As President Trump’s struggles have mounted, the overriding question in American politics has become “who’s still with him?” We’ve looked at what might make members of Congress, particularly Republicans, break with Trump. They are the ultimate deciders of how much of his agenda is passed, and even of his fate in any kind of process to push him out of office. We’ve also looked at how voters, particularly Republicans, view the president and whether they are likely to stick by him.
But it’s kind of obvious to say that Trump’s standing depends on how Republican voters and GOP members of Congress feel about him. The more complicated question may be: How do those two groups make up their minds about the president? What Trump does, first and foremost, but their decision-making is also likely to be influenced by how other major groups in the Republican Party treat Trump.
What are the major blocs of the GOP, outside of elected officials and voters? One popular definition of a political party from political science splits parties into three main wings: the party-in-the-electorate (voters), the party-in-the-government (elected officials and appointees) and the party-as-organization. The “organization,” in turn, is comprised of many groups. Think of Fox News, which conservatives and Republicans watch much, much more than other national news channels. Or activists’ groups such as Heritage Action, which tries to push the GOP away from social welfare spending (Medicaid, Obamacare, etc.) and keeps a scorecard of the votes of members of Congress. The Koch brothers run a network of conservative groups, both nationally and in states, so vast that Politico referred to it as a “privatized political party.”
You can describe the party-as-organization wing in a lot of different ways, and Trump’s success in 2016, particularly in the GOP primary, suggested that journalists, political scientists and even GOP officials themselves may have had an incomplete understanding of how today’s Republican Party works. In 2016, there was perhaps an overemphasis on the party-as-organization, and its ability to stop Trump from winning the nomination, if it chose to do so.
That said, since Trump was sworn in, the party-as-organization appears to be strong. The president has largely not delivered (or really even tried to deliver) on his promises to provide “insurance for everybody” in his replacement for Obamacare or to or bring back factory jobs — goals that linked Trump and some of his voters but didn’t appeal to key constituency groups in the GOP organization. Instead, Trump signed on to both a health care bill and a budget that would reduce federal spending on Medicaid, as his party’s fiscal hawk wing wants, as well as a number of provisions to limit abortions, a passionate cause of religious conservatives.
So, after speaking with some political scientists and Republican operatives, examining the groups that spent the most money electing Trump and Republicans in Congress and looking at the president’s moves in his first few months in office, I came up with an informal list of six blocs that are significant parts of the Republican Party’s organizational wing. (Along with listing and describing each bloc, I included a current Republican politician whose ideology resembles that bloc, just to help clarify the distinctions.)
So if you’re looking for defections from Trump, watch these blocs. Here they are, ordered from most to least likely to break away from the president:
6. The intellectuals
Examples: David Brooks, The Weekly Standard (Stephen Hayes, Bill Kristol); National Review, Condi Rice
Politicians: John McCain
Priorities: Globalist foreign policy, support for international free trade agreements, wary of conservative identity politics
Many conservative intellectuals were in the Never Trump movement from the start. For Trump, these defections, if they happen, will not be surprising and perhaps are not all that meaningful either: He won the GOP nomination and the presidency while shunning the party’s wonks.
Why should the president care about these people at all? House Speaker Paul Ryan, who controls the fate of Trump’s agenda, is close to this wing of the party. Some of his closest allies work at Washington think tanks.
5. Small-government activists
Examples: Americans for Prosperity (Charles and David Koch), Heritage Action, National Rifle Association
Politicians: House Freedom Caucus
Priorities: Repeal of Obamacare, limits on Medicaid, reduced federal spending
This bloc, and all the others below, have said very few negative things about Trump. There is a big gap between the party’s think-tank wing, always wary of the president, and virtually every other bloc.
But why might small-government conservatives be less than completely loyal to Trump? Well, Trump is not truly a small-government figure. He has not proposed overhauling Medicare or Social Security’s retirement program, as these conservatives want.
Who is more likely to share their views? Mike Pence. The vice-president was the leader of the Republican Study Committee in the House, which was the most rightward part of the House GOP until the Freedom Caucus came along. Small-government conservatives might get more of their agenda enacted if Pence were in the Oval Office.
