In late November, congressional Republicans learned that Donald Trump’s election had forever changed their party’s ideology. GOP lawmakers were holding a closed-door whip meeting when Stephen Moore delivered the news.
A founder of the Club for Growth, and chief economist at the Heritage Foundation, Moore had a claim to conservative purity stronger than most. And yet, the high priest of supply-side voodoo economics had also served as an adviser to the Trump campaign — and came to believe that its triumph marked the end of the GOP as he’d known it.
“Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party,” Moore told The Hill, summarizing his remarks to the congressional Republicans. “In some ways this will be good for conservatives and in other ways possibly frustrating.”
The president-elect’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, echoed this assessment. “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. It’s everything related to jobs,” Bannon informed The Hollywood Reporter. “The conservatives are going to go crazy.”
These pronouncements sounded improbable, but not implausible (few things did in the aftermath of November 8). After all, Trump had won the GOP nomination, and then the presidency, as a different kind of Republican — one who backed radical restrictions to immigration, trade protectionism, infrastructure stimulus, universal health care, a Jacksonian foreign policy that spurned both nation-building and international law, and maintaining Social Security and Medicare at their current benefit levels. In his shambolic, improvisatory way, Trump had articulated a new vision for the American right, one that combined rabid nativism with welfare chauvinism, economic nationalism, and neo-isolationism.
Last night, President Trump declared his support for prolonging America’s war in Afghanistan indefinitely. Last week, his administration’s lone proponent of a break with conservative economics was exiled from the White House. Over the last seven months, Trump has proven himself a loyal servant of the GOP Establishment’s agenda, as he’s pushed for draconian cuts to entitlement programs that he’d promised to protect; avoided trade wars, while dutifully prosecuting actual ones; let corporate interests dictate regulatory policy; and touted tax cuts for the rich as a panacea for all that ails the American economy.
Given how committed the Republican Party’s donors and institutions are to trickle-down economics and interventionist foreign policy, it would have been a Herculean task for any president to convert the congressional GOP to paleo-conservative populism in one fell swoop; a president who pays more attention to Fox & Friends than the details of his domestic agenda never had a prayer.
And yet, just because Trump hasn’t turned Paul Ryan into a populist, doesn’t mean that he hasn’t popularized a new ideology with the GOP base.
Trump may be too intellectually incompetent and ideologically indifferent to displace the conservative movement’s governing agenda. But that is no testament to that agenda’s popularity or vitality. During the fight over Obamacare repeal, Republican voters evinced the same level of enthusiasm for Paul Ryan’s priorities as they did during the 2016 primary — which is to say, almost none.
The president may have abandoned most of his heterodox policy views, but he’s yet to back away from the true core of his political philosophy, a creed that can be summarized in two words: “Trump first.” And given the choice between the House GOP’s movement conservatism and the president’s maniacal narcissism, a lot of Republican voters are picking the latter. As Politico reports:
Taxes, spending and even health care have taken a back seat to the most potent new litmus test in Republican primaries: allegiance to President Donald Trump.
… Loyalty to Trump has quickly become the most potent issue for the Republican base, according to a dozen candidates and strategists immersed in 2018 races. It has already put Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller under pressure in their states, sparked bickering between GOP candidates in two of Republicans’ top 2018 targets, Indiana and West Virginia, and sunk one candidate running for Alabama’s open Senate seat.
… One Republican strategist said polling shows staunch support of Trump is the top attribute primary voters are seeking in candidates right now. At least one-third of GOP primary voters identify themselves as “Trump Republicans” (as opposed to “tea party Republicans” or “mainstream Republicans”) in state after state, according to internal polling conducted by a Republican group, with that number reaching 40 percent in some states.
One could argue that most “Trump Republicans” root their political identity in an ideological stance — specifically, support for nativism. Immigration has always been the mogul’s signature issue, and one that genuinely divides the GOP’s “elites” from its grassroots.
But in Republican primaries this year, debates over loyalty to Trump have often been divorced from all policy questions, with candidates touting fealty to the president’s cult of personality as a defining value, in itself. Alabama congressman Mo Brooks is no one’s squish on immigration. But he dared to criticize Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign, and that was enough to torpedo his Senate bid earlier this month.
In West Virginia, both Republican candidates for Senate endorsed Donald Trump in 2016 — but congressman Evan Jenkins has lambasted Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for waiting too long to do so.
“I supported only one candidate in the 2016 election: Donald Trump,” Jenkins told Politico. “The story is clear: Donald Trump was not Patrick Morrisey’s choice for president.”
Remarkably, some in the Republican Establishment remain certain that what GOP voters really care about is financing tax cuts for the rich by dismantling the welfare state. Here’s Politico again:
Andy Roth, vice president at the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group that promotes conservative candidates in Republican primaries, insists that policies are still driving Republican voters’ decisions more than blind support for the president.
“Voters are supporting Trump because they support his conservative agenda: They want to repeal and replace Obamacare and they want real tax reform,” he said. “I think voters, at the end of the day, still care about the defining issues.”
Club spokeswoman Rachael Slobodien noted that [Arizona senator Jeff] Flake has supported some of Trump’s “most significant policy and confirmation battles,” including every vote to repeal Obamacare and every single Trump nominee.
Slobodien is right: Flake has been exceptionally loyal to Donald Trump’s policy priorities. But he has also been exceptionally disloyal to the president, personally, writing a book-length indictment of Trump’s affronts to civility.
Flake’s combination of support for the Trump agenda — and contempt for the president’s vulgarity — has earned him one of the lowest approval ratings of any senator, and multiple, well-funded primary challengers.
President Trump is weak, isolated, and deeply unpopular. But so are the evangelists of small-government conservatism. The intellectual bankruptcy of the latter’s ideology prevented Establishment Republicans from ending Trump’s candidacy — and may well make it impossible for them to end his presidency, no matter what madness lies ahead.