Facing this institutional asymmetry, advocates of Trump’s populist nationalism are increasingly pinning their hopes on what amounts to a political pincer movement: They hope Trump can change the party from above by connecting with an evolving party grassroots.
Trump’s success in last year’s GOP primaries undeniably showed his insular nationalist promises had appeal within the party, particularly among the growing ranks of non-college-educated Republicans who keyed his nomination. Exit polls, for instance, showed that while primary participants who supported deporting most undocumented immigrants represented a minority of GOP voters in all but two states, those voters preferred Trump by such large margins that they provided a majority of his votes almost everywhere. A survey last fall by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that non-college-educated Republicans were more skeptical than their college-educated counterparts about free trade, globalization, and the value of NATO. And Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare into a premium-support system has long faced preponderant opposition in polls from the blue-collar and older whites who still express the most support for Trump.
The flip side is that Trump’s agenda, rhetoric, and style inspire more resistance from white-collar whites than Republicans usually confront—a dynamic that was evident from the primaries through the general election, and through his first weeks in office.
The key to party change will be Trump’s success in mobilizing the grassroots elements of the GOP coalition open to a nationalist message, argued J. Hogan Gidley, a longtime GOP communications strategist. Gidley advised the presidential campaigns of both Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee, who pioneered many of the blue-collar conservative themes that Trump championed. He also advised the pro-Trump political action committee founded by Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the conservative megadonors close to Bannon.
Gidley acknowledged there is little institutional backing inside the GOP for the views all of those figures have touted. Asked where the Trump administration’s nationalists could turn for support beyond supportive media voices like Hannity, Ingraham, or Ann Coulter, Gidley said: “I don’t know that they have anywhere to turn.”
But, he argued, Trump can topple that power structure. “That’s what he was elected to do, to shake things up,” Gidley said. “I think he is going to make deals with Republicans, with the [House] Freedom Caucus, with Democrats when he has to. Donald Trump, because he commands the bully pulpit of the White House, can reshape much of the Republican Party.”
But many others question whether Trump has the skill, tenacity, or even the interest to engage in the sort of sustained struggle to redirect his party that Bill Clinton undertook. Wehner cautioned that even Trump’s turn back to more conventional conservative thinking in recent weeks probably isn’t the last bend in the road.