Can the Republican Party Keep Its Coalition Together?

After this week’s events, the GOP could lose support from its white- and blue-collar voters alike.

Debris and signs are left on the floor after the victory party for Republican president-elect Donald Trump in New York on November 9, 2016.
Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Donald Trump and the Republican Congress this week are straining every fraying seam in their party’s coalition.

In just days, Trump’s White House has advanced aggressively nationalistic initiatives on trade and immigration, while also starting an incendiary fight with protesting NFL players. Each of these confrontations has energized elements of his blue-collar political base but alarmed an array of business leaders usually aligned with the GOP.

Simultaneously, Trump and congressional Republicans have been finalizing a plan to massively cut taxes after mounting their latest futile push to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Those efforts reflect top priorities of the business community, but would sublimate, or actively undermine, the economic interests of Trump’s blue-collar supporters.

These divergent actions crystallize the challenge Republicans face melding their traditional small-government agenda with Trump’s bristling economic nationalism and increasingly overt appeals to white racial resentments.

The crusade to shrink government frequently threatens the financial needs of the older and blue-collar white voters who have provided the most receptive audience for Trump’s racially barbed populism. But that populism, particularly when it stokes racial resentment most openly, grates on the values of those most receptive to the low-tax, less-spending agenda—namely, business leaders and the broader circle of fiscally conservative white-collar voters.

The decisive victory of former state chief justice Roy Moore, a flamboyantly polarizing culture warrior, in Tuesday’s Alabama Senate primary offers one measure of which vision is ascendant in the party. Senator Luther Strange, the appointed establishment replacement for now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, drew tenacious support from business and Senate GOP leadership (along with a more tepid endorsement from Trump). Yet Moore’s win demonstrated that the appeal of Trump-style populism is still rising in the GOP. His victory is sure to inspire other anti-establishment candidates to pursue primary races that will sharpen the GOP’s fault lines.

Republicans have usually found ways to balance the contrasting priorities of their country-club and working-class wings since Richard Nixon first attracted large numbers of blue-collar whites half a century ago. But the tension is growing more acute under Trump, because the GOP is now pressing so hard on both fronts.

While previous Republican leaders formulated tax proposals that tilted most of their benefits to their upper-income supporters, rarely has the party tried to revoke benefits from its lower-income supporters as sweepingly as during the serial efforts to repeal the ACA. And while the GOP has tapped racial anxieties before, Trump has made his appeals to white racial resentments far more overtly—from his refusal to immediately condemn Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke during the GOP primaries to his “very fine people” moral equivalency about Charlottesville.

Even under these pressures, the bonds connecting the Republican coalition could still hold. Some Democrats fear that if Republicans pass a big tax cut they will reel back many business leaders and college-educated white voters who have recoiled from Trump. Conversely, some conservative operatives believe Trump can surmount any doubts about his economic allegiance among blue-collar and older whites if he remains their defender against the cultural forces he says are threatening “our culture” and “our history.”

But the past week’s events point toward another possibility: that Trump and the GOP could lose just enough support on each front to leave the party vulnerable.

The widespread backlash last weekend against Trump’s attacks on NFL players protesting police brutality—even from an array of wealthy team owners who had supported his campaign—sent the same message as the earlier exodus of business leaders from his administration’s advisory councils after Charlottesville. Both incidents showed that even business leaders who largely agree with Trump’s economic agenda concluded they could not remain associated with his racial views. That’s either because they were personally offended, or they considered the association politically indefensible given the increasing diversity of their own workforces and customer base.

Another crack in Trump’s upscale support surfaced in Monday’s Wall Street Journal. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue has staunchly supported Trump’s deregulatory and tax-cutting agenda, pushed hard for ACA repeal, and spent tens of millions of dollars to elect Republicans to Congress. But in the Journal, Donohue wrote that if the administration quits NAFTA, as Trump again suggested this week, it would be “an economic, political, and national-security disaster.” His alarm over Trump’s trade policy is seconded by leading agricultural interests critical to the GOP’s rural strength.

Business leaders haven’t yet commented in big numbers on the revised travel ban that the Trump administration released this week. But virtually all of the nation’s leading technology companies sued to block an earlier version. And business leaders (as well as most white-collar whites in polls) are broadly dubious of the proposal from Trump and some Senate Republicans to cut legal immigration in half.

Cracks are also evident in the coalition’s working-class wing. The failed efforts to repeal the ACA have drawn consistent opposition in polls from older and blue-collar whites—understandably so, since studies show both groups would be big losers under the GOP plans. If House Republicans advance Speaker Paul Ryan’s long-standing effort to convert Medicare into a premium-support, or voucher, system, polls suggest these core constituencies would resist even more. Meanwhile, in this week’s ABC/Washington Post poll, non-college-educated whites strongly opposed cutting taxes for the wealthy, and only half supported reducing them for business.

Trump’s gravitational pull is wrenching the GOP into a new shape that bonds his own turbulent priorities onto the party’s existing agenda. Unwilling to spin free from Trump, Republicans can only wonder if he is building a durable new coalition, or recklessly shattering the one he inherited.