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How Trump Remade the Republican Party in His Image
Donald Trump is shattering our political norms, and his party is falling right into step.
Whether he is defying subpoenas, rejecting the findings of the U.S. intelligence community, or unilaterally withdrawing from international treaties, Trump has a history of breaking from the conventions associated with the American presidency. Why does Congress tolerate this behavior? Or more specifically, why don’t Republican Senators challenge the President when he defies values that have been long associated with the presidency?
While Trump remains relatively unpopular — his overall approval rating hovers somewhere in the 40th percentile and has never topped 46% — his popularity among Republicans is around 90%. With strong support from his own party, it is unsurprising that his co-partisans in the Senate would remain loyal. On the other hand, as former president Bill Clinton’s improprieties came to light, he began to lose support among Democrats, and the same is true for Republicans during the Richard Nixon impeachment (although neither lost the total support of their party). But Trump, by some standards, has already been shown to have violated more norms (or maybe laws) than Nixon or Clinton did, and remains steadfastly supported by nearly all Republicans. Why?
A look back at Trump’s road to the White House can help explain his ability to withstand scrutiny. Trump ran as an outsider in 2016 and took advantage of a lack of policy coherence in the Republican Party. When he won the Republican nomination, and then the White House, he became the leader of the party. As its leader, he commands immense power to shape the party and define what it stands for.
In essence, Trump did to the Republican Party what he’s done for his real estate properties around the world: First, he purchases or builds a property, then he boldly features the “TRUMP” name on the property, and promotes it as a high-end, exclusive product that everyone wants. This may or may not be a successful strategy in real estate (or steaks, or bottled water, or golf courses), but it is a highly unusual way to build or brand a political party.
Typically, a political party forms by various groups, interests, and activists forming a coalition to try to achieve some policy goals through winning elections. The “glue” of a party coalition is traditionally some coherent sense of policy objectives. Coalition partners do not have to fully agree on all the objectives, but they have to agree to share a label, a message, and a candidate (or several). That is how the modern Democratic coalition has been kept together.
Research by political scientists Matt Grossman and Dave Hopkins, however, has shown that the modern Republican and Democratic coalitions are not held together by the same type of glue. While Democrats are driven by policy goals, Republicans are drawn together by ideas and values.
The glue in the Republican coalition is fluid and amorphous. This is, in part, how Trump was able to co-opt the party — despite not being a loyal Republican partisan himself. Trump changed his personal political party affiliation six times between 1987 and 2012, oscillating between Republican, Independent, Democrat, and no party affiliation. He’s been a registered Republican only since 2012. While Trump is no tried-and-true, lifelong Republican, as its current leader, he is able to define the party to his advantage.
They are partisans first, and legislators second.
Traditionally, political parties provide members of Congress with the branding they need for reelection — think Democrats’ climate policies, or the Republican mantra of “family values.” With a party brand, Senators and House members who may not be well known as individuals can effectively communicate to their constituents what they stand for and how they’ll lead. In eras where weak parties have failed to definitively provide this brand signal, candidates relied on incumbency status to signal their competence for office.
However, recent political science research shows that the advantage members gained from incumbency alone is all but lost, so they need something else to clearly communicate to voters who they are and where they stand. Trump offers this branding to Republicans in spades. As a business entrepreneur, he has excelled in product promotion through sheer association with self-proclaimed excellence. If you’re a Republican, reelection-seeking Senator, this type of clear branding is exactly what you’re looking for.
There is nothing more valuable to a Senator seeking reelection than the ability to send a clear and strong signal to voters about where their partisan loyalties lie. Aligning with the President is the best possible way to do that, regardless of whether they agree with him on individual policy choices.
And so Republican members of Congress are beholden to support a President who embraces foreign dictators, coddles white supremacists, dehumanizes immigrants, and rejects international treaties. While some may support these activities, we should not assume they all do. We should, however, assume they all want, more than anything, to be as strongly associated with the Republican Party label as possible. Really, they are partisans first, and legislators second.