Seven years after Republicans first seized on the unruly rise of the Tea Party as a vehicle for winning elections, GOP leaders are confronting a stark reality: They have lost all control and comprehension of the populist movement they were supposed to be marshaling—and they may soon be facing a mutiny.
The volatile dynamic inside the Republican Party was thrown into sharp relief last week when Roy Moore—a fringe relic of the fading religious right—emerged victorious in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary, defeating the establishment incumbent President Trump had endorsed.
With the dust still settling, many Washington Republicans are mystified—and alarmed—by the fact that not even Donald “Drain the Swamp” Trump had enough populist cred to swing a primary race to his candidate in deep-red Alabama. While the GOP’s class of professional strategists are generally ambivalent at best when it comes to the president, they had taken a certain comfort in believing that he was fully in command of his base. The assumption allowed them to draw conclusions about what his voters wanted, how to cater to them—and how to avoid drawing their wrath.
But Alabama fully punctured the illusion that Trump was in control. For all the race’s idiosyncrasies—Trump’s endorsement of the more establishment-friendly candidate was uncharacteristic for him, and his support often seemed conflicted—it seemed to reveal that there was a limit to his supporters’ loyalty.
“Trump seems uniquely able to give voice to voters’ anger, but incapable of channeling it towards a larger purpose,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist whose firm released a client memo on Friday featuring data that suggested the president’s endorsement had no impact whatsoever in the Alabama race.
At this point, Conant said, no one can predict how the roiling anger in the conservative electorate will manifest itself during next year’s midterms—but it’s unlikely it will subside anytime soon. “We need to be honest about the fact that there are some powerful people inside the Republican Party who have no interest in governing,” he told me. “They’re focused like a laser on decapitating the party’s leadership, and have no interest in growing the party’s base into a lasting majority.” The resulting dysfunction, he said, will only further inflame voters’ frustrations.
Over the past quarter-century, Republican politics have routinely been upended by angry populist outbursts of this sort—from the rise of Ross Perot to the revolt of the religious right, from the Tea Party wave to the Trump insurgency. Inevitably, these episodes set off a stampede of opportunistic politicians, pollsters, and policy wonks rushing to co-opt the phenomenon and use it to advance some ideological agenda. In just the past few years, politicians as varied as House Speaker Paul Ryan, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Trump, and Moore have tried to lay claim to the conservative movement—with each arguing that their vision is the one that mad-as-hell voters are crying out for.
But Nick Everhart, a GOP media consultant who has worked for dozens of Tea Party-aligned campaigns over the years, said there’s little use in trying to explain the unpredictable behavior of the conservative base with issues or ideology. “The idea that these movements are driven by any kind of intellectual, structured thing is ridiculous. They’re always a backlash to the moment,” he told me, adding: “Trump corralled the angry masses for himself. Other candidates with or without the president’s endorsement will also corral that mob for their needs.”
That sentiment was echoed by Reed Galen, a political consultant who served as Arizona Senator John McCain’s deputy campaign manager in the 2008 presidential race. “None of this is based on ideology or shared purpose,” he said. “The activist, angry wing of the GOP … doesn’t care about progress or making America great again. It lives and breathes on anger and resentment. That’s a difficult movement to direct and control.”
Trygve Olson, a former adviser to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, attributed the anger in the conservative movement largely to the efforts of a “right-wing outrage complex” that profits from its audience’s grievance. In the past, he said, the GOP has been able to keep populist anger in check with policy concessions and savvy messaging aimed at the base. This time, however, Olson believes there could be a much larger “fracturing” of the Republican coalition—one that extends beyond policy. “If this eruption is about differences in core values, which I believe is the case, it becomes hard for coalition members that don’t share any underlying values to stay together,” he said.
Not everyone in the Republican Party is quite so apocalyptic about the current state of affairs. Greg Mueller, a conservative media strategist who worked for Pat Buchanan’s insurgent presidential campaigns in the 1990s, told me it shouldn’t be any mystery why voters are lashing out—and added that it’s not too late to appease them.
“Since 2010, the GOP has [run] in every election promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, secure the border, provide tax reform and relief, end taxpayer funding of abortion, appoint constitutionalist judges, and grow the economy again,” Mueller said. “Other than confirming Justice [Neil] Gorsuch, the GOP so far has nothing to show for earning the majority.” The lack of progress on these campaign promises, he said, has left voters “feeling they’ve been had.”
In the wake of Moore’s victory in Alabama, many liberals have argued that GOP leaders—frantic and frightened at the prospect of more ugly primary upsets—are simply reaping the whirlwind after years of cynically stoking anger and resentment among conservative voters. But it isn’t just the denizens of the D.C. establishment who admit that they’ve lost touch with their party’s base.
I spoke with one Republican consultant who has made a career out of getting anti-establishment right-wingers elected to office. As he surveys the political landscape now, he told me (on condition of anonymity), one thing has become clear: He and his fellow Tea Party whisperers are really just guessing when they say they know what “the base” wants.
“It’s all bullshit,” he said. “So much of [what we do] is predicated on control, and saying that we understand how it works. Nobody clearly does. Nobody’s in control.”
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