Politics & Policy

Inside Trump’s Conquest of America’s Most Conservative Districts

(Eric Thayer/Reuters)
Why wasn't there widespread, principled conservative opposition to Trump?

When Representative Mark Meadows filed his motion to vacate the chair, effectively calling for the removal of John Boehner as speaker of the House, he accused the Republican leader of constricting the legislative process, consolidating power atop the party, and — worst of all to Meadows and other restive conservatives —using “the power of the office to punish Members who vote according to their conscience instead of the will of the Speaker.”

That was in July 2015. One year later, activists from around the country were organizing support for a rule that would allow delegates at the Republican National Convention to vote their conscience in choosing the party’s presidential nominee — and give Republicans a last-ditch opportunity to dump Donald Trump. Meadows, in his second term representing North Carolina’s 11th district, did not support the effort. “We’re a nation of laws and a party of rules,” he said in an interview prior to the convention.

This sentiment was shared by his colleagues in the House Freedom Caucus, a club of 39 tea-party-inspired Republican lawmakers who have shown zero tolerance for moderation or compromise during Barack Obama’s presidency, alienating GOP leaders by prioritizing ideological purity over partisan unity. These conservatives have little in common with Trump, and just one of the 39 endorsed him during the primary. But none of them publicly supported the effort to defeat Trump in Cleveland — even though he makes Boehner look like Edmund Burke by comparison, and despite the fact that delegates were seeking the same freedom to vote their conscience that House conservatives had demanded for themselves.

The parallel is imperfect — representatives have historically been permitted by party leadership to vote their conscience, while convention delegates are traditionally bound to vote in accordance with the result of their state’s primary or caucus — yet instructive in debating a question that is fundamental to understanding the implications of 2016: Why wasn’t there widespread, principled conservative opposition to Trump?

Tea-party lawmakers tried twice on the House floor, in January 2013 and in January 2015, to oust Boehner. It was Meadows’s motion — a parliamentary maneuver so brazen and irregular that it was filed over the objection of his own Freedom Caucus comrades — that finally backed Boehner into a corner. Two months later, near the end of last September, the speaker announced his resignation. Boehner’s adversaries celebrated his demise, certain that it represented a tipping point at which small-government Constitutionalists would retake control of the Republican party. But at the same time, a new and asymmetrical threat was emerging.

Trump — real-estate mogul, reality-TV star, political novice — had surged from the mid-teens in national polling to 30 percent, establishing a lead over the GOP field that he would never relinquish. His ascent sounded alarms across the ideological spectrum, from Mitt Romney, the party’s moderate-minded 2012 nominee-turned-elder statesman, to Ben Sasse, the tea-party-fueled freshman senator from Nebraska. As Trump gained viability, a growing chorus of Republicans voiced grave objections to his candidacy.

But there was no such resistance from the Freedom Caucus.

In one of the strangest twists of 2016, the GOP’s most notorious collection of arch-conservatives — known for running toward intra-party fights and winning them by any means necessary — did noticeably little to oppose or obstruct the rise of a Republican who has campaigned on ideas that are antithetical to modern conservatism: maintaining the status quo on entitlements; borrowing money to pay for infrastructure projects and other domestic initiatives; introducing universal, government-run health care; and supporting Planned Parenthood, the abortion provider House conservatives have spent years attempting to defund, among other things.

Despite these clear policy differences — and rhetorical undertones hinting at an authoritarian approach that could make Obama’s “imperial presidency” look downright Jeffersonian — the Freedom Caucus has shown little appetite for battling Trump. None of its 39 members self-identified with the Never Trump movement during the GOP primary. Once Trump clinched the nomination, none of them endorsed the efforts to defeat him at the convention. And now that he is formally the nominee, only one member, libertarian-leaning Justin Amash of Michigan, has pledged not to vote for him in November.

It raises an obvious question: Why has the Freedom Caucus, which built its reputation on promoting conservative principles through internecine conflict, quietly fallen in line behind Trump?

According to interviews with a host of Freedom Caucus members — and a National Review analysis of demographic trends and voting patterns in their congressional districts — the explanation owes both to partisan self-interest and political self-preservation.

Freedom Caucus members represent many of the darkest-red districts in America. Their average score in the Cook Partisan Voting Index is R+14, meaning a typical member’s district trended 14 points more Republican in the last two presidential elections than the country as a whole. In short, these districts are extremely conservative — and in 2016, they voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

Trump, according to the analysis, won more than two-thirds of all districts represented by Freedom Caucus members. In those he won, Trump on average carried 48 percent of the vote. And even in those he lost, Trump on average won 31 percent of the vote. This means any Freedom Caucus member opposing Trump would likely be ignoring anywhere from one-third to one-half of their district’s most engaged and reliable GOP voters.

Why has the Freedom Caucus, which built its reputation on promoting conservative principles through internecine conflict, quietly fallen in line behind Trump?

For House conservatives, fighting against that which their constituents despised — Boehner, Obamacare, debt-ceiling hikes — always made sense, both ideologically and politically. When it comes to Trump, however, the lines have blurred: Many members harbor deep concerns about his candidacy and his commitment to conservatism, but few will raise them publicly for fear of backlash from the base.

“It disappoints me, but I understand it,” Amash says. “For a lot of them, their district voted for Trump, sometimes overwhelmingly. And many of them feel they have an obligation to be supportive of the nominee. I never felt that way. I didn’t support Boehner when he was the nominee for speaker, either.”

That question — Why support Trump out of respect for his majority of delegates, but not Boehner, who had majority support inside the House GOP? — is one that Amash’s comrades admit they’ve wrestled with. Ultimately, they say, Trump versus Hillary Clinton represents a “binary choice” that compels them to support the Republican nominee, especially with the Supreme Court’s majority hanging in the balance.

“When we were opposed to our leadership, it wasn’t like we were going to make Nancy Pelosi speaker,” says Jim Jordan, the Ohio congressman and chairman of the Freedom Caucus. “I think if you’re against our nominee, you’re putting Hillary Clinton in the White House.”

Jordan, who says he voted for Ted Cruz in Ohio’s 4th district, did not endorse in the presidential primary. This was out of respect, he says, for his home-state governor, John Kasich. Yet roughly half of Jordan’s colleagues in the Freedom Caucus also did not endorse. Given that they now describe being stuck with a “binary choice,” it’s reasonable to wonder: Couldn’t they have done more to avoid it?

“The question is, ‘You built up a lot more political capital than you ever expected, and in a short amount of time. You might have had the ability to influence an outcome. Do you regret not using it?’” says Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, a Freedom Caucus board member.

Mulvaney, who endorsed Rand Paul, lets out a sigh. “It’s a fair question.”

The Freedom Caucus isn’t alone in its inaction toward Trump. Indeed, as its members point out, establishment Republicans in D.C. signaled a clear preference for Trump over Cruz when the primary narrowed, and deserve just as much, if not more, blame for the party’s current predicament.

Even so, more and more Republicans are coming out in opposition to Trump as a matter of principle: The latest count is six senators and seven congressmen, in addition to numerous prominent donors, operatives, and activists. They join a cohort of other conservatives and Republicans who have devoted the past year to stopping his candidacy. And not surprisingly, some of them want to know: Why aren’t the party’s best-known ideological brawlers leading the charge?

“What they’re doing is exactly what they’ve criticized establishment Republicans for doing all these years: succumbing to so-called political realities and setting aside principles to gain power for the party,” says Tim Miller, a prominent GOP operative and leader in the Never Trump movement. “That’s what they killed Boehner and McConnell for. And maybe those criticisms were fair. But sacrificing principle for power is exactly what they’re doing now.”

They dispute that characterization, of course. What they don’t dispute is that Trump’s conquest of America’s most conservative jurisdictions poses significant challenges to their representation thereof. 

Several months of conversations with Freedom Caucus members reveal a widespread contempt for the GOP nominee. Some, when granted anonymity to speak candidly, describe him as a charlatan who poses a threat to conservatism, and say they have considered announcing they won’t vote for him in November. And yet, as of this writing, 38 of 39 are still behind him, the group’s spokesperson confirmed.

Why?

To answer that question is to accept that pragmatism is being practiced by individuals who were willing to shut down the government to prove a philosophical point; to appreciate that congressmen survive by satisfying the whims of their constituents; to understand that Republicans are desperate to avoid blame for a November defeat that many view as inevitable; and to acknowledge that Trump has taken over the Republican party by annexing many of its most conservative voters, proving that their anti-government rage is not necessarily a mandate for ideological purity.

*    *    *

Paul Ryan with outgoing House speaker John Boehner, October 30, 2015. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

The Freedom Caucus was formed in early 2015 as an exclusive, invite-only club of true conservatives, complete with a nine-member board. But its seeds were planted in 2010, when Republicans took back the House majority and dozens of neophyte lawmakers arrived on Capitol Hill to discover a Republican party in retreat. They had campaigned on promises to roll back Obama’s agenda, beginning with a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and to hold the line against the Democrat-controlled Senate. They came to Congress with what they believed was a commission from voters to fundamentally transform Washington by elevating principle over party.

But Boehner — the back-slapping, chain-smoking, carrot-and-stick wielding institutionalist — stood in their way. Charged with leading a majority in the House but a minority in Washington, he preached patience and gradualism, eyeing incremental gains for the GOP. The speaker’s allies saw a steady leader for a volatile and vulnerable Republican party; House conservatives saw a man with cautious governing instincts, moderate ideological mooring, and a dealmaker’s disposition. The distrust within the conference was apparent almost immediately; its result was five years of fratricidal warfare that culminated in Boehner’s resignation last fall.

Boehner’s scalp brought a new level of legitimacy to a cabal known for being long on lofty promises and short on tangible results; some nine months after its inception, the Freedom Caucus was being credited with ousting the speaker of the House. When Paul Ryan announced his willingness to succeed Boehner, he conditioned his service on the Freedom Caucus’s endorsement. As Ryan met privately with members to gauge their support, they basked in the moment. Their tactics were being validated. They were finally being recognized as the keepers of conservatism, the enforcers of principle.

The Freedom Caucus is a diverse cast of characters, markedly different in their geographic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. What unites them is not simply a shared ideology, but a common shake-up-the-status-quo mentality among voters in their districts. This is especially true among the newer congressmen who make up the vast majority of the group: 31 of the 39 members were elected in 2010 or later, having won GOP primaries in the tea-party era.

“What we know about those primaries is that the Republican base voting in them looks pretty similar to the one that showed up to vote in 2016 in the presidential primaries,” says David Wasserman, the House editor for the Cook Political Report. “They cared a lot about immigration and they were very much anti-politician, anti-Washington. So there’s a lot of overlap. And quite a few of these [members] are people who didn’t have political backgrounds before coming to Congress.”

Scott DesJarlais is one example. The Tennessee congressman, a physician by training, was the first and only Freedom Caucus member to support Trump during the GOP primary. In conservative circles, the endorsement brought negative attention to a politician accustomed to it; in 2012, DesJarlais was discovered to have carried on sexual relationships with multiple patients and pressured both a mistress and an ex-wife to have abortions. (His staff declined an interview request for this story.) The mention of his endorsement draws smirks and eye-rolls in conversations with his colleagues, many of whom clearly believe that Trump — and perhaps, DesJarlais — do not reflect the core values of their club.

