When President Trump entered office, it wasn’t clear if he would consolidate control of the Republican Party — or even his own administration. We used to write a lot about various power centers in his administration, for example. But the president gradually forced out people who didn’t agree with him. Congressional Republicans buck the White House on occasion, but that’s more the exception that proves the rule. And special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe ending without the president being directly implicated, according to the attorney general, both removes any doubt that Trump will be running for president in 2020 and gives Republicans skeptical of Trump one less argument to make against him, thereby strengthening his influence within the GOP.
So describing Republicans as divided between pro-Trump and anti-Trump forces no longer makes much sense — the GOP is overwhelmingly a pro-Trump party. That said, just like Democrats, the broader Republican Party does have some distinct blocs and factions worth understanding. The parties don’t have the same kinds of differences. Democrats have deep divides over policy. In contrast, Republicans, at both the state and federal levels, are largely unified around an agenda of cutting spending for programs such as Medicaid that are targeted at low-income people, defending Americans’ ability to own and purchase guns, limiting abortion, and reducing regulations and taxes on businesses.
Instead, the most important dividing line in the Republican Party right now is probably this: How much should the GOP adhere to Trumpism?
We don’t have an official definition of Trumpism, but we’re describing it here in terms of four areas where Trump is somewhat distinct from previous Republican presidents: (i) anti-institutionalism (his attacks on the Justice Department and the media, for example); (ii) economic protectionism (his wariness about international trade agreements); (iii) foreign policy (his hostility to NATO); and (iv) immigration and race (the border wall, the travel ban).
Virtually all Republicans in elected office are generally aligned with the president and will support him in seeking a second term. But many Republican officials don’t fully (or really at all) embrace those four facets of Trumpism. That creates tensions between the president and people in his party that play out regularly in Washington.1 I’d put modern Republicans into five main groups (ordered roughly from most to least aligned with Trumpism):
- Often join Trump on immigration policy and in attacking institutions; largely avoid criticizing him publicly on foreign policy and trade even if they don’t fully embrace his views on those issues; strongly defend him in almost every instance.
- Prominent examples: Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Fox News, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, Sen. David Perdue of Georgia.
This is not the biggest wing, but it may be the most important. People in this bloc forcefully take on some of the president’s biggest critics (Jordan and Meadows leading the attacks against Trump-fixer-turned-antagonist Michael Cohen at a recent congressional hearing, for example). They will often defend Trump’s behavior when other Republicans won’t (Perdue suggested that Trump did not use the phrase “shithole countries” to describe nations like Haiti in a meeting last year, even as other attendees confirmed that he did).
During the Mueller investigation, this bloc was particularly helpful to Trump. They not only cast the investigation that Mueller was conducting as unfair and biased against Trump, but also conducted a counter-investigation, aggressively questioning the Justice Department officials who had launched the probe about Trump and his campaign during 2016.
- Support the president as a default but hold views similar to George W. Bush or Paul Ryan on policy issues and not truly aligned with most of the four aspects of Trumpism; occasionally disagree with Trump publicly, particularly on foreign policy, but usually with careful language.
- Prominent examples: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Charles and David Koch, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
I would put most elected Republicans on Capitol Hill and in governors’ mansions in this group. They do agree with some aspects of Trumpism — in particular, Trump tends to use more inflammatory rhetoric on immigration issues, but his policy stances aren’t all that far from GOP orthodoxy. But these figures aren’t attacking the media as “fake news” or particularly enthused about, say, removing U.S. troops from Syria. They usually avoid criticizing Trump in public. And if they do, that criticism is usually expressed in very polite terms — and often not followed up by much action.
Trump critics often cast this group as “enabling” Trump or even handing full control of the GOP over to him. Many in this bloc do, in fact, have high Trump scores.2 And while Republicans in this bloc didn’t attack Mueller’s investigation as the Trumpists did, they largely took positions that helped the president amid the probe. McConnell never pushed for a vote on a measure that would have made it harder for Trump to fire the special counsel and this week blocked a provision pushed by Democrats that would require Attorney General William Barr to publicly release Mueller’s full report.
