AGAINST THE GRAIN

Trump’s Cult Overwhelms the GOP

The new Republican base doesn’t care about issues, it cares about fighting the Left. It’s why the president’s base will stick with him, even as he humiliates one of his most loyal supporters.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 26, 2017, 8 p.m.

This time, it’s the populists’ turn to make the mistake of predicting Donald Trump’s political demise. After humiliating Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russian investigation, Trump is testing the limits of how much chaos Republicans are willing to take. Already cracks are appearing in the conservative iceberg. The pro-Trump website Breitbart has taken Sessions’s side in the dispute. Several typically supportive Fox News hosts, like Tucker Carlson, have adopted a more critical posture on the president’s bullying of Sessions.

The political world is going to find out, all over again, that most Republican voters will side with the president—even over Sessions, who provided political credibility to Trump at a critical time during the presidential primaries. Most Trump voters backed him because of his antiestablishment attitude, not his specific policies on immigration and trade. In the heat of the Sessions scandal, Trump continued to draw adoring fans in his Rust Belt base who could care less about his shabby treatment of the attorney general. Reporter Salena Zito, who has been chronicling blue-collar voter sentiment, wrote that Trump received a “hero’s welcome” in Youngstown, Ohio on Tuesday.

Even Sessions’s supporters in Washington are bending over backwards to give Trump the benefit of the doubt in this ugly clash. Senators are defending Sessions, but not slamming Trump for his destabilizing behavior. Sessions’s successor in the Senate, Luther Strange, in the middle of a heated campaign, remarkably blamed the media for manufacturing a feud between the two. “Jeff and President Trump are trying to make America great again, and it’s a privilege to work alongside both to accomplish the Trump agenda for the American people, and we need to stop letting the media distract us from that agenda,” Strange said in a statement.

Republican candidates are betting it’s politically smart to act like Trump. Josh Mandel, a Marco Rubio-backing state treasurer vying to become the first Republican Jewish senator in Ohio history, posted a tweet slamming the Anti-Defamation League for issuing a report that criticized anti-Semitic language spewed from pro-Trump online voices. Republican strategists were privately stunned, but Mandel apparently felt he was reaching out to a relevant GOP constituency.

In the Michigan Senate race, businesswoman Lena Epstein responded to rumors that Kid Rock was considering a candidacy by releasing a video joking that she “might have to kick your butt in a primary first.” Corey Stewart, a Trump cheerleader in Virginia who delighted in provoking elites with neo-Confederate tweets, nearly beat establishment favorite Ed Gillespie in a gubernatorial primary.

Next month’s Alabama primary to fill Sessions’s old Senate seat will offer a critical test over whose coattails matter more. Strange is eagerly casting himself as Trump’s best friend in Washington. He’s being aided by a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC, which is blasting his tea-party-aligned rival, Rep. Mo Brooks, for being insufficiently supportive of the president. For his part, Brooks on Wednesday called Trump’s treatment of Sessions “a public waterboarding” and “inappropriate and insulting to the people of Alabama.” If taking Sessions’s side in his home state can’t turn Brooks’s fortunes around, it will speak volumes about the mood of the GOP base.

One of the most significant findings about Trump supporters came from an in-depth survey of the president’s voters commissioned by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in April. The survey found that nearly half of Trump voters backed him because of his “willingness to tell it like it is instead of being politically correct”—four times as many people who said they backed him because of his positions on issues. It’s why Trump was able to build a broad GOP coalition, from moderates in the Northeast to tea-party activists in the South. It’s why the Republican Party is slowly morphing into a cult-of-personality vehicle around Trump.

The glue holding Trump’s coalition together is a deep-seated cultural resentment of the liberal, cosmopolitan elite. Trump is masterful at pushing those buttons to secure loyalty from his base. (His announcement banning transgender people from serving in the military is the latest example of this.) Trump’s overall job approval is low, but despite all the head-snapping news of the past six months, his support among Republican voters has remained remarkably stable.

During the presidential campaign, many Republicans made a cynical gamble to rally behind Trump, hoping that he’d be the unwitting vehicle to pass conservative legislation. Sessions, as the first Republican senator to back his campaign, was most cynical of all in this respect. Republicans now realize they’ve created a political Frankenstein, and no amount of disloyalty or ideological apostasy will break Trump’s bonds with his core backers in the near-term.

Trump is now the face of the Republican Party—and that means he’s successfully and speedily shaping the party in his image. The revolution, indeed, eats its own.

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