And yet DesJarlais’s endorsement proved prescient: Soon after Trump became the presumptive nominee with a May 3 victory in Indiana, the rest of the Freedom Caucus’s members, Amash excluded, offered their own support. It has proven remarkably durable, despite the derision aimed at his unraveling campaign from behind closed doors — and the opportunity Republicans had to replace him in Cleveland.

Indeed, though they gained real momentum among the conservative grassroots, anti-Trump efforts to pass rule changes prior to the convention won zero support from the Freedom Caucus. Asked repeatedly both in individual and group settings whether they would back any effort to allow delegates to dump Trump, not one member answered in the affirmative. On June 9, at the monthly “Conversations with Conservatives” forum on Capitol Hill, a half-dozen Freedom Caucus members were asked whether they would support any effort to topple Trump in Cleveland. Members exchanged glances. Raul Labrador, a board member from Idaho, informed the moderator that they’d fielded enough questions about Trump.

Some of Pearce’s comrades have evolved from accepting Trump, to protecting him, to actively promoting him.

Labrador, who was elected in 2010 and ran for majority leader following Eric Cantor’s defeat in 2014, has been a reliable critic of GOP leadership. And, having helped deliver Idaho’s caucuses for Cruz, he blames Boehner (who called Cruz “Satan”) and the D.C. establishment for not doing more to stop Trump. “There was a time when you could have made a decision to influence this race. And they chose not to do it,” Labrador said after the June forum. “I blame them 100 percent for what we have here with Trump.”

Asked at the same time if House conservatives were making a mistake by not opposing Trump, Labrador replied, “The mistake is the Never Trump movement. When you’re against something, you’re usually not victorious. The mistake was, we needed to get behind somebody, and the Freedom Caucus was divided.”

At the next panel in July — one week before the convention’s Rules Committee met in Cleveland to vote on the proposals being pushed by Never Trump Republicans — an even greater number of Freedom Caucus members were asked if they would be supportive. Once again, members exchanged glances, then confirmed blanket opposition. “What people hate most about Washington is backroom deals, and that would be the ultimate backroom deal,” John Fleming, another board member, said of the proposed rule changes. “I think it would destroy the party.” His colleagues nodded in agreement.

In Cleveland a week later, Senator Mike Lee of Utah used his seat on the Rules Committee to whip votes in favor of allowing delegates to vote their conscience. The rule lost in lopsided fashion, and the only Freedom Caucus member on the committee, New Mexico’s Steve Pearce, voted against it.

Some of Pearce’s comrades have evolved from accepting Trump, to protecting him, to actively promoting him. The morning of the July conservative forum, for example, House Republicans met with the presumptive nominee at the Capitol Hill Club and emerged with glowing assessments of his presentation. The praise that morning, and members’ support for Trump generally, is all the more remarkable for the fact that he hasn’t held smaller meetings to address concerns from rank-and-file lawmakers. Freedom Caucus members say their interactions with the campaign always go through its chairman, Paul Manafort.

But the impression made on voters in their districts is difficult for congressmen to ignore. Even Warren Davidson, who won the special election in Ohio’s 8th to succeed Boehner — and who, in a symbolic slap in the face to the establishment, was voted into the Freedom Caucus on the eve of his swearing in — acknowledged that his perception was shaped by witnessing a Trump rally in Boehner’s hometown. “There were thousands of people there, an overflow crowd, standing in the rain to support this guy,” Davidson said at the July forum.

All of the day’s adulation — Fleming called Trump “very presidential” — was too much for Mark Sanford. “I wasn’t particularly impressed,” said the former South Carolina governor, now a congressman and Freedom Caucus member. “I think it was the normal stream of consciousness that’s long on hyperbole and short on facts. At one point somebody asked about Article I powers and what he would do to protect them. I think his response was, ‘I want to protect Article I, Article II, Article XII,’ going down the list.” Sanford shook his head. “Of course, there is no Article XII.”