But as the political scientist Matt Glassman has described, the relationship between these Republicans and Trump is best understood not as Trump forcing ideas down this bloc’s throats. Instead, Glassman argues that McConnell and other congressional Republicans are pushing a fairly traditional Republican agenda, like tax cuts, and Trump largely goes along with it. The unwritten contract between this bloc and Trump seems to be that they will not break with Trump in public (even when he is, say, bashing the late and revered-among-Republicans John McCain) as long as he does not stray too far from establishment Republican policies. Their mantra can be summed up by one word: “judges.” (However erratic and unpredictable Trump may be in personality and on some issues, he is appointing conservative judges who will be on the bench long after he leaves the White House.)
- Generally aligned with Trump, but tend to break with him in somewhat noisy ways and generally by casting the president as insufficiently conservative.
- Prominent examples: Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky.
This is a fairly small bloc among elected Republicans. But in a closely divided Senate, Lee and Paul in particular really matter. Their opposition in 2017 to the party’s push to roll back parts of Obamacare — arguing the provisions written by congressional Republican leaders kept too much of the law in place — was a significant factor in the GOP never actually passing anything. Lee and Paul were two of only five Senate Republicans who earlier this month backed both the legislation to end the U.S. involvement in the Yemen civil war and the legislation to stop Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build the border wall. Paul had the second-lowest Trump score among Senate Republicans in 2017-18, Lee the fourth-lowest. In the House, Amash backed the president’s position just 54 percent of the time in 2017-18, putting him behind all but one Republican and some House Democrats.
In all, this group, driven more by doctrine and ideology than the other blocs, is the clearest remainder in the GOP of what the tea party movement espoused.
- Generally aligned with Trump on policy, but wary of Trumpism; often criticize the president sharply and publicly, particularly his anti-institutionalism and his policies and remarks on racial issues.
- Prominent examples: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.
Think of this group as the “very concerned” Republicans. They often verbally tsk-tsk about Trump but then, say, vote for Brett Kavanaugh, irritating Democrats who want to see them marry their words with actions. This group is most important because they are likely to be the most forceful critics if, for example, Trump seems too chummy with Vladimir Putin. That occasional forcefulness makes this group different from the generally Pro-Trump bloc I described. And this strong criticism matters — Trump sometimes reverses himself in the face of it.
You might object to the term “moderate” here — Romney for example, is quite conservative on most policy issues. But being hostile to the media and at times to minorities is an important part of Trump’s political approach and increasingly that of the Republican Party’s. Being openly resistant to that drift in the party, like Romney is, is a point of distinction between him and Republicans in the first two blocs.
- Never really embraced Trump as the leader of the GOP and seem open to supporting a primary challenger to him.
- Prominent examples: Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, conservative activist Bill Kristol, former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio.
This is the smallest bloc, and it includes very few elected officials — illustrating how Trump has largely won over a Republican Party that was resistant to him basically up until the day he was elected president. Hogan, who won reelection in 2018 in a fairly blue state, is hinting that he is considering a run against Trump. But he would be a long shot — and one reason is that he would have almost no support among Republican Party powerbrokers.
As long as Trump is in power, I don’t expect these blocs to feud much. They might differ on tactics or strategy in the run-up to the 2020 campaign. But if they want to win in 2020, all the blocs but the final, most anti-Trump one are probably better off aligning with one another and with Trump.
But if Trump loses reelection in 2020, these blocs are a useful guide to a post-Trump GOP. The old divides between the GOP establishment and the tea party or moderates and conservatives are now outdated ways of looking at the GOP. The former insurgents in the GOP now run the party — Trump is the president, and one-time House Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney is the president’s chief of staff. Many of the party’s remaining moderates lost in 2018 to Democratic opponents.
Instead, the new dividing lines in the party are likely to be about how various Republicans dealt with Trump and Trumpism. If Trump loses in 2020, I would expect some Republicans, particularly the Trumpists, to argue that many in the party were insufficiently loyal to Trump and Trumpism, dividing the GOP. Other Republicans, particularly the Anti-Trumpers and the Trump-Skeptical Moderates, are likely to argue that Republicans lost the presidency because the party didn’t try hard enough to either get a less polarizing 2020 nominee or push Trump to be less polarizing.
From ABC News: