When I raised these questions on Twitter earlier this week, I was swamped with hundreds of responses and dozens of emails from longtime Republicans who described feeling like they are lost inside their own homes.
Some, like Jordan Team from Washington, D.C., related how their attempts at explaining their personal politics have devolved into a kind of absurdist comedy:
I've always identified as a more moderate R—even"establishment Republican", if you will. I usually always use "moderate" or "Establishment" when saying I'm a Republican to separate myself from more hard-line Tea Party Freedom Caucus conservatives.
These days, however, I feel like it requires even further explanation to separate myself from the nationalism/populism that Trump & team espouse, since they're all now technically Republicans. Usually it's something super catchy & brief along the lines of: "I'm a moderate Republican—or at least, have been one, not really sure that that means anymore—but I don't support Trump or populism—I'm traditionally conservative." And even that doesn't always get the point across. I think the easiest when trying to have a conversation with someone is a two step process. Step 1: "I'm a Republican but don't like Trump," and then if the convo keeps going/they know politics/they're interested, there's step 2: "I'm more moderate/establishment than Tea Party/Freedom Caucus."
Other people, meanwhile, shared more tragic testimonials. “I feel honestly like a part of my identity was stolen,” wrote Alycia Kuehne, a conservative Christian from Dallas, Texas.
But virtually everyone who wrote to me shared a common complaint: The traditional “Left ↔ Right” spectrum used to describe and categorize Republicans has become obsolete in the age of Trump. The question now is what to replace it with.
To provoke interesting answers, I asked people who wrote to me to imagine the Republican voter who is furthest from themselves—be it ideologically, philosophically, or attitudinally—and then to answer the question: What is the most meaningful difference between you and that person?
The proposed spectrums that emerged from their responses—some of which I’ve included below—are not meant to be peer-reviewed by political scientists. But they offer new, and potentially more useful, ways to map the emerging fault lines that now divide the American right.
LIBERTARIAN ↔ AUTHORITARIAN: One of the most common responses I received from Republicans argued that the party could be divided between authoritarians (who tend to gravitate toward Trump) and libertarians (who are generally repelled by his strong-man instincts). In an email that was typical of several I received, Aaron L. M. Goodwin, from California, wrote:
I grew up in a pretty conservative household. We were home-schooled Mormons. We listened to conservative talk radio. I was the only 10-year-old I knew of who loved to watch C-Span. These days I feel completely alienated from the GOP. But, I don't feel like I'm the one who sold out. So where does that leave me?
I believe the conservative/liberal spectrum has been overtaken by one for democratic/authoritarian ... Most of the Republicans I still feel some kinship with are from a multitude of ideologies, but they share an ideology based on classical liberal democracy. We all share a deep-seeded suspicion of rule by power, and I believe, are closer to the original intent of our founding documents.
GRIEVANCE-MOTIVATED ↔ PHILOSOPHICALLY MOTIVATED: Liz Mair, a libertarian-leaning GOP strategist, wrote that she’s been convinced after “300 gazillion conversations with all sorts of conservatives”—including a range of lawmakers, writers, pundits, candidates, and grassroots-level activists—that the biggest division within the party is one that separates Fox News-a-holics driven by tribal grievance from people who have some kind of philosophically rooted belief system:
I honestly think the split in conservatism comes more down to philosophy versus identity politics than anything. Are you opposed to things on philosophical or tribal grounds? Are you a believer or a member of our clan? (Said in the Scottish sense) ...
I bet if you polled Trump primary voters and asked them what was the bigger problem—insufficiently limited government or transgender Muslim feminists being celebrated at the Oscars, a big majority would say the latter.
ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT ↔ ESTABLISHMENT: The outsider/insider trope is well-worn in contemporary conservative politics—so much so that you could argue the terms have lost their meaning. But based on the emails I received, many Republicans (on both ends of the spectrum) still view the party through that lens. On one end are people who respect existing political institutions, and believe in conforming to their norms and using the system to advance their agenda. On other end of this spectrum are people who believe the establishment is hopelessly corrupt and ineffectual, and that it should be circumvented whenever possible.