Everyone who votes—really, everyone who so much as watches an occasional late-night monologue—is familiar with the political flip-flop. A politician takes a position that turns out to be less advantageous than he had anticipated, and so he starts saying that, in fact, he supports the opposite position, hoping no one notices. Back in 189src, a New York District Attorney candidate, John W. Goff, accused his rival of denouncing Tammany Hall before joining it—“I would like to hear Mr. [De Lancey] Nicoll explain his great flip-flop”—but the term really came into everyday use with the rise of cable news, which put everyone on the record. “Read my lips. No new taxes,” George H. W. Bush said, at the 1988 Republican National Convention, then raised taxes two years later anyway. When conservative activists denounced Bush for breaking his pledge and flip-flopping, as they did for years afterward, it was a way for them to call a famous politician an opportunist and a faker.
In the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands, as the center-left was evolving, the label was most effectively applied to those telegenic figures—Bill and Hillary Clinton, Tony Blair, John Edwards—who were suspected of ideological inconstancy and of substituting polls for principles. (Hillary Clinton, in 2srcsrc4: “I believe marriage is not just a bond but a sacred bond between a man and a woman.” In 2src13: “I support marriage for lesbian and gay couples.”) For Democrats whose hair was a little too perfect and whose ideology a little too vague, forestalling accusations of flip-flopping could be preoccupying; Barack Obama’s frequent invocations of his personal biography operated as a shield against the accusation that he, like other liberals of his type, was inauthentic.
Recently, a new pattern has come to light. The 2src22 midterm race features a generation of emerging Republican politicians who have spent years moving back and forth between more or less conventional conservative positions and ones that were self-consciously extreme and, in some cases, profoundly illiberal. Blake Masters, a well-funded political novice running for the Senate, won the Arizona Republican primary after calling abortion “genocide” and then, as the general election loomed, scrubbed his anti-abortion position from his Web site; he also took down a line pronouncing the 2src2src Presidential election not “free and fair.” The Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance, who in 2src17 had said, on CNN, that he was “horrified” by the “display of white nationalism” at Charlottesville, won Donald Trump’s endorsement this year and then condemned the outcry over those events as a “ridiculous race hoax.” Earlier this month, Mehmet Oz, the Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, told a group of reporters that he would have voted to certify the 2src2src Presidential election and then hedged when the very same day he was asked on Fox News whether the election was stolen, saying, “There’s lots more information we have to gather in order to determine that.” For both their base and the rest of us, these candidates’ flip-flops seem to raise a more substantive question: Which is the part that they really meant and which is the part for show? Are they wolves in sheep’s clothing, or the other way around?
A particularly eye-catching example emerged this month in New Hampshire, where Donald Bolduc, a retired brigadier general, won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Bolduc is sixty years old, short, and muscular, with the high energy of a late-middle-age N.F.L. referee. He ran as a pugnacious Trumpist outsider, and if he had a singular talent it was for turning outrageous positions into good sound bites. He called the state’s very popular Republican governor, Chris Sununu, a “Chinese Communist sympathizer” and alluded, in a 2src2src campaign for the Senate, to the conspiracy theory that the coronavirus vaccine was a Trojan horse for a plot by Bill Gates to implant microchips in unwitting Americans: “The only chip that’s going inside me is a Dorito,” Bolduc had said, pretty memorably. He was especially clear about his conviction that the Democrats and Joe Biden had stolen the Presidency from Trump. At a debate on August 14th, he told the audience, “So, I signed a letter with a hundred and twenty other generals and admirals saying that Trump won the election and, dammit, I stand by my horse. I’m not switching horses, baby. This is it.”
Of course, as the “Read my lips” incident suggests, overstatement can be a sign that a flop is coming. Bolduc is facing a general election against the incumbent, Democrat Senator Maggie Hassan—in which he is clearly an underdog. After he won the primary by a little under two thousand votes, on September 13th, having withstood four million dollars’ worth of attack ads from a super PAC associated with the Republican establishment, the general delivered a victory speech to a dozen or so supporters and a few reporters. Bolduc held a small wooden shield, one that might be a prop in a Christmas pageant, with arrows stuck in it. “We have taken their arrows,” he said. “We have successfully protected ourselves”—he indicated the circular shape of the shield—“and we will now rally around the circle: Unity, Freedom, Liberty.”
