In Donald Trump's GOP, His Most Loyal Supporters Have the Most to Lose

The president is spiting his most dedicated supporters in ways that may impact his party for years to come.

Donald Trump does not understand Republicans. They voted numerous times to repeal Obamacare back when Barack Obama was president, but now all of a sudden they have cold feet. For Trump, the calculus is simple: he is determined to tear down all vestiges of Barack Obama’s legacy, while Republican Senators just keep getting stuck on the details.

Many of those Senators are struggling to understand Trump voters. The President’s white working class supporters have vocally detested Obamacare for years and demanded its repeal, yet proposed repeal legislation has struggled to win the support of more than one in five of those polled―even in Trump country. The proposed Senate legislation remains stuck between those senators who still believe that they must reduce the roll of government in the healthcare economy, and those senators who are determined to look past the anti-government, anti-Obamacare rhetoric that continues to animate many of their voters and focus instead on the impact on families that stand to lose access to healthcare care.

And then there is the President. If Donald Trump’s core supporters are demanding more and cheaper healthcare―even as they continue to rail against government―it is because that is what he promised them. At his luncheon this week, as Trump sought to get the proposed legislation back on track, he fell back on his tried and true campaign rhetoric: after he was done excoriating Barack Obama, he went on to insist that the Senate bill would provide more care to more people at lower costs. Premiums will be so low, he insisted, you won’t be able to believe it. For their part, the assembled senators were under no illusion that there was a single word of truth to what he said, and that sums up their problem.

Donald Trump is transforming the Republican Party, and Republican leaders are struggling to understand how deep and lasting those changes are going to be. When the last Republican revolution rolled around 40 years ago, Ronald Reagan rewrote some of what were then core tenets of the Republican Party, but he was a piker compared to Donald Trump. Reagan embraced social conservatives, alienating many moderates in his party, but his focus on reinvigorating an economy that had struggled since the end of the Vietnam War and rebuilding American strength in the wake of the Carter presidency were both broadly embraced. In his zeal to cut taxes, Reagan cast aside long-standing GOP fealty to fiscal conservatism and balanced budgets, and ― despite a rhetorical resurgence under the guise of the Tea Party ― the party never looked back. The GOP still talks the talk about deficits, but when it comes to walking the walk, few beyond the House Freedom Caucus and a few old bankers sipping single malt at the Metropolitan Club really care anymore. But through it all, the Republican Party retained its paternalistic core.

In contrast, the Trump revolution is transforming what it means to be a Republican. Early on, GOP insiders convinced themselves that Trump’s nomination was at worst an inconvenience; they saw him largely as an interloper to whom they might have to make a few concessions at the margins, but who would ultimately sign whatever bills they put on his desk and thus advance the traditional Republican agenda.

They could not have been more wrong. Piece by piece, Donald Trump is taking apart the Party of Ronald Reagan. Gone is the party that trumpeted free trade as the tip of the spear of freedom’s march across the globe. Gone is the party that embraced America’s role as the defender of democracies from Europe to Asia against the threat posed by adversaries in Peking and Moscow. And gone is the party that welcomed the entrepreneurial energy that immigration brought to our shores. In its place has emerged a political party that is beginning to mimic elements of the Democratic Party of the 1950s more than the Republican Party of the 1980s. Large majorities of Republicans now believe that free trade is bad, that immigrants steal jobs from patriotic Americans, and―as the Gipper rolls in his grave―that Moscow Center-trained KGB spook Vladimir Putin is our kind of guy, and more aligned with America’s interest and values than a free press.

Worse than that are the lies. As this week's luncheon illustrated, the party is stuck with a leader who will say whatever he wants, whenever he wants, without regard to the consequences. For their part, Senators have to go home and live in their states, and should their voters find themselves losing access to medical care, the political and moral repercussions loom to be dire. One can debate whether or not Trump voters are waking up to the fact that he has lied to them--or if they never took him literally to begin with--but the repeal and proposed replacement of the Affordable Care Act looks to be one of those moments when people are forced to confront the old adage, be careful what you wish for.

In a similar vein, it became apparent last week that one more longstanding Republican mantra is falling by the wayside. Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president two years ago, Republican support for higher education as a positive force for the nation and in people's lives has plummeted. According to Pew Research, a large majority of Republicans--nearly double the share of those polled just two years ago--now think that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country.

While protests of various types on elite college campuses have drawn national media attention and won widespread derision on the right, this broad change in attitudes toward higher education among the Republican base goes far deeper and is much more troubling. Interviews of Americans within the Trump voter demographic--white, less educated, rural and exurban--suggest that people within those communities increasingly reject the notion that higher education--along with the willingness to move to a region with more jobs--are paths to economic opportunity and family advancement.

Belief that individual motivation and aspiration is essential to individual and family economic prosperity was long a core Republican stance, but it was not Donald Trump's stance. Instead, he told his base voters in no uncertain terms, that only he could fix what ails them, and that he would. He would bring back the jobs that had left; he would rebuild the industries that had died. Forget all that GOP rhetoric about free markets and individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, in the wake of the Trump revolution, he would provide.

It is a dangerous evolution for people who live in the real world. For those people--for whom Donald Trump is not going to deliver a free ride back to the 1950s--educational attainment has emerged over the past several decades--and most starkly since the 2008 financial collapse--as the most important factor in the financial security and prospects of American families. While much attention was paid during the last election cycle to the fact that median wages for American workers have been flat in real terms for almost 40 years, less attention focused on the disaggregation of that data and the correlation of educational attainment with family incomes and unemployment rates over time. Simply stated, families headed by a worker with a high school degree or less have seen a decline in real incomes for decades now, with the sharpest decline in the decade since the 2008 financial collapse. Their unemployment rates are higher, and the likelihood that they simply leave the labor force are greater.

In contrast with establishment Republicans who had long disregarded the economic travails of working class white voters, Donald Trump swept to power by telling those voters what they wanted to hear. In the swing from paternalism to populism, however, it is those families who have the most to lose--both with respect to health insurance coverage that is now at risk, and rejecting higher education as a path to family economic security, which will condemn them to lives of continued economic decline.

When Ronald Reagan brought white working class voters into the Republican Party, the GOP changed little in terms of its core principles and commitments beyond embracing rhetoric around faith and guns that became central to the GOP’s ensuing electoral success. Now, those voters are in charge―the peasants with pitchforks, as Patrick Buchanan described them years ago―and the party leadership is adrift. While the media loves to focus on Donald Trump’s ‘historically low’ approval rating, he continues to enjoy strong support among at least two-thirds of Republicans―and among his core voters his support remains stratospheric. As the President alternately threatened and cajoled them this week to pass the proposed healthcare legislation, Republican senators knew they were on treacherous ground. A year into the Trump revolution, and they still don’t know who their voters are or what they believe in; and at a more fundamental level―that goes way beyond healthcare―they no longer know what the Republican Party stands for. But not Donald Trump. Forget all those headlines about how low his approval ratings are; right now, he knows what the Republican Party stands for because, right now, he is the Republican Party. Even if no one really knows what that means anymore.