Why the GOP Coalition Is So Unstable

Stephen Bannon’s nationalist vision has taken over the Republican Party, and traditional conservatives worry about the diminishing enthusiasm for key parts of their agenda.

White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon listens at right as President Trump speaks during a meeting on cybersecurity at the White House on Jan. 31.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Feb. 24, 2017, 12:46 p.m.

NA­TION­AL HAR­BOR, Md.—For the White House, the in­ten­tion of a chummy pow­wow with Chief of Staff Re­ince Priebus and in­flu­en­tial strategist Steph­en Ban­non at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence on Thursday was to de­fuse rampant talk of ten­sion with­in the ad­min­is­tra­tion. But the joint ap­pear­ance in­stead un­der­scored the un­stable al­li­ance roil­ing the Re­pub­lic­an Party, well bey­ond the con­fines of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Ban­non, in a rare pub­lic ap­pear­ance, laid out three core prin­ciples of Trump­ism: na­tion­al se­cur­ity and sov­er­eignty, eco­nom­ic na­tion­al­ism, and a “de­con­struc­tion” of the ad­min­is­trat­ive state. On pa­per, they could be uni­fy­ing con­ser­vat­ive themes. In real­ity, each of them di­vides the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Many se­cur­ity-first con­ser­vat­ives are alarmed by Pres­id­ent Trump’s co­zi­ness with Rus­sia and skep­ti­cism to­wards NATO. Fisc­al con­ser­vat­ives want a grow­ing Amer­ic­an eco­nomy, but many are aghast at the pro­tec­tion­ist rhet­or­ic that seems bet­ter suited to a Bernie Sanders rally than a pree­m­in­ent con­ser­vat­ive con­fer­ence. And while most con­ser­vat­ives em­brace the de­reg­u­lat­ory ac­tions Trump has taken, they are dis­con­cer­ted by the chaot­ic gov­ern­ing style of the White House.

Priebus, when asked about Trump’s pri­or­it­ies, went in a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion. He cham­pioned Trump’s pick of Neil Gor­such to the Su­preme Court, one of the pres­id­ent’s few ac­tions that uni­fied the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Priebus’s in­cre­ment­al out­line of party build­ing con­tras­ted greatly with Ban­non’s gran­di­ose vis­ion of a na­tion­al­ist re­volu­tion. Priebus is clearly try­ing to be a mod­er­at­ing force with­in the ad­min­is­tra­tion, but even he got caught up in its majest­ic am­bi­tions, de­clar­ing that Trump “will be one of the greatest pres­id­ents that ever served this coun­try.”

Judging by the re­cep­tion at CPAC, Ban­non’s vis­ion is win­ning over the GOP rank-and-file. When Trump him­self spoke be­fore the audi­ence on Fri­day, he made no men­tion of tra­di­tion­al con­ser­vat­ive prin­ciples like free mar­kets, lim­ited gov­ern­ment, or an as­sert­ive Amer­ic­an role in the world. His anti-free-trade rhet­or­ic won rous­ing ap­plause among the audi­ence. He con­tin­ued to rip in­to the me­dia, re­peat­ing his claim that the press “is the en­emy of the people.” He channeled Ban­non in one of his clos­ing lines: “I am not rep­res­ent­ing the globe, I am rep­res­ent­ing your coun­try.” This vis­ion of pop­u­list na­tion­al­ism is now the en­ergy driv­ing Trump’s Re­pub­lic­an Party.

The un­com­fort­able real­ity for tra­di­tion­al con­ser­vat­ives is that there’s di­min­ish­ing pub­lic en­thu­si­asm for key parts of their agenda. En­ti­tle­ment re­form, a pri­or­ity for House Speak­er Paul Ry­an, has no broad con­stitu­ency bey­ond the busi­ness world. So­cial con­ser­vat­ives, after los­ing the cul­ture wars of the 1990s, sac­ri­ficed much of their mor­al au­thor­ity by cyn­ic­ally ral­ly­ing be­hind Trump. Na­tion­al se­cur­ity hawks have been side­lined in this ad­min­is­tra­tion, as an isol­a­tion­ist, Amer­ica-first sen­ti­ment takes hold throughout the coun­try.

Not­ably, Trump didn’t even men­tion Gor­such dur­ing the lengthy CPAC speech. When he did so at a polit­ic­al rally in Flor­ida last week­end, the audi­ence of hard-core Trump fans offered only tep­id ap­plause. Me­dia-hat­ing and im­mig­ra­tion-bash­ing are the crowd-pleas­ers in the Trump era.

Re­pub­lic­ans have long en­joyed sup­port from pop­u­list voters in ser­vice of an agenda that also res­on­ated with the party es­tab­lish­ment. Now, the tables are turned. The party’s es­tab­lish­ment voices are be­ing over­shad­owed in a White House where pop­u­lism is as­cend­ant. Tra­di­tion­al Re­pub­lic­ans des­per­ately want this awk­ward co­ali­tion to hold, but they don’t hold the lever­age any­more. Wel­come to Pres­id­ent Trump’s brave new world.


The Pew Re­search Cen­ter’s latest sur­vey found just 23 per­cent of adults iden­ti­fied them­selves as Re­pub­lic­ans—near an all-time low in the firm’s last three dec­ades of polling. Among voters who leaned to­wards a party, 52 per­cent as­so­ci­ated more closely with Demo­crats, while 38 per­cent leaned Re­pub­lic­an. Demo­crats hold an 11-point ad­vant­age on self-iden­ti­fic­a­tion over the GOP, up from a 3-point edge im­me­di­ately after the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. That sounds alarm­ing for the GOP, but a few im­port­ant caveats are in or­der. A dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of self-pro­claimed Demo­crats aren’t re­gistered to vote, or in­fre­quently show up to the polls. And an out­right plur­al­ity of voters are identi­fy­ing as in­de­pend­ent, total­ing 37 per­cent in the latest Pew sur­vey.

The data help ex­plain why Trump’s sup­port among Re­pub­lic­ans is his­tor­ic­ally strong, even as his over­all ap­prov­al num­bers are poor. He’s main­tain­ing strong loy­alty from a dwind­ling num­ber of par­tis­ans, but los­ing ground with in­de­pend­ents and en­gen­der­ing deep an­im­os­ity from Demo­crats.

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