Cabinet.

GONYEA: Tyler cautions, though, that Trump has been anything but conservative on trade and trade deals. Then there's Trump's undisciplined use of Twitter, unprecedented for someone in his position, and a very unconservative (ph) approach to communicating.

TYLER: You can say you're joking around, but it confuses a lot of people. And sometimes it's OK to confuse our enemies, that's certainly true in war. But I don't think it's OK to confuse the world in diplomacy and foreign policy.

GONYEA: Bob Vander Plaats is one of the country's top evangelical voices. Based in Iowa, he backed Cruz for president, but says he voted for Trump and has been friends with him for years. He met with candidate Trump this summer after the primaries were over.

BOB VANDER PLAATS: At that time I told him I will be your friend. I'm not looking to endorse you, but I'll be your friend. That means when you do things that are worthy of cheering on, I'll cheer you on. And when you do things that are outside of the lines, outside the boundaries, I'm going to trying to hold you accountable.

GONYEA: And he's done that, including calling on Trump to drop out after hearing that famous "Access Hollywood" tape featuring Trump using vulgar language describing grabbing women.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH: Whatever you want.

TRUMP: Grab them by the [expletive].

BUSH: (Laughter).

TRUMP: Do anything.

GONYEA: Vander Plaats says it was one of many times he thought it was all over for Trump. Looking ahead, he says, he's reassured by the presence of Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

VANDER PLAATS: Mike Pence is one of us. He comes from us, not just to us.

GONYEA: Vander Plaats says he expects Trump to have a chance to send a message to conservatives very early on.

VANDER PLAATS: The real test is going to be, who does he appoint to the Supreme Court?

GONYEA: Finally, to a group that's been an unrelenting, uncompromising attack force against Democrats and even some Republicans - the Tea Party. Tom Zawistowski leads a Tea Party group in Northeast Ohio, where he says they're basking in Trump's victory and even relaxing a bit. He says they may now be able to shift the focus from Washington to home.

TOM ZAWISTOWSKI: It's kind of a take-off on Trump's, you know, make America great again. It's kind of something like make our communities great again.

GONYEA: He applauds Trump's Cabinet choices.

ZAWISTOWSKI: For the first time, our people are in the room, you know, at the meeting. You know, when you have your people, when you have people you've worked with and that you've learned to trust over years, I think you owe them that. You know, you owe them that respect because they're where they are because you put them there.

GONYEA: But if it sounds strange to hear a Tea Party leader say stand down, Zawistowski says they'll be watching. And if Trump goes astray or GOP leaders stand in his way, he promises the Tea Party response will be very loud.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF KOLOTO SONG, "FOX TALES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.