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The King’s Men

The Signal
Face of the Party
Is the U.S. Republican Party still unified behind Donald Trump? Rachel Blum on the challenge of interpreting new primary-election results and signs of change in elite opinion.
The Signal
The Signal
If Donald Trump runs for the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination, “he wins in a landslide”—according to Mitt Romney, the Republican senator, a longtime Trump critic who voted twice to impeach him, and a former presidential candidate himself. But some Republican leaders—and voters—have recently raised questions about how much influence Trump still has over their party. In primary elections on May 10, the candidate Trump backed for the House of Representatives won in West Virginia, but in Nebraska, the candidate for governor he backed lost. In the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio last week, Trump’s endorsement helped the candidate J.D. Vance top a crowded field—but with only 32 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan, who’s won two terms as a Republican in a predominantly Democratic state, said last week that it was time for the party to move on from Trump. The former president’s legal circumstances also cloud his political future, as a grand jury in Georgia began hearing evidence this month that he committed felonies while trying to overturn the state’s 2020 election results. Where exactly does Trump now stand in the Republican Party?
Rachel Blum is an assistant professor of political science at Oklahoma University and the author of How the Tea Party Captured the GOP. In Blum’s view, it’s too early in the primary process for this year’s U.S. midterm elections to judge how much sway still Trump has. But party elites care above all about winning—and they don’t necessarily care for Donald Trump, so if they think he’s harming the party’s chances of beating Democrats, they won’t hesitate to abandon him. The party’s main activist groups vary in how loyal they are to the former president; some support him zealously, while many Republican-affiliated groups work with him only pragmatically. Among Republican voters generally, Blum says, the depth of fealty to Trump is an open question. He brought a lot of new voters into the party by speaking to pervasive feelings about their status and privileges being threatened. But as Blum sees it, many Republicans still identify with the party itself, and with what they see as conservative values and policies, independently of Trump—making it unclear what will happen if they come to see him as a liability to realizing those things.
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Michael Bluhm: What effect do you see Trump’s endorsement having in the Republican Party’s current primary elections?
Rachel Blum: In West Virginia, one of the candidates was Trump-endorsed and a member of the Freedom Caucus, the most conservative bloc of Republicans in the House of Representatives. It’s not surprising that he did so well in a state where Trump did so well himself in 2016 and 2020. Even without Trump’s endorsement, a Freedom Caucus candidate probably would have done well there. In Nebraska, however, Trump’s candidate lost. That was a governor’s race, which is different; and Nebraska is a very different state than West Virginia. We could argue that Nebraska voters are less sympathetic to a celebrity-style candidate. In Ohio, Trump’s candidate won—and also happened to be a minor celebrity—but with a plurality, not a majority.
I see that race as an indication of how important it is, when the field is crowded, for a key figure in the party, whoever it is, to help voters coalesce around one candidate. In a crowded field, if something can help voters distinguish one candidate, this can help; in Ohio, that was the endorsement from the former president. So far, the levels of support for Trump’s favored candidates look like you’d expect them to if a former president endorses someone.
I do think Trump’s endorsement will matter. The question is, will his endorsement matter more than any former president’s endorsement would? Will he have an above-average effect?
Bluhm: Many top Republicans, such as Romney or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have long expressed a distaste for Trump. How much antipathy toward him is there among party elites?
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Blum: There are people like Mitch McConnell who have retained office by being very careful in the Trump era. Many top Republicans have been party elites since before Trump joined the party, and they don’t necessarily have any loyalty to him. What they have is a vested interest in the party doing well, so as soon as it seems clear that the party can do well without Trump, they’ll be a lot more vocal in their opposition to him. We’ve seen McConnell walk up to the line of opposing Trump and then step back several times over the last six years.
Bluhm: How’s the party changed since Trump became its leading figure?
Blum: The Republican Party is now going through a renegotiation of which groups are on top. In the old version—the Reagan-era of conservatism—it was Christian conservatives, economic libertarians, and foreign-policy hawks.
Some of those people are still in the party—but they don’t occupy the same position. The Christian conservatives who’re still big in the party are evangelicals, who have a religious view of Trump almost as a savior of their movement. The libertarian, industrialist Koch brothers’ interests are still putting a lot of money into policies at the state level. But beyond that, we don’t see the same groups at the top.
Cottonbro
Cottonbro
More from Rachel Blum at The Signal:
Some Republican activist networks are ideological, but the Koch brothers and everything they fund is about economic self-interest. The oil-and-gas lobby is about economic self-interest. A lot of those groups don’t care if the party is led by Trump or by a Never Trumper, as long as they get sympathetic policies. Similarly, ideological activists don’t really care, as long as Trump or whoever appoints anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. … A lot of these groups are pragmatic, and if you talk to their leaders and activists, very few came into politics because of Donald Trump. They’re happy to use him, and he’s happy to make deals with them. But their policy goals would be very similar without him.”
I’d disagree with the frequent characterization of the Republican Party as ideologically unified. It may be the case that they can put aside their differences and work together for a presidential nominee—just like the Democrats can. But that doesn’t mean that they all want the same thing or that conservatism is a unified ideology. I’m in Oklahoma; this is a Republican state because it’s an oil-and-gas state. Many in Oklahoma see Democrats as threatening their livelihood, as in West Virginia and other fossil-fuel states. On the Christian right, people are still fighting culture wars like they fought in the 1980s—over abortion, school textbooks, now gender identity. They’re in the Republican Party because it’s their only possible home. A big constituency, which blossomed with the Tea Party, is a set of groups that are anti-immigration, anti-Islam, or just want to close the borders. Trump did a lot of work to bring the Fraternal Order of the Police solidly into the Republican coalition. What guides policy now are these long-standing economic interests and social-conservative interests, and the newer, law-and-order interests.”
A lot of Trump’s appeal to non-college whites has to do with an increasing tendency to see left-progressive groups as coming to take away their rights, their guns, their freedom, and so on. A lot has to do with class and the experience of limited upward mobility. But a lot has to do with identity and threat. There’s a deep sense of threat. Some call this status threat—the idea that when everything changes very quickly, a lot of people become paranoid and look to protect themselves from a drop in their social status. Many white people were activated by this feeling. Even if they had nothing else, they always knew tacitly that they had a place on the social ladder on account of being white. Now instead of feeling they have privileges from that identity, they might feel targeted for it. It’s not so difficult to understand how Trump won over militia groups, police groups, people from parts of the country where you could always carry guns anywhere, and people who feel like no one who’s making the news in New York City understands them.”
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