The pledge not to raise taxes, Norquist contends, is a promise Republicans make to their voters, not to him. Republicans who won’t sign the pledge, Norquist likes to say, are like “rat heads in Coke bottles”: They ruin the brand’s reputation. As for the idea that he’s Republicans’ leader, he has joked, “I reject all conspiracy theories that have me sharing world domination with the Koch brothers. Sharing? Never.”
In 2016, however, Norquist was relegated to the sidelines, and early. His preferred presidential candidate, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, dropped out in September 2015. Norquist continued to pine for him nonetheless.
“Tonight I dine w/ 2016 GOP nominee, Gov. Scott Walker,” he tweeted. “He beat the union bosses, cut taxes, elected 3 times. Who would not nominate that.” This tweet was issued seven months after Walker left the race, shortly before Trump became the presumptive nominee.
Meanwhile, Norquist was fighting a personal, highly charged battle with his party’s Islamophobic fringe—a fight that continues to echo in the GOP’s post-election conflicts. Frank Gaffney, the head of an anti-Islam think tank, has spent nearly two decades attacking and harassing Norquist, claiming that Americans for Tax Reform is an Islamist front group tied to the Muslim Brotherhood. He also contends that Norquist is gay. There is no apparent truth to Gaffney’s claims, but they have circulated widely on the right, championed by the likes of Breitbart and Glenn Beck.
In the past, Norquist has mostly won this intra-movement battle: He kicked Gaffney out of his influential Wednesday meetings of conservative activists, and had Gaffney barred from the Conservative Political Action Conference. In early 2016, Gaffney tried to get Norquist removed from the board of the National Rifle Association. Norquist’s allies waged an intense campaign on his behalf, and in May, he narrowly avoided removal from the board on a 53-47 percent vote of more than 130,000 NRA members.
This was the reason I was so shocked to find Norquist cheering on Trump. Beyond the exhausting and annoying personal ordeal, his feud with Gaffney seemed to represent the ongoing battle for the soul of the Republican Party, with Norquist’s abstract, libertarian, economically focused agenda on one side and Gaffney’s paranoid, racially tinged vision on the other.
There is no denying that Trump’s rise has empowered Gaffney and his allies. Gaffney’s views have been embraced by officials now serving in the White House, such as presidential adviser Sebastian Gorka. Gaffney himself was an informal adviser to the Trump transition team. A man who represents everything Norquist doesn’t think the GOP should or does stand for—tribalism, xenophobia, identity politics—now has the ear of the Republican president.
To many, including some of his own strategists, Trump won both the primary and general elections by ignoring conservative dogma and instead tapping into people’s resentment of minorities and foreigners. Many analysts, myself included, saw Trump's success as evidence that perhaps the true mainstream of the GOP was always more Gaffney than Norquist, more Breitbart than National Review. Influential Trump advisers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller have declared that they want to reshape America’s political debate into one about American culture and nationalism, not the size of government.