Steve Benen noted the other day The unusual nature of the Republican Party’s ‘civil war’:
[T]he Republican Party is apparently experiencing one of those weird civil wars in which everyone agrees with one another.
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It’s probably safe to say the three most vocal Trump critics among Senate Republicans are John McCain, Jeff Flake, and Bob Corker, each of whom have gone to surprising lengths recently to express their contempt for the president. But if we consider their voting record, McCain has voted with Trump 84% of the time this year. Corker has voted with the president’s position 86% of the time. With Flake, the number rises to 90%.
Tallies like these hint at a possible contradiction: if the Republican trio were really offended by Trump, they wouldn’t keep voting the way he wants them to.
And while there may be something to this, it’s worth appreciating what makes the GOP’s civil war so bizarre: the factions are divided by style, tone, and demeanor, but when it comes to public policy, they’re all roughly on the same page.
Greg Sargent of the Washington Post follows up today, The Trump authoritarian cult:
The Glorious Republican Civil War of 2017 isn’t really a battle over policy or ideology. It isn’t even quite the clash of grand agendas we constantly read about — the supposed showdown between populist economic nationalism on one side, and limited government conservatism, free trade and internationalism on the other.
Instead, the GOP civil war is really a battle over whether Republican lawmakers should — or should not — genuflect before President Trump. The battle is over whether they should — or should not — applaud his racism, his authoritarianism and his obvious pleasure in dispensing abuse and sowing racial division. It’s also over whether Republicans should submit to Trump’s ongoing insistence that his lack of major accomplishments is fully the fault of Republicans who failed his greatness.
The Post reports that allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have hit on a new strategy for countering Stephen K. Bannon’s insurgency. Bannon’s challengers are running on the idea that they constitute the true bearers of the Trumpist banner against a GOP establishment that has allegedly betrayed Trumpism. The strategy is to walk a careful line, avoiding attacking Trump while linking Bannon’s version of Trumpism “to white nationalism to discredit him and the candidates he will support.”
The notion that the GOP civil war is really about whether to genuflect to Trump’s racism and authoritarianism helps resolve some glaring disconnects in our politics that make little sense under any other interpretation.
For instance: The GOP civil war does not align with any major policy dispute now underway among Republicans. The New York Times reports that Republicans see the general goal of cutting taxes (with the largest benefits going to the rich) as tonic to unite the party. The real disagreements on taxes revolve around whether the plan will end state and local deductions (which is opposed by Republicans whose constituents would lose out) and whether the plan should balloon the deficit.
In other words, there is no serious disagreement between the Bannon wing and the GOP establishment on the goal of cutting taxes to the great benefit of the wealthy, while skyrocketing the deficit. Meanwhile, on Obamacare, the main disagreement arose when a few moderates couldn’t stomach its enormously regressive rollback of health-care coverage. There are no Bannon/populist objections to the GOP establishment position on taxes or health care, even though there should be ones in line with Trump’s campaign vows to soak the rich and protect the safety net for aging working-class and rural white voters.
My frame also helps explain how Trump and his allies can continually cast GOP leaders as betrayers of Trump, even though they all agree on the same big-ticket goals on health care and taxes. GOP leaders react to Trump’s worst abuses by condemning them where they have to, and playing them down where possible, while always retreating to the idea that Republicans will all get along on tax reform. When Trump allies blast the GOP establishment as sellouts, they are saying two things — that GOP leaders are both insufficiently enthusiastic about his ongoing employment of white identity politics and that they are failing his agenda in some sense that never has to be defined. Their loyalty is suspect on both fronts.
Bannon understands the power of this narrative, and he’s exploiting it for his own murky purposes. He is building a movement around the idea that Trump is both winning everywhere and being failed everywhere. Bannon tells Trump voters that Trump is winning when he is pilloried by elites (including Republicans) for failing to denounce the Charlottesville white supremacists. Bannon tells Trump votersthat black football players should be kneeling in thanks to Trump, because Trump is winning for America in spite of having “no help.” This Bannon play goes way back. As Joshua Green’s biography reports, as soon as Trump secured the nomination, Bannon immediately exaggerated the threat that the GOP establishment would steal the nomination, to rally “Pepe” (Trump nation) to “stomp their a–.”
