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?