Published February 26, 2019
Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld may not be the only person to challenge President Trump for the Republican nomination in 2020. But whatever happens, the Republican primaries will reveal the extent to which the GOP is now Trump’s party, and why.
No one who runs against Trump will have any realistic hope of defeating him. Polls consistently show 80 percent or more of Republicans approve of the job he is doing. That figure rises to 93 percent among people who voted for him, according to the most recent Economist-YouGov poll. Trump also beats all of his potential challengers in head-to-head matchups, from margins ranging from 85-15 against Weld to a low of “only” 69-19 against Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). No one who wants a serious future in GOP politics will undertake this kamikaze mission.
Trump has earned this high level of support because he has delivered on the items of supreme importance to almost every Republican faction. University of New Hampshire professor Dante Scala and I examined these groupings in our book “The Four Faces of the Republican Party.” Pre-Trump, the party had four factions: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, “somewhat” conservatives (also labeled business conservatives) and moderates. Trump brought new voters into the primary process and created a fifth faction: nationalist conservatives, who want to lower immigration and redo foreign trade deals. Four of these five have received the things they care most about under the Trump administration.
The tax cut delivers for both fiscal conservatives (who never really cared about deficits as much as they did lowering taxes) and business conservatives. His judicial appointments deliver for social conservatives. Trump’s deregulation delights business conservatives. And his stances on immigration and trade show nationalist conservatives he has their backs. These groups together comprise about 80 percent of the party — almost precisely Trump’s job approval rating among Republicans.
The persistent agitation for a primary challenge, then, reveals who is genuinely unhappy with the president. It’s not the conservative voters, although there are surely many fiscal and somewhat conservative writers who remain unreconciled. Only the moderates are disgruntled. And that shows in the identities of the people who are seriously exploring a run.
Weld is a moderate’s moderate. As governor of Massachusetts, he was known for being a social liberal and a fiscal conservative. His latest foray into politics was as the Libertarian Party’s vice presidential nominee in 2016, again espousing his social liberalism (pro-abortion rights).
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is another potential challenger, but he, too, falls decidedly in the moderate camp. His support for gun-control legislation caused the National Rifle Association to withdraw its endorsement during his reelection campaign last year. He says he is personally opposed to abortion but has declined to take stands on issues that are important to the antiabortion movement, such as defunding Planned Parenthood. Hogan also refused to take a stand on Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to Supreme Court. Hogan, at best, is soft-pedaling social issues in a very Democratic state, but that is not what the conservatives who dominate Republican primaries want in their president.
All this reveals two things. First, anti-Trump Republicans remain utterly unwilling to address the party’s current opinions on key issues. The only way they could beat Trump in a GOP primary is to offer someone of blameless character and unquestioned courage who also agrees with the priorities of the party’s four majority factions. The fact that not one serious anti-Trump challenger or entity has adopted these stances tells you they really oppose one or more his policies almost as much as his persona.
Second, it shows that today’s Republican Party is both afraid of what the future might bring and despairing that politics as usual will forestall that catastrophe. Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) quotes one of his constituents in his recent book, “Them,” who berates him over his opposition to Trump in 2016 because if Hillary Clinton had won, America “would have been hunting Christians in the street for sport under a 7-2 Hillary Court.” That fatalist mind-set is pervasive among today’s conservative voters.
Religious conservatives are afraid their faith is threatened by a Democratic victory and want someone who will stop that from happening. Fiscal and business conservatives are afraid of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) socialism and want someone to protect them. Nationalist conservatives have already experienced job loss, income declines and community decay. They want someone who will fight to treat them as worthy of respect as any American who graduates from college or immigrates to our shores. Anyone who seeks the party’s nomination must be responsive to these concerns, both in policy and, more importantly, in tone. So far, Republican anti-Trumpers fail both tests.
The Republican Party is now the party of Trump, but not for the reasons anti-Trumpers think. It is not Trump’s party because he has bent it to his will; it is his party because its voters have bent Trump and the party to their will. Anyone who wants to lead today’s GOP must engage with that will, or they will continue to feel politically homeless.
Henry Olsen is a Washington Post columnist and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.