Earlier this week, Donald Trump described white nationalists who marched with torches intended to evoke the Ku Klux Klan — while chanting phrases borrowed from literal Nazis — as “very fine people.” He then suggested that the white supremacists who rallied in Charlottesville to defend the honor of men who fought to keep dark-skinned people as slaves — and the counterprotesters who gathered to defend the equal dignity of all human beings — were equally to blame for the weekend’s violence (which included one member of the first group plowing a car through members of the latter).
Finally, the president made it clear that, when comes to the substance of the dispute between the neo-Nazis and the government of Charlottesville, he sides with the skinheads.
Republican elites — and a majority of the American public — were horrified.
But the Republican base was not. A CBS News poll finds that 67 percent of GOP voters approved of Trump’s response to the attack in Charlottesville, while 82 percent of Democrats, and 53 percent of independents disapproved. Although part of the survey was taken before the president’s inflammatory Tuesday press conference, that spectacle did little to dampen Republican enthusiasm for the president’s handling of the matter: Among GOP voters who were interviewed after Trump called white nationalists “very fine people,” 66 percent said he’d done the right thing.
To put that in context: Only 35 percent of Republicans supported the Senate GOP’s health-care bill, according to an NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll released in late June.
Which is to say: The Republican base is far more supportive of Trump’s racist blather than of the legislative agenda that said blather supposedly undermines.
This puts congressional Republicans in a difficult position. Generally speaking, it’s the Democrats who try to spotlight issues that isolate the GOP base from the rest of their party and country. Promoting “wedge issues” is one of the oldest gambits in partisan politics. But now, the one working to drive a wedge between the conservative grassroots and the rest of the electorate is the Republican president of the United States.
GOP lawmakers have tried to navigate this mess by condemning Trump’s rhetoric, without saying his name. The ostensible hope being that criticizing the beliefs, but not the man, would be enough to satisfy Nazi-averse voters and die-hard Trumpists alike.
On Thursday, Tennessee senator Bob Corker took matters a step farther.
“We’re at a point where there needs to be radical changes [that] take place at the White House itself. It has to happen,” Corker told local reporters in Tennessee. “I think the president needs to take stock of the role that he plays in our nation and move beyond himself — move way beyond himself — and move to a place where daily he’s waking up thinking about what is best for the nation.”
“The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful,” Corker continued. “And we need for him to be successful.”
The senator went on to question whether Trump understands the “character of this nation,” and suggested that the president’s many deficiencies have put the country at “great peril.”
But Corker never specified what radical changes he expected to see — or why any change beyond the identity of the president would make a difference, given Trump’s resolute refusal to follow anyone’s guidance but that of his own id.
Asked whether he endorsed measures to remove Trump from office, Corker insisted that he did not.
But it wouldn’t really matter if he did. The vast majority of congressional Republicans remain supportive of the Trump presidency, because the vast majority of GOP voters do. At the end of the day, for the average Republican, Donald Trump’s racism is more appealing than Paul Ryan’s agenda.
But neither have much appeal with the broader electorate. That could be a problem for the GOP in 2018.