Rumors have circulated in recent weeks that Sanford was preparing to join Amash in publicly opposing Trump. But in a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, Sanford reiterated his intention to vote for Trump —while imploring him to release his tax returns. Sanford’s spokesperson, Scott Jeffrey, said an e-mail: “He has said that he will support the GOP ticket in November. This remains the case as of now . . . in spite of growing concerns over Mr. Trump, based on some of his latest actions.”

Still, Sanford’s tenor that day was illuminating. Over months of private conversations at dinners and in caucus meetings, this, according to some members, is the tone most often taken toward Trump — one of irreverence, mockery, even intellectual condescension. “He’s a buffoon,” one member says, after insisting on anonymity to speak candidly. “And I’m scared to death of voting for him.”

*    *    *

Rep. John Fleming (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The negativity toward Trump is far from universal. As July’s forum showed, plenty of Freedom Caucus members are genuinely taken with him, perhaps none more so than Fleming. Sitting down in his office one hour after his “destroy the party” warning, the Louisiana lawmaker, who is running for Senate in November, argued that Trump is the most conservative Republican nominee since Ronald Reagan.

“Let’s put it this way,” Fleming said. “Based on his rhetoric and his commitments, he’s far more convincing when it comes to being a conservative than Mitt Romney or John McCain, and I would argue even George W. Bush.” Asked to elaborate, he said, “I just have to say based on what I’ve seen and witnessed in the campaign, I’d say he fits much closer to the values of conservatives and the Republican party than anybody who’s run for office in the past several decades.”

Even if Trump isn’t a conservative, Fleming argued, the party has a duty to support its nominee. But what about Boehner, who was elected speaker by an enormous majority of House Republicans in their internal conference meetings? Didn’t he deserve the support of the party? “I’d be as critical of Donald Trump as I was of John Boehner if Donald Trump wasn’t standing up for conservative values,” Fleming said. “But I’ve got to tell you, virtually everything the man says is what we’ve been saying all along.”

Shrugging, he added: “The man is giving the exact speech I’d be giving if I ran for president.”

Asked about Trump’s provocative comments on Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s Mexican heritage, then the firestorm du jour, Fleming blamed the media for fomenting controversy. When told that Speaker Paul Ryan had called the remarks about Curiel “the textbook definition of a racist comment,” Fleming’s eyes flashed with irritation. “I don’t get the point of it,” he said of Ryan’s rebuke. “I don’t believe he’s a perfect person, but when they criticize Donald Trump it’s more about protecting themselves and making themselves look good than it is about Donald Trump.”

If Ryan is protecting himself, he’s not the only one. Fleming is running for Senate in a state whose presidential primary Trump carried with 41 percent of the vote. Roughly two-thirds of Louisiana’s residents are white and just 22 percent have college degrees, making it an ideal demographic destination for Trump — and an unforgiving place for anyone opposed to him. The same can be said for the areas represented by Fleming’s comrades: The average Freedom Caucus district is 75 percent white and 27 percent college-educated, according to data culled from The Almanac of American Politics.

As the primary season wore on, it became clear that Trump — whom Cruz was desperately trying to paint as a big-government liberal — had appropriated the very base of support that delivered the Texas senator, as well as his House allies, into Congress during the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections. This helps to explain why no Freedom Caucus members joined Senator Lee in fighting to free delegates at the convention; it also accounts for why many Freedom Caucus members were livid with Cruz’s non-endorsement speech in Cleveland, according to people familiar with their reactions.

“This is the bloc of House Republicans that was most loyal to Ted Cruz during all these fiscal fights in Congress. So it’s interesting that none of them, with the exception of Amash, were standing with Cruz and saying, ‘Vote your conscience,’ as opposed to endorsing Trump,” Wasserman says. “Nobody wants to come out against him, because it would mean coming out against many voters in their districts.”

