As Trump Governs For His Base, The Republican Party Is Shrinking
Tossing his base almost nothing but red meat and constant divisive rhetoric isn’t just driving wedges between Republicans, it’s making them leave the party.
There’s no other way to put it, President Trump’s summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was a five-alarm disaster. Republicans balked at his seeming surrender to Putin’s agenda of breaking down the post-Second World War order in the West, hashtags like #TreasonSummit and #TraitorTrump trended on Twitter. And the Russian state media was aghast at the press conference immediately following the secretive one on one meeting, asking how can a president insult his own country overseas, remarking that he “sounds like an agent of the Kremlin.” Nevertheless, nearly 8 in 10 Republicans thought he did just fine.
If you’re an obsessive poll watcher, this seems like a terrifying sign. Far from distancing itself from a president who should by all norms be politically radioactive, the Republican Party seems to be basking in the mutagenic rays, both unable and unwilling to rebuke its figurehead. Even when their jobs and livelihoods are being lost to fight trade wars no serious economist thinks are good ideas, the MAGA base is busy praising Trump. Obviously, one might conclude, this is a very bad sign when it comes to the midterms, and beyond because the GOP base believes that voting for Republicans is the only option and seems to be able to rationalize anything Trump does as ultimately good for America and the world.
But there’s a catch to this overwhelming support from Republican voters. One of the biggest reasons why it’s so high is because the party itself has been shrinking to Trump’s most loyal and devoted followers. Rather than commanding the close to unanimous support of half the nation, his base accounts for slightly more than one-fifth of the electorate. Other presidents who saw similar displays of absolute devotion from a shrinking number of voters? Nixon as Watergate was reaching a fever pitch, and George W. Bush towards the end of his second term as the Great Recession was revving up. However, the situation with Trump is even worse. Nixon and Bush The Lesser merely lost the party’s support. Trump is actively making it smaller and more extreme.
Meanwhile, in the 28 states allowing voters to specify a party preference, Democrats have an 11% lead on Republicans and a higher self-affiliation percentage. It’s not exactly that the party has grown but that it held steady and is seeing booming support from Millennials, who will soon be the largest voting bloc in the nation. At the same time, the number of independents, or voters who choose not to affiliate with a party, has surged. This is also good news for Democrats because even after adjusting for partisan preferences among independent voters, they still have a nearly 10% lead on the GOP. So in short, the Republican Party is whittling itself down to The Party of Trump while the Democratic Party is holding steady and seeing more interest among undecided and swing voters.
Considering this context, Trump’s constant plays to the base seems like a self-destructive strategy. He’s gotten votes and enthusiastic cheers at his rallies, but all this adoration from voters willing to harm themselves just to get back at their scapegoats, and who will never be satisfied even as they hold all the power, is coming at the expense of his party’s future. But maybe he doesn’t care. He didn’t hijack the GOP in spite of his wild antics; its voters embraced him because they supported him and his zero-sum fear and conspiracy-mongering. And while the party eliminates political competition with REDMAP, the biggest gerrymandering ploy in the nation’s history, it’s now beholden to the base’s most extreme members. Republican voters got exactly what they wanted, and until they start losing election after election, they’ll keep clinging tighter and tighter to Bircherism and white identity politics, no matter how many voters it alienates.