Unity? That didn’t sound especially Trumpy. Two days later, he appeared on Fox News and explained that he’d had a change of heart when it came to the 2src2src election. “I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I’ve spent the past couple weeks talking to Granite Staters all over the state from every party, and I have come to the conclusion—and I want to be definitive on this—the election was not stolen.” Bolduc went on, “Elections have consequences and, unfortunately, President Biden is the legitimate President of this country.”
Even in the long history of the political flip-flop, so quickly and casually reversing on the matter of whether democracy is rigged and the Presidential election stolen breaks new ground. Not long after Bolduc’s appearance on Fox News, I visited his campaign’s Facebook page, which was experiencing a vituperative backlash from both sides: those who were certain that he was disingenuously distancing himself from Trump’s attacks on democracy out of political necessity, and those who suspected that he had disingenuously supported them in the first place. One Douglas Johnson wrote: “So you managed to get the GOP nomination partially based on that lie, now in the general election you have backed off because of ‘reflection.’ Gotta put on a more moderate face for the non-maga crowd?” Another commenter, Joe Carol Chem, articulated a different view: “If you continue to say Biden won the election legitimately, you are either lying or deceived! Which is it?”
These are all very good questions.
A few days ago, I drove to a small vineyard in Hollis, a town in southern New Hampshire, to see Bolduc on the stump. The route I had taken out of Boston sent me through Lowell, Massachusetts, where, in January, 2src16, I had attended an especially bloodthirsty Trump campaign rally at a minor-league-hockey stadium. It wasn’t the first Trump campaign rally I had been to, nor the largest one, but it was intense enough that for the first time I had the distinct feeling that Trump might be unstoppable—not just as a candidate, but as President. People who worry about politics often worry that it is too cynical (the source of the focus on flip-flops), but during the Trump years we mostly worried that it was too sincere—that some of Trump’s adherents might be exactly as nativist, as racist, as violent, and as paranoid as they sounded in the crucible of his stadium rallies. The more sincere they were, in some sense, the worse the prognosis was for the rest of us.
Accompanying Bolduc in Hollis was Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, who had denounced Trump in 2src16 over his refusal to reject the endorsement of David Duke—“I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the K.K.K.”—and less than a year later began working for Trump as an ambassador to the U.N. She is now exploring a Presidential run of her own, and her presence in New Hampshire, as much as anything, was a reminder that the Republican Party had not been entirely bereft of political talent before Trump. She opened by calling out to all the veterans in the crowd, before mentioning that her father, brother, and husband had all fought overseas, and that—grinning now—her husband’s service in the South Carolina National Guard when she was governor meant that she was his commander, “which I never tire of reminding him.” In a few sentences, she’d situated herself as politically conservative on national defense, made reference to traditional gender roles and then undermined them, linked her own experience with the crowd’s, and generally reminded everyone that it had probably taken a lot of intelligence and savvy for a thirty-eight-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants to become, in 2src11, the first woman governor in the history of South Carolina.
These days, even the putatively extremist candidates, the ones understood to represent an existential threat to the Republican Party establishment, have consultants and advisers within it. Bolduc’s main strategist is Rick Wiley, a veteran Republican hand who managed Scott Walker’s 2src16 Presidential campaign. When Liz Cheney lost her primary in Wyoming this summer, the main strategist for her MAGA-backed opponent was Bill Stepien, who just a few weeks earlier had been a star anti-Trump witness before the January 6th committee, which Cheney co-chaired. The situation was especially extreme in Ohio’s Senate primary this spring, where victory was understood to hinge on Trump’s endorsement, and so a field of previously conventional Republican candidates, advised by some of the most prominent consultants in the country, ran campaigns that seesawed between wild-eyed MAGA assertions and self-abnegating apologies for not having always seen things this way. At most campaign stops,Vance would take a moment to address his flip-flop on Trump—which he called “the elephant in the room.”
These candidates, and their consultants, might have understood something about the way in which Trump changed the conditions of the flip-flop. The former President reversed himself almost constantly on issues that were generally understood to constitute red lines: abortion, taxes, war. A whole new category of reporter—the political fact checker, with reference files full of Trump’s prior tweets and contradictory statements—flourished, and yet none of the flip-flops these checkers pointed out seemed to cause much damage to Trump. Were we gaslighted? Was our media too fractured, and were too many of us getting our news from Russian bots or conspiracy-minded relatives on Facebook? Maybe a little, but the simpler explanation was that Trump’s flip-flops didn’t change anyone’s mind about Trump, because we were all so sure about what we thought of him already.
