Back in the 1970s, I belonged to a small left-wing group that enjoyed minor successes and major failures in recruiting new members. We did very well at enlisting the top leaders of large organizations, unions in particular. We didn’t do well at all when it came to recruiting the rank-and-file members of those organizations. All of which led my friend Jim Chapin to comment, “We’re not even organized top-down. We’re organized top-sideways.”
Chapin’s line, it seems to me, is a pretty fair description of today’s anti-Trump Republicans. Some of the GOP’s pre-eminent political leaders—George W. Bush, John McCain, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake—have made clear their belief that President Trump is a pox on the Republican Party, the United States, and common decency. So have many of the country’s most prominent conservative writers, including George Will, Michael Gerson, Ross Douthat, Jennifer Rubin, Robert Kagan, and Peter Wehner.
But try to find an organization of rank-and-file Republicans who have come together to oppose Donald Trump and you’ll come up empty. What links Bush, McCain, Corker, and Flake, besides their rejection of Trump, is, of course, that all four appear to be done with running for office. Republican pols who are still in the game, who hope to win their next GOP primary, dare not break with Trump. Too many Republican voters would view that as a betrayal, and those who wouldn’t have yet to make themselves heard—or even seen, if they are out there at all.
Anti-Trump Republicans can be discerned by poring over polling, but even there, you have squint to find them. This week, the Pew Research Center released one of its occasional deep dives into voter attitudes. Among the four groups of Republican and GOP-leaning voters that Pew identifies, Trump boasts a 93 percent approval rating within the largest of the four categories, Core Conservatives—the group that constitutes 31 percent of all Republicans and GOP-leaners, and that Pew characterizes as “the most traditional group of Republicans.” Core Conservatives support America’s continuing involvement in the global economy. Not so a second group, which Pew calls Country-First Conservatives, who are decidedly anti-immigrant and opposed to the GOP’s historic commitment to free trade. The Country-Firsters give Trump an approval rating of 84 percent.
Trump’s ratings are a little lower in the two other GOP groups: 66 percent of Market Skeptic Republicans, who don’t like banks and corporations and want to tax them at higher rates, approve of Trump, while 63 percent of New Era Enterprisers, who tend to be younger and more tolerant on social issues, give Trump a 63 percent rating.
Whatever Trump disenchantment may be lurking in those numbers, however, has yet to come forth in a visible way. Which is why Andy Surabian, a longtime Steve Bannon lieutenant, could tell The New York Times this week that, “there is zero appetite for the ‘Never Trump’ movement in the Republican Party of today. This party is now defined by President Trump and his movement.”
One reason for Surabian’s certitude is that the Core Conservatives punch above their weight in Republican circles. By Pew’s calculations, they constitute roughly 44 percent of “politically engaged” Republicans, and when conjoined to the Trump enthusiasts of the Country-First Republicans, they represent 58 percent of politically engaged GOPers.
The irony in these numbers is that the Core Conservatives, the constituency that provides the critical mass of Republicans’ Trump support, is the same constituency that the anti-Trump party leaders and commentators once led, steered and guided. What we’re seeing isn’t just a rift in Republican ranks, but a rift within the innermost core of the GOP and contemporary conservatism.
The anti-Trump pols and commentators, the Flakes and the Wills, can rightly claim that they’ve stayed true to traditional GOP and conservative values, such as they are. Why, then, did their base desert them?
The answer, I suspect, is that their onetime base now defines itself more by the aggrieved and belligerent tribalism constantly fed them by Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk than by adherence to traditional conservatism. I’d wager that many of the anti-Trumpers in the commentariat, and some within the ranks of elected officials as well, hold Fox in a kind of quiet contempt. I’d also wager, however, that it was decades of Foxish misinformation and sectarianism that prepared the Core Conservatives to embrace Trump as their tribal chief and to forgive, overlook, or cheer his absurdities. While George W. Bush and Mitch McConnell may have thought they were defining Republicanism, Rupert Murdoch was the one shaping the party all along.
All this explains why the only prominent Republicans to condemn Trump are Republicans who have likely given up on seeking office again. From the point of view purely of self-preservation, the failure of Republican pols to break with Trump, even though some of them understand just how dangerous he is for the party’s long-term prospects (and the country’s, and the planet’s), makes total sense. Absent some evidence of a grassroots anti-Trump movement somewhere in the party’s ranks, they praise Trump when he’s not too crazy and maintain a discreet silence when he is.
In matters like these, pols don’t get in front of the grassroots. Throughout American history, whenever prominent pols have rejected a president from their own party, they’ve generally been preceded by rank-and-file partisans long since in revolt. As the Vietnam War escalated, organizations of activist liberal Democrats, such as the California Democratic Council, turned against the war and Lyndon Johnson’s presidency well before all but a tiny handful of the elected Democrats who eventually became war critics and Dump-Johnson advocates. Nowhere in today’s Republican base, however, do we find the anti-Trump equivalent of the rebellious Democrats of 1965. Instead, today’s Republicans seem to dwell in a hermetically sealed world of their own unappeasable resentments.
Last weekend, the keynote speaker at the California Republican Party’s annual convention, a conclave of Core Conservatives if there every was one, was none other than Steve Bannon. To the dispassionate observer, Bannon might not seem a strategically savvy choice. After all, Hillary Clinton carried California last November by more than four million votes; Democrats enjoy a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of the legislature; and of the 27 contests for statewide offices since 2006, Republicans have won exactly zero. The state is now plurality Latino; non-Hispanic whites constitute less than 40 percent of the population. Under these circumstances, you might think California Republicans would want to create some distance between themselves and the white nationalism championed by Bannon and Trump.
Fat chance. The delegates responded rapturously to Bannon’s attacks not just on the immigrant-coddling Democrats but also on the Republican squishes who’d turned on Trump or, like McConnell, had failed to deliver for him. Bannon name-checked the heretics; when he mentioned John McCain, someone in the crowd shouted, “Hang him!” News reports indicated that while a few delegates voiced displeasure at the attack on McCain, most were exhilarated by the substance and tone of Bannon’s remarks.
At its base and at its core, today’s GOP is Trumpian through and through. So long as that’s the case, the Republican anti-Trumpers will be a top-sideways movement, and top-sideways movements don’t matter a damn.