4. Conservative business groups/Wall Street
Examples: Chamber of Commerce, Club for Growth, Federalist Society
Politicians: Mitch McConnell
Priorities: Low taxes, reduced regulation
Business conservatives almost always get their way in Republican administrations. Trump, like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, is pushing an agenda of tax cuts and eliminating regulations. So this wing of the party is fine with Trump so far.
On the other hand, Pence would almost certainly sign these same bills just as happily. If Trump is becoming an impediment to their agenda, key party donors could lean on Republicans in Congress to stop supporting Trump so forcefully.
3. Religious conservatives
Examples: Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Ralph Reed, Family Research Council
Politicians: Ted Cruz
Priorities: Limits on abortion, opposition to transgender rights, defense of religious rights
You might think that this group would be very pro-Pence and anti-Trump, since the vice-president is a devout Christian and the president is not. But white conservative evangelical activists really like Trump. He is enacting limits on abortion rights and Planned Parenthood, some of their core goals, although Pence would likely do the same.
But there’s one other reason why conservative evangelical groups might prefer Trump to Pence. Think about it this way: Would Black Lives Matter activists have more leverage in a Hillary Clinton administration compared to Barack Obama’s? Probably. Pence’s conservative Christian bonafides, like Obama’s with African-Americans, can’t really be questioned. Therefore, religious conservatives are in a place to make demands of Trump, noting that his intense support from white evangelical Christians is one of the main reasons that the president was elected.
2. Cultural identity conservatives
Examples: Ann Coulter, Breitbart, Federation for American Immigration Reform
Politicians: Steve King
Priorities: Limits on immigration and international free trade agreements, wary of multiculturalism
The anti-immigration, antiglobalization wing of the GOP needs Trump to remain office, because it may never have as much sway as it does now. It is hard to imagine another Republican president, even Pence, employing Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller as top policy advisers, proposing a travel ban from majority Muslim-country countries or even considering a withdrawal from NAFTA.
Why might they turn on him? In some ways, this bloc’s agenda is tension with all of the groups listed above, except for Christian conservatives. The party intellectuals strongly supported Trump’s decision for a military strike in Syria, but this group was more skeptical. Business conservatives don’t want the U.S. to leave NAFTA and favor more trade agreements. This group is more anti-free trade. Cultural identity conservatives may have nowhere else to turn from Trump, but their strong support for the president is not guaranteed if he starts governing more like a traditional, big-business Republican.
1. GOP-aligned media
Examples: Fox News (Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity); conservative talk radio hosts (Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh)
Politicians: Kevin McCarthy
Priorities: Opposition to liberal interests and Democratic Party
The simplest way to illustrate this: What would Trump have to do for Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity to start criticizing him regularly?
Actually, we don’t have to guess. As Matt Grossman and David Hopkins detail in their book “Asymmetric Politics,” Hannity and other conservatives on TV and talk radio started sharply criticizing George W. Bush near the end of his second term. Bush’s approval ratings were fading among conservatives, amid the struggling Iraq War and his bungled handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And Hannity and other radio and television hosts were blasting Bush’s advocacy of a bill that would grant citizenship to some undocumented immigrants.
In other words, Bush was already unpopular, and he was proposing an idea — citizenship for undocumented immigrants — that was more popular on the left than the right. Trump may want to consider this example before he starts touting, say, his daughter’s proposal to allow new parents six weeks of paid leave. Trump’s numbers are already declining, even among Republicans, and paid leave is an idea that liberals love and conservative activists really don’t.
Earlier this year, my colleague Nate Silver listed 14 possible scenarios for Trump’s presidency and suggested one possibility was for the president to shift left and govern with Democrats. This would mirror the approach of another celebrity-turned-Republican-politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who made the pivot after initially struggling in California.
Why couldn’t Trump do that? Well, the various scandals around Russia have left the president desperately needing support from his own party. That support likely comes with strings attached: Trump needs to implement the policy goals of the party’s key blocs — or they might turn on him, and he doesn’t have strong public support to fall back on.