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.