The implications of this overlap — voters simultaneously boosting constitutionalists for Congress and a strongman for president — could be far reaching. One Freedom Caucus member describes the “oh shit” moment during the primary when conservatives realized that the same constituents who had given them a perceived mandate for ideological purity were now installing Trump as the GOP nominee.

“For some members, simply agitating against leadership is enough, and it’s done in the name of conservatism. But their constituents aren’t as ideologically driven as perhaps they are, and approval comes from the agitation itself,” says Rory Cooper, the former communications director for Cantor, who had a front-row seat for the House GOP’s infighting. “Now you have Trump as the chief agitator.”

Trump, unlike Freedom Caucus members, delivers an anti-Washington message that isn’t rooted in a narrowly philosophical approach. The problem for House conservatives is that after promising big things — repealing Obamacare, rolling back Dodd-Frank, reining in executive actions — and failing to deliver, they might come to be viewed by their constituents as the ineffective politicians Trump campaigned against. Trump’s success raises the question of whether even small-government voters, after witnessing a decade of gridlock in D.C., might be growing less ideological and more results-oriented.

There is, in other words, growing evidence that the Republican electorate’s priorities have become self-contradictory.

Consider the case of Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp. His constituents in Kansas’s 1st district — a premier farming district known as the “Big First” — sent him to D.C. in the 2010 wave. But his constant agitating against GOP leadership resulted in Boehner kicking him off the Agriculture Committee in 2012. The next year, he voted against a version of the Farm Bill that had been slimmed down to accommodate conservatives’ demands, arguing that it still wasn’t good enough. The blowback in his district was fierce; he wound up losing his primary this August by a lopsided 13 points to a challenger, Roger Marshall, who promised to win back the district’s seat on the Ag Committee — and painted Huelskamp as an ideologue who didn’t care about governing.

“Tim Huelskamp is the first member who was punished by voters for consistently voting, ‘No,’” says Michael Steel, Boehner’s former top spokesman.

That’s true, and there could be more to come. But the context here is complicated. Trump performed terribly in the Big First, taking just 25 percent of the vote and losing to Cruz by 24 points. (It was Trump’s second-worst performance in any Freedom Caucus district; he took 24 percent in both Rod Blum’s Iowa 1st and Ted Poe’s Texas 2nd.) Which is to say that in the same year, voters in Kansas’s 1st district expelled a congressman for being too ideological — and also voted overwhelmingly for Cruz.

This makes as much sense, politically speaking, as someone supporting both Trump and a Freedom Caucus member — which is precisely what happened in more than two-dozen congressional districts. (The most conservative district represented by a Freedom Caucus member is Gary Palmer’s Alabama 6th, which is R+28; Trump carried it with 37 percent of the vote, topping Cruz by twelve points.) It’s also worth remembering that prior to Trump’s clumsy announcement of support for Speaker Ryan, the only House Republican he endorsed in 2016 was North Carolina’s Renee Ellmers — an enemy of the Freedom Caucus and other conservative groups that felt betrayed by her votes on abortion bills. (To their delight, she became the first House GOP incumbent this cycle to lose her primary.)

This same ideological incongruence is manifesting itself in the donor world and in the constellation of conservative outside groups. The Club for Growth, for example, has given considerable support to Freedom Caucus members — financial and otherwise — and considers them close allies. Yet the Club also spent millions of dollars attacking Trump during the primary campaign, only to watch him stampede through the same congressional districts they recruited tea-party conservatives to represent.

There is, in other words, growing evidence that the Republican electorate’s priorities have become self-contradictory.

“If you support both Jim Jordan and Donald Trump, there’s a serious disconnect,” Cooper says. “For all the complaints I’ve had with some of his guys, Jim Jordan states his opposition to leadership in an ideologically principled way. He’s nothing like Donald Trump. Supporting both Jim Jordan and Donald Trump would be just as inconsistent as supporting both Jim Jordan and John Boehner.”