The GOP civil war is really over how Republicans should react to Trump’s bigotry and authoritarianism, and about how they should react when Trump demands that they admit that they are the losers when things go wrong. This is why Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker focused their criticism on those particular excesses; why other Republicans were reluctant to endorse that criticism; and why Trump easily brushed them off by ridiculing them as losers. This is not to say there are no meaningful policy divisions — if Trump pulls out of NAFTA, there will be a real schism — but rather that they pale in importance to these larger story lines. Trump put it well in this tweet:
We don’t know if that actually happened, or if it did, why Republicans applauded Trump. But what Trump means by this is that Republicans have no choice but to applaud him even though he damn well will keep doing all the things that Flake and Corker protested, and even though they also find those things distasteful or horrifying. And as it happens, Trump is right.
Sargent’s colleague at the Post, E.J. Dionne, explains how Trump voters are now a cult of personality in which nothing Trump does or says would cause them to question their support for their “Dear Leader.” As Trump himself noted of his sycophant supporters, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Republicans won’t quit Trump:
Sen. Flake’s address on the floor of the Senate coincided with the release of an important study by the Pew Research Center that helped explain Trump’s self-confidence. The report analyzed the United States’ political landscape and offered an updated typology of the key partisan and ideological groups in the American electorate. The model for the typology was first created in 1987 by the late Andrew Kohut, one of his generation’s wisest students of public opinion, and Pew has regularly revised it to correspond with new political circumstances.
Pew described four GOP groups: Core Conservatives, 34 percent of registered voters who call themselves Republican or lean that way; Country First Conservatives, 15 percent; Market Skeptic Republicans (22 percent); and New Era Enterprisers (18 percent). The remainder of Republicans scatter among other groups in Pew’s typology.
The first two groups are particularly loyal to the GOP. Core Conservatives are who you think they are: reasonably affluent voters favoring small government and low taxes. Country First Conservatives are the folks Trumpist agitator Stephen K. Bannon loves: older social conservatives deeply skeptical of immigration and the United States’ global involvement.
If Flake represents anyone, given his ideology, it would be Core Conservatives. But as of this summer, when the survey on which the study is based was undertaken, 93 percent of Core Conservatives approved of Trump’s job performance and 90 percent had a favorable view of him. If this group stays with Trump, most congressional Republicans will, too. Country Firsters gave Trump an 84 percent approval rating and a 93 percent personal favorable rating.
But it’s not just the most faithful Republicans who stuck with Trump. Market Skeptic Republicans, who take a dim view of “powerful interests” and believe businesses make too much profit, gave Trump a 66 percent approval rating. Among New Era Enterprisers — economic conservatives who are moderate on immigration and U.S. global engagement and relatively liberal on social issues — Trump’s approval stood at 63 percent.
Trump’s GOP numbers may well have deteriorated in the months since the survey was completed, and even then, there were warning signs in the answers Republicans gave to a question Pew asked about how Trump “conducts himself as president.”
Among Core Conservatives, only 41 percent liked the way Trump conducts himself, 51 percent had mixed feelings and 8 percent disliked his conduct. For Country First Conservatives, the numbers are 51 percent like, 39 percent mixed and 9 percent dislike. Given how outrageous Trump’s behavior is, those “dislike” figures are still very low.
His ratings were worse in the other GOP groups: Only 24 percent of Market Skeptic Republicans liked Trump’s behavior while 26 percent disliked it. And in the younger New Era group, Trump was underwater: Only 23 percent liked Trump’s behavior; 39 percent disliked it.
Trump’s GOP opponents can still hope to demonstrate that the negative impact of how the president operates matters far more than any ideological victories he might deliver to conservatives. Trump daily proves Corker’s point that it’s foolish to expect he’ll ever change.
But it will be an uphill struggle. Republicans such as Flake and Corker have reason to worry their party is so profoundly Trumpified that it is lost to them. At some point, they may just have to walk away.
The demagogic cult of personality worked out so well for fascist Italy ans Nazi Germany.