The GOP has moved in Bannon’s direction on war, too. In June 2015, according to Gallup, only 31 percent of Republicans called the Iraq War a mistake. When Trump called it one in February 2016, Rubio, Bush, Cruz, and Kasich all disagreed. Each argued that, given what George W. Bush knew at the time, he was right to topple Saddam Hussein. I suspect that far fewer Republican voters or politicians would say so today.
Even Trump’s bombing of Syria shows how the mood inside the party has changed. Yes, most Republicans supported it. Americans tend to support military action at first, especially when a president of their own party launches it. But influential conservatives—from Ann Coulter to Laura Ingraham to thousands of commenters on Breitbart—denounced the attack. That’s new. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq, a far riskier undertaking, conservative support was nearly unanimous. Coulter and Ingraham supported it themselves. There is now a powerful faction of Republicans willing to oppose even limited military strikes launched by a Republican president. Under George W. Bush, that simply wasn’t the case.
But if Trump has moved the GOP toward nationalism and nativism, why can’t he—or a future Republican leader—move it back? They could, but it won’t be easy because the Republican coalition has changed. Between 1992 and 2016, the percentage of whites with college degrees that identified as Republicans dropped five points. Over that same period, the percentage of whites with a high-school degree or less who identified as Republicans rose 18 points. Blue-collar Republicans are far more hostile to immigration and free trade than their white-collar counterparts. And as Walter Russell Mead has famously observed, they tend to be “Jacksonian” on foreign policy. When they feel threatened, they support ferocious military attacks. But they have little appetite for expending blood or treasure on behalf of international norms or commitments from which they perceive little personal benefit.
As Ron Brownstein correctly notes, these views are still underrepresented in Washington, where corporate interests and a hawkish foreign-policy class push the GOP toward internationalism. But over time, the shift among grassroots Republicans will reshape Washington institutions that rely on conservative eyeballs or small-donor donations.
Ten or even five years ago, The Weekly Standard was more influential than Breitbart. Now it’s the reverse. Listen to Fox News these days and you’ll hear little enthusiasm for the war in Afghanistan and a lot of enthusiasm for keeping Afghans out of the United States.
Over time, nationalist conservatives will even develop an intellectual class. In January, a former student of the influential conservative Harvard political theorist Harvey Mansfield created a journal called American Affairs to give Bannonism intellectual heft. The job of neoconservative intellectuals, Irving Kristol once claimed, is “to explain to the American people why they are right, and to the intellectuals why they are wrong.” As ordinary Republicans move in a nationalist and nativist direction, nationalist and nativist intellectuals will emerge to do the same thing.
My old colleague Jonathan Chait once wrote that in interpreting politics, it’s important to distinguish between the weather, which constantly fluctuates, and the climate, which defines the broad parameters within which those fluctuations occur. The weather turned bad for Steve Bannon last week. But the climate inside the Republican Party is likely to be conducive to his views for years to come.