I don’t identify as a conservative; if anything I’m more moderate than anything else.
I think that there were really two parts to the modern Republican party - there were the small-c conservatives like **DrFidelius **mentions, who weren’t necessarily religiously or socially conservative, but held a more… philosophical set of views about government roles, government spending, personal responsibility, etc… These were the people who dominated the party through the party’s time up until Southern Democrats defected en-masse to the GOP in the 1970s.
And that’s when the wheels started to wobble significantly. These people brought in a super-heavy dose of racist-oriented policies, and aligned themselves with the Christian Right/extremely socially conservative elements.
Somewhere along the way (by my estimation, about 1989-1990ish), they discovered the power of talk radio and painting the political struggle as more than that; it now became a cultural struggle where basically “good God-fearing, family-values-oriented people who work hard and save their money” were pitted against some combination of de-facto criminal illegal immigrants, shiftless, criminal and uncouth urban dwellers, or wealthy, bleeding-heart East coast liberals who are all about spending someone else’s money (Yours!) to engage in futile efforts to help the shiftless urban people/illegal immigrants. In essence, the non-white, non-suburban crowd was portrayed as lazy criminals, and the whites who wanted to help them were portrayed as effete Easterners who want to spend hard-earned tax money to help these people. And they portrayed the efforts for religious inclusion and/or limiting state-mandated religious displays as attacks on faith, these hypothetical “conservative values”, and their very way of life, as if having to allow the Koran to be displayed at the courthouse alongside the Bible somehow attacks Christians.
Now imagine two and a half decades of relentless propaganda about these topics toward a specific set of the population- white, rural or suburban, and religious(usually Evangelical or at least not mainline Protestant or Catholic), augmented by the rise of the Internet and the echo-chamber effect and ability for the more nutty elements to self-support and feed each other, and a hefty dose of corporate astroturfing, and you got the Tea Party. Fast forward a few years, and now you have a presidential candidate who in essence isn’t playing by the rules- he’s “telling it like it is” (or should be), and sticking up for THEM (the white, suburban/rural, strict-christian crowd), and you get someone that crowd is willing to back wholeheartedly, despite his peccadilloes and general retardation otherwise.
Meanwhile, the toxic radiation from all this propaganda is still irradiating people who may not have been totally on board with this stuff, and somewhere it resonated- there were/are a LOT of people who didn’t like Trump at all, but were totally against voting Democrat. Maybe they felt that Congress would rein in his stupidity, maybe they felt like he’d actually attempt to govern in a more conventional fashion, and almost assuredly, they thought Congress would retain more independence in policy making and thought than they have. Maybe they were just so against certain issues that they felt that having Trump in office was the lesser evil vs. some Democratic policies. Maybe they felt that even though they didn’t like Trump, they still didn’t feel like the Democrats were aiming anything their way. Either way, there were a lot of people who voted for the “R” after his name, and not for Trump himself in 2016.
That’s how we got him, in my view. I suspect that last crowd may vote differently come 2020; he probably won’t be seen as the lesser evil any longer by many.