“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.