Politics & Policy

Trump–GOP Split: Who’s the Bellwether?

President Trump at the G7 Summit in Sicily in May. (Reuters photo: Dylan Martinez)
Different groups have different reasons to support Trump — or to want him gone.

Ross Douthat and Chris Hayes have been wondering about what the political scene would look like when the GOP is ready to finally and permanently divorce itself from Trump. Is there a bellwether? It is tough to tell, because for more than a year, GOP politicians have been lousy judges of their own voters, and there is more than one kind of Trump supporter.

One thing to keep in mind is that Republican elites have already tried to walk away from Trump several times. House speaker Paul Ryan called Trump’s attack on a Mexican-American judge “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” That is the kind of language that party leaders might use about a presidential candidate that they planned to cut loose to an epic general-election defeat. But Trump’s poll numbers held up, and Paul Ryan presided over the convention that made Donald Trump the Republican nominee.

It was even worse after the Access Hollywood tape came out. Ryan humiliated Trump by disinviting him from a campaign event with Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. A long list of Republican governors, senators, and representatives either rescinded their Trump endorsements or called for Trump to step aside in favor of vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence or did both. These Trump denunciations gave the impression of a concerted attempt to pressure Trump to quit the race.

Once again, Trump kept a critical mass of support, most of his critics came around, and those who didn’t come around didn’t matter in the end. Republican leaders were so willing to attack Trump because they anticipated (or hoped to provoke) an anti-Trump preference cascade. It turned out that, on the subject of Trump, Republican leaders were more in tune with liberal journalists than with Republican voters. This indicates that a collapse of Trump’s support, if it ever happens, will emerge from the bottom up.

Douthat is correct to note that the key constituency is made up of reluctant Trump supporters rather than Never Trumpers, but there is more than one kind of Trump supporter, and even several kinds of reluctant Trump supporters.

The first group of reluctant Trump supporters is composed of conventional conservatives who support Trump only because he would be better than the Democrats on taxes, spending, immigration, guns, abortion, or judges. Their support for Trump is entirely transactional, and they would, in every way, be more comfortable with Mike Pence as president.

These are the people for whom Paul Ryan is the real leader of the Republican party. They would probably be happy to see Trump go, but they are rightly afraid of what would happen to the Republican coalition if these “real conservatives” are seen as helping the Democrats destroy Trump’s presidency.

A second, larger group of Republican-leaners are about as conservative as the first, but not very reluctant about supporting Trump. These are the Republican-leaners who trust Trump more than they trust the Republican congressional leadership. Many of them believe (or claim to believe) it was appropriate that Donald Trump Jr. met with the Russians to get dirt on the Clintons.

They aren’t blind to Trump’s faults, but they look at supporting Trump as an act of character. I see this among some of my center-right friends and acquaintances: They are not at all ignorant of Trump’s vices, but they think that Trump’s more-principled-than-thou critics lack the virtues of courage and equanimity.

These voters see anti-Republican media firestorms as a routine tactic to delegitimize all center-right political figures who look like a threat. They remember the “actually, Trump is better than Cruz and Rubiotakes from early in the 2016 cycle and know that the “actually, Pence is worse” takes are already written in case of Trump’s retirement, death, or removal.

These people know that President Pence would be met with the claim that his evangelical Christianity would cause thousands of teen suicides, that President Ryan would kill hundreds of thousands by health-care policy, and that President Jeb Bush would cause genocide by climate change. By the standards of the kinds of accusations that are routinely thrown at milquetoast, establishment Republicans, Don Jr.’s meeting is no big deal. Oh, treason, was it? Remember when Joe Biden said that the Republicans were going to “put y’all back in chains”?

One of the things this group likes most about Trump is that he doesn’t for even a moment accommodate tantrums from people who treat normal Republicans like Adolf Eichmann.

But people in the first, smaller, more Trump-skeptical group might argue that Cruz is a fighter too. Not really. Cruz will call you a socialist and walk out in a huff, but he probably wouldn’t have brought Juanita Broaddrick to a debate with Hillary Clinton, and he definitely wasn’t going to talk about anyone’s menstrual cycle.

Cruz will call you a socialist and walk out in a huff, but he probably wouldn’t have brought Juanita Broaddrick to a debate with Hillary Clinton.

Many conservatives (including me) might argue that this is a good thing, but these pro-Trump conservatives are on to something. The liberal-leaning mainstream entertainment and news media reach everybody. They can do the dirty work for Democratic candidates. As soon as Sarah Palin was picked, there were stories on supermarket shelves portraying her family as white trash. There were hostile stories about Mitt Romney’s time in high school. Obama could posture as a civil uniter while knowing that the smears would still get out. The conservative media aren’t any better ethically, but they reach only people who are already conservative.

Trump understood that, if he was going to reach the apolitical people who decide elections, he would have to hack the mainstream media and do his own dirty work — and boy, did he. Trump supporters see Cruz as someone who plays a tough guy on television, and Trump as the guy who has repeatedly done time for stabbing people with broken beer bottles. They have a point.

The third and last group is made up of secular swing voters who supported Trump precisely because he wasn’t a “real conservative,” as the term is understood by the first two groups. These unideological voters have some history of supporting Bill Clinton and/or Barack Obama. They are leery of Mike Pence’s churchiness and are outright opposed to Paul Ryan’s enthusiasms for cutting taxes on the rich and cutting entitlements for the old while increasing low-skill immigration. These voters supported Trump precisely because they liked his not-very-conservative promises to expand health-care coverage without cutting entitlements and to improve the economy with unspecified good deals.

These might be the least hypocritical people in the electorate. They voted for Clinton even though they knew he was a philanderer and a draft dodger, because they thought he would make the system work better for them. They opposed Bill Clinton’s impeachment when they knew he was a perjurer (and suspected he was a rapist) because unemployment was low, crime was falling, and the country was at peace. Now these voters see Trump as the best chance to escape national stagnation, and they don’t want a bunch of pious lectures from Clinton partisans about the importance of dignity, honor, patriotic service, and legality. It turned out that, for the Clintons, irony was the cruelest mistress of all.

The two most conservative groups are stuck reacting to each other. The first, more Trump-skeptical group would gladly help get rid of Trump but are terrified of what might happen if their fingerprints are on the political murder weapon. The second, more pro-Trump group will stick with him for as long as possible, and many will stick with him to the end.

That leaves the third group of unideological swing voters. They want real things from Trump. They hope for social regeneration but will settle for steadier, higher-paying jobs and no more lost wars. If Trump fails to deliver on those expectations, some of these voters will walk away from politics for a time. Others might well support a Democrat who didn’t obviously hate them for even thinking about voting for Trump. If this group defects from Trump, his numbers might decline enough that the Trump-skeptical conservatives would be emboldened and some of the pro-Trump conservatives would decide that Trump is more of a loser than a fighter (though that will be a tough case to make since, after all, he did win the election).

So, who would be the bellwether that Trump’s support has collapsed? It might be an ideological conservative who has tried to expand his national profile by appealing to unideological, wage-earning populists, and whose political success is dependent on former Clinton voters.

That sounds a lot like Arkansas senator Tom Cotton, the Harvard alumnus and Army infantry officer who has worked to understand why so many voters who didn’t trust the GOP leadership supported Trump, and who has learned to hit some Trumpian notes on restricting immigration and protecting the health-insurance coverage of those with pre-existing conditions. If Cotton abandons Trump, it could be a sign that something has changed. But it’s just as likely that, if and when Trump’s popularity collapses, the GOP’s elected officials will be the last to know.

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