With his policy of systematically separating children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, Donald Trump finally extended his racially infused economic nationalism to a point that a critical mass of elected Republicans could not follow.
But the fact that many Republicans drew the line only at a policy that experts have likened to child abuse is a powerful measure of how far Trump has already bent the party toward his “America First” vision, particularly on immigration. Even after Trump tried to alleviate the backlash over the policy on Wednesday, the larger question is whether the opposition he provoked represents just a solitary speed bump in his reconfiguration of the GOP around nationalist themes, or the beginning of a broader pushback.
Today, the smart money would bet on speed bump.
In office, Trump has offered a straightforward trade to the Republican Party that preexisted his rise. He has advanced, to a greater degree than many expected, the traditional Republican goals of cutting taxes and spending, retrenching regulation, and appointing conservative judges. In return, he has demanded acquiescence for his turn toward nativism on immigration, protectionism on trade, and unilateralism and isolationism in America’s international relations. But in doing so, Republicans risk narrowing the party’s appeal to the younger and more educated elements of the electorate.
With several polls this week showing that roughly two-thirds of Americans oppose Trump’s family separation policy and images of distraught children dominating television, many congressional Republicans were openly seeking a way out. But, by any reasonable standard, Capitol Hill Republicans marched themselves into this quagmire by either actively endorsing, or failing to effectively resist, almost every earlier step Trump has taken to redefine the party around his insular nationalism.
On trade, that became clear when traditionally free-trading congressional Republicans meekly acquiesced to Trump’s abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership that created an American-led free trade zone across Asia. Complaints over Trump’s trade truculence from both elected Republicans and GOP interest groups (such as the leading farm lobbies) have grown louder recently as tensions have spiked with China, Europe, Canada, and Mexico; but even so, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has dismissively blocked bipartisan legislation to restrict the president’s authority to unilaterally launch trade wars.
On foreign policy, several Republican scholars lamented Trump’s open disdain for traditional U.S. allies on display at this month’s G-7 meeting and praise for North Korea’s oppressive leader Kim Jong Un. But not only did leading congressional Republicans bite their lips, so did the former secretaries of state and defense at the apex of the GOP foreign policy establishment.
The pull toward Trump has been greatest on immigration. Skepticism in the party during the 2016 primaries about his proposed restrictions on Muslim entry to the U.S. and his border wall have virtually evaporated—even the ostensibly more consensus House Republican immigration bill crafted by Speaker Paul Ryan would fully fund the wall.
Last June, all but seven House Republicans voted to withhold federal funding from “sanctuary” cities that fail to fully cooperate with federal immigration officials; not a single Senate Republican voted against that position in February. (The Ryan bill scheduled for a vote this week would provide private citizens a right to sue cities or states if their policies result in the release of undocumented immigrants who later commit a crime.) Reflecting the same movement, three-fourths of Senate Republicans voted in February for a Trump-favored plan that would have massively reduced legal immigration; many House Republicans are almost certain to vote this week for House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte’s legislation that would impose comparable cuts.
With this pattern of deference from congressional Republicans, the Trump administration could be forgiven for assuming they would accept his “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has led to hundreds of families being separated at the border. But of all the ways Trump has jettisoned the party’s internationalist traditions this proved the bridge, or cage, too far.
The irony is that many elected Republicans moved away from Trump on family separation even as the same polls showing majority opposition overall consistently discovered that nearly three-fifths of self-identified Republican partisans support the policy (at least when it’s identified as a Trump initiative). That captures a larger truth: As the GOP has grown more dependent on older and non-college-educated whites, Trump’s rejection of the party’s internationalist traditions actually reflects the emerging majority opinion in its coalition.
The threat to the GOP is that a substantial number of college-educated, and especially younger, Republicans grate against that hardening consensus. Though many of those Republicans are also skeptical of trade and alliances, on balance they were consistently more supportive of both than their older and blue-collar counterparts, according to recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs polling. (While just 25 percent of Republicans older than 50, for instance, thought the North American Free Trade Agreement benefited the U.S., 43 percent of younger Republicans thought so.) Similarly, in Quinnipiac University polling this week, Republicans older than 50 supported Trump’s family-separation policy by nearly two-to-one, while the share of younger Republicans who opposed it (42 percent) only slightly trailed those who backed it (50 percent). These positions are even less popular among younger and college-educated independent and swing voters.
On every aspect of America’s interaction with international trade, allies, and immigration, Trump is recalibrating the GOP around the anxieties and fears of the segments of older and working-class white America most unnerved by greater interconnection abroad and more diversity at home.
GOP pollster Whit Ayres is one of many party professionals who say that while that strategy can help Republicans challenging Democratic senators in some culturally conservative red states, it’s a formula for disaster in a House battlefield centered on white-collar suburbs.
“It is an utterly dysfunctional strategy if you look at the districts that will determine control of the House, which are largely upscale suburban districts or very diverse districts with large numbers of Hispanic voters,” Ayres said.
But Trump and his closest advisers clearly see stoking those anxieties in his “coalition of restoration” as a winning electoral hand for 2018 and 2020. That’s why the Republicans who are anxiously sweating the mounting trade tension with China and Europe, and those who fled from Trump’s family separation policy, can expect more polarizing confrontations on both fronts, unless they can generate enough pressure to dissuade him from erecting more walls against the world.
And, by this point, who on earth would bet on that?