In a 2src19 paper, titled “Teflon Don or Politics as Usual? An Examination of Foreign Policy Flip-Flops in the Age of Trump,” a group of political scientists, led by the University of Maryland’s Sarah E. Croco, examined two Trump decisions (an air strike on a Syrian-government airbase and a relaxation of auto tariffs on the European Union) that contradicted Trump’s prior statements. The researchers found that informing participants that Trump had flip-flopped on the issue did nothing to change their appraisal of it. To properly evaluate “flip-flopping in the age of Trump,” Croco and her team wrote, required paying attention to the fact that Americans were increasingly polarized and had highly entrenched opinions on Trump’s ability to serve. These factors, they concluded, made “any flip-flop on matters of foreign policy of relatively little consequence to voters.” This was one finding, confined to foreign-policy issues, but it echoed a general political impression from the Trump years: that being pro- or anti-Trump seemed so deep an identity that very little could dislodge it. When the President abandoned a prior position for a more expedient one, his supporters tended to downplay the switch as a political necessity required to trick someone else, and not something that revealed his lack of conviction. This isn’t a healthy sign of a deliberative democracy. But if you were a political candidate, or an operative, you might view it differently: as an extraordinary asset for any politician to have.
In Hollis, Bolduc took a lap around the crowd before he ascended the podium. He was happy and proud (“We did it!” he kept crying out to well-wishers) and had a good rah-rah energy. Standing a few feet from me, Bolduc, when presented with an infant, looked for a second as if he might kiss the baby but instead just pinched a cheek and cooed. At the podium, Bolduc said he still “hadn’t gotten over the fact” that Haley asked him to address her as Nikki: “So I start off with ‘Governor,’ ‘Ambassador,’ to make myself feel comfortable.” (Haley, off mike, graciously said: “Those were just moments in time!”) When the general got down to business, he sounded as if he were working from an almost entirely different playbook than Haley’s. “The Biden Administration, with the help of Senator Hassan, has undermined our values and principles in this great nation,” Bolduc said. “They are taking God out of our communities, to the detriment of every one of our institutions. That is clear in the problems we have with our families, our religious institutions, our economy, our education system.”
Bolduc’s stump speech ran almost ten minutes, and by the end a plain truth had surfaced: he just wasn’t very good at this. Bolduc barely touched on the economy, saying just that New Hampshire needed a senator who would “say ‘hell no’ to inflation,” and, though he acknowledged the need to “reach the independents,” he said that he planned to do so by stressing the issues that had won him the primary—a staunch Southern border, an opposition to wokeness in the military. This led him down a bizarre path. A new policy at West Point, Bolduc told the audience, held that cadets could “no longer call your mother ‘Mom’ or your father ‘Dad’—you can just call them your ‘parent’ or your ‘guardian.’ ” (The talking point likely stemmed from a Fox News “exclusive” about a diversity-and-inclusion training at the Air Force Academy.) Bolduc sensed a supportive ripple from the crowd, and leaned in. “Nobody’s taking that title away from me!” he cried. “You’re not gonna tell my grandchildren they can’t call me Bubba! My sons, grown men—they still call their mother Momma!” I looked over at Haley, who was clapping and smiling supportively. What in the world were we doing?
Bolduc didn’t echo his statement that Biden was legitimately elected (he said nothing about it either way), and he sounded the same MAGA notes he always had. Driving away, I thought through the evidence. If Bolduc had never believed that the election was stolen, then he had spent many months building a political identity around a lie, offering lengthy explanations in support of it and voicing political views in line with those of other people who believed it, even though the position carried some legal risk and limited political advantage. On the other hand, if he had always believed that the election was stolen, then he had lied exactly once, at a time that would have accorded him maximum political advantage (since he needed to persuade swing voters to give him a second look and Republican donors that he wasn’t a lost cause) and then immediately stopped lying. One of these versions was much easier to believe than the other.
On the day of the event in Hollis, Bolduc appeared on “The Mel K Show,” a fringe podcast that the Times described as “aligned with the QAnon conspiracy movement,” where he insisted that there had been fraud in the 2src2src election which needed investigating, the very position he had seven days earlier disavowed. He also hinted at why he might have said on Fox News that Biden had been legitimately elected, even if he didn’t believe it. “The narrative that the election was stolen,” Bolduc said, “it does not fly up here in New Hampshire, for whatever reason.” As a description of the preferences of New Hampshire voters, this was broadly right and suggested that he’d been paying attention to something: polls of general-election voters, or even their reaction at his events. As an account of his own flip-flop, it gave the game away. ♦