the republican party

The GOP’s Establishment Is More Populist Than Its Trumpists

Too Mitt to quit. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump is gone from D.C., but the divisions he sowed among congressional Republicans remain.

There is no GOP “civil war.” Proudly anti-Trump Republicans are a marginal prescence on Capitol Hill. There was a moment — in the immediate aftermath of the January 6 riot — when the GOP old-guard appeared to contemplate a clean break with the insurrectionist-in-chief; their polling swiftly vetoed that possibility. Nevertheless, some congressional Republicans devoutly worship at the altar of America’s true president, while others insist that the party must establish an identity that’s distinct from Trump’s.

“It’s important that we not be a personality-based party,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told Politico this week. “Durability as a political party is based around a set of ideas.”

Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy — one of the few Republicans to vote for Trump’s conviction in the impeachment trial last month — articulated a stronger version of Thune’s position in an interview with CNN. “Over the last four years, [Republicans] lost the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidency. That has not happened … since Herbert Hoover,” Cassidy observed. “If we plan to win in 2022 and 2024, we have to listen to the voters. Not just those who really like President Trump, but also those who perhaps are less sure.”

In Congress’s other chamber, meanwhile, the GOP caucus’s Trumpist majority insists that it’s Cassidy & Co. who are ignoring the will of the people, with Alabama congressman Mo Brooks telling Politico, “Our more liberal, establishment brethren in the Senate have not been faring very well. Those were the only ones that lost in 2020.”

As Politico emphasizes, the split between the GOP Establishment and its rising Trumpist contingent overlaps quite a bit with the split between the two chambers: While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to support reelection bids of incumbent Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment, House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy has declined to extend any such reassurance to anti-insurrectionist Republicans in the House.

Partisans of the Trump contingent have sanctified this divide as a populist conflict between Red America’s blue-collar many and its country-club few. As congressman Jim Jordan, the Platonic ideal of a Trump apostle, tweeted last month, “The Republican Party is no longer the ‘wine and cheese’ party. It’s the beer and blue jeans party.” Less intellectually constrained conservatives have made more elaborate versions of this argument, arguing that both parties’ Establishments constitute “an aristocratic counter-revolutionary class” arrayed against a “set of voters with a revolutionary consciousness who believe in the possibility of transformative change” (or, as Trump prefers to call them, “beautiful boaters”). Phrased in these terms, the Trumpists’ case is absurd. But their perspective isn’t entirely without a factual basis.

Donald Trump did change the composition of the GOP coalition in a manner that’s left the party’s voting base less affluent than it was previously. And during his 2016 primary campaign, the mogul did endorse some heretical economic policies that would benefit the Trumpenproletariat at the GOP donor class’s expense.

Once in office, however, Trump governed as a hard-right Republican. He devoted his first year in office to failed efforts at slashing public health insurance for the poor and a more successful bid to cut taxes for the wealthy. He prioritized the profit margins of coal-fired power plants over the respiratory health of working-class Republicans who live in their vicinity. He made it easier for payday lenders to fleece cash-strapped veterans. Every once in a while, the fact that Trump was not molded by conservative institutions — and thus had no ideological commitment to the right’s laissez-faire agenda — would assert itself, as it did at the very end of his presidency, when the lame duck–in-chief called for $2,000 relief checks.

But now that Trump is back in Mar-a-Lago, the idiosyncratic impulses of the erstwhile New York Democrat (who once called for $5.7 trillion wealth tax) no longer inform his faction’s outlook on Capitol Hill. To the contrary, the Congressional Republicans most worshipful of Trump also tend to be among the most orthodox in their economic views. This is because House Republicans in deep-red districts have the strongest incentives to guard their right flanks — both by genuflecting to Trump’s cult of personality and by upholding conservative purity on all manner of policies. After all, Trump is not going to make trouble for any GOP incumbent who licks his boots no matter their ideological inclinations. The mogul does not care about public policy and has no animating political ambition beyond self-aggrandizement. By contrast, the still formidable Republican big-dollar donor network will give GOP incumbents a headache if they decide to take their own “blue jeans party” rhetoric seriously.

Thus, as Politico reports, it is the Establishment Republican Trump skeptics in the Senate who evince interest in supporting a modest minimum wage increase, while the pro-Trump “populists” hold the line on $7.25 in the House:


Senate Republicans are open to cutting a deal on raising the minimum wage and are warmer toward earmarks, in addition to some presidential nominees, than House Republicans would like. House Republicans are mulling taking a strong position against earmarks and have little interest in raising the minimum wage, one of the hottest debates in Washington right now.

“You will always have a handful of Republicans that vote to raise the minimum wage, but it’s only a handful,” said Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), noting that more House GOP members tend to live in districts where the cost of living is cheaper. “Broadly speaking, there is belief among Republicans we shouldn’t get into this on the federal level.”

If one posits that Trumpist Republicans’ true constituents — the voters to whom they feel themselves accountable and with whom they share a social world — are miserly small business owners, then their position on the minimum wage is a defense of their constituents’ material interests. On the other hand, if you insist that Trumpists represent the working people of this country — as the Trumpists themselves are wont to do — then the lawmakers’ opposition to raising the wage floor is a grave betrayal of their base. As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent notes, the roughly 24 million U.S. workers who earn less than $15 an hour are disproportionately concentrated in red America.

Graphic: Brookings Institute/The Washington Post

To be sure, no GOP senators support a $15 minimum wage either. And the senator who has done the most to define himself as a Trumpian populist, Josh Hawley, has actually taken a heterodox, vaguely progressive (if dumb) position on raising the wage floor. 

Nevertheless, the congressional Republican who has done the most to advance the interests of the party’s working-class constituents — in defiance of GOP orthodoxy — is not Hawley or any congressional Trumpist, but rather the most anti-Trump and immaculately Establishment Republican on Capitol Hill: Mitt Romney.

The Utah Senator is the only Republican in the upper chamber to have voted for Trump’s impeachment twice. As the GOP’s last pre-Trump nominee — and the standard-bearer of the most unabashedly pro-plutocrat presidential campaign Republicans have run this century — Romney is a walking antithesis of all that House Trumpists claim to stand for. And yet it is Romney who is pushing to help working-class conservatives sustain the large families they often favor by providing them with a monthly child allowance. Were Romney’s bill enacted, the parents of a child born next year would receive $62,600 in child support from Uncle Sam by the time that kid turned 18. That is exponentially more than Jim Jordan has ever contemplated doing for a “beer and blue jeans” type of family. And yet, for endorsing such a generous program, Romney has earned criticism from many of his party’s self-avowed “pro-worker” conservatives.

One can understand why Republicans who have embraced Trump sycophancy for careerist reasons would wish to cast their allegiance as a brave stand for the working class rather than a craven capitulation to car-dealership owners in tinfoil hats. But there’s no reason for anyone else to play along.

The GOP’s Establishment Is More Populist Than Its Trumpists