Do voters recognize these differences? Do they abide by a core set of principles that demands consistency at the voting booth? Conservatives have always assumed so. And because of that, they were quick to attribute Trump’s victories to abstract successes, such as exploiting voters’ anger and fear. But it seems possible that Trump has exploited something else: the crumbling of the conservative movement’s ideological foundation. Maybe Trump isn’t the anomaly in their districts; maybe they are. 

This notion is unsettling to politicians like Meadows who believe wholeheartedly in the salvation offered by small government. He endorsed Cruz, only to get an earful from Trump supporters back home — and then watch in surprise as Trump carried his district with roughly 40 percent of the vote.

“I trust the American people to reelect me every year. If I question their judgment on who they have as a nominee, I have to question their judgment on the fact that they continue to put me back in,” Meadows said. “That becomes very problematic when you think they’re smart in reelecting you but perhaps not as informed on a presidential nominee. So you’ve got to trust the will of the people, even though sometimes you disagree with it.”

*    *    *

Rep. Jim Jordan (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The first thing to know about Jordan is that he was a two-time NCAA champion wrestler at the University of Wisconsin. (Collegiate record: 156-28-1.) His legislative approach borrows from that background; Jordan, who wrestled in the 134-pound weight class, is scrappy, methodical, and disciplined, having mastered the use of technique and leverage to defeat opponents of superior size. Under Jordan’s leadership, a small faction inside the House GOP — members lacking in seniority, campaign cash, and name recognition — has often outmaneuvered the majority.

During the GOP’s first four years in control of the House, Boehner’s “grand-bargain” budget talks with the Obama administration were scuttled; fiscal-cliff negotiations were nixed, leading to arguably larger-than-necessary tax hikes; the government was shut down in a quixotic quest to defund Obamacare; and a Senate-approved immigration-reform plan hit a brick wall of opposition in the House. The core Freedom Caucus membership was instrumental in all of these outcomes, having pushed leadership relentlessly to the right and refused any compromise that would betray the grassroots.

Not surprisingly, a chorus of establishment Republicans has blamed conservatives — Cruz in the Senate, the Freedom Caucus in the House — for creating an environment of obstruction and absolutism that invited Trump’s ascent. Had the hardliners not riled up their base with polarizing rhetoric and idealistic promises, the argument goes, voters would have been more realistic in their expectations, rather than angered to the point where they turned to Trump.

Jordan and his members take the opposite perspective: Had the GOP leadership fought to deliver on its promises after being handed the House majority in 2010 and the Senate majority in 2014, they say, voters wouldn’t have lost faith in the ability of politicians to get anything done — and, as a result, turned to an outsider like Trump.

“The one thing I do reflect on, is what could we, as a Republican Congress, have done differently over the last five years to avoid creating this environment that was conducive to someone like Donald Trump becoming the nominee?” Jordan says. “This is why we pushed our leadership — because we didn’t think they were doing what we all told the voters we were going to do. And sometimes I tell myself, maybe one of the things I should have done is push my leadership harder and sooner than I did.”

He adds: “Maybe we should have created the Freedom Caucus four years ago, not one year ago.”

#related#In retrospect, Freedom Caucus members say that’s about the only thing they could have done to prevent the rise of Trump: agitate earlier and more aggressively against the GOP establishment. Endorsements from congressmen carry little weight, they say. And they doubt any sort of staged announcement of opposition to Trump would have moved the needle.

No, they aren’t worried that they didn’t stop Trump. They’re worried that they never saw him coming.

“A lot of us [predicted] the anti-establishment wave,” Mulvaney said. “We’d seen it in 2010 and 2012 and 2014, so we knew it was coming to a crest. We just never expected it to take the form of Donald Trump. We like that he’s anti-establishment, we like the fact that he’s kind of blowing up the internal party politics as we’ve known them. We’re just not sure if he’s a conservative.”

And their constituents aren’t sure if it matters.

— Tim Alberta is National Review’s chief political correspondent.

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