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Republican voters’ loyalty to Trump shows that the GOP has become an 'anti-idea' party

Key Points
  • President Trump's establishment GOP aides and allies have spent much of the year trying to prevent him from fulfilling his campaign promises.
  • Despite several of Trump's biggest promises not coming to fruition, the president continues to enjoy loyalty from the Republican base.
  • Republicans "have become in large part the party of anti-ideas," says Peter Wehner, a former top aide to President George W. Bush.
Donald Trump speaks during a thank you rally in Ladd-Peebles Stadium on December 17, 2016 in Mobile, Alabama.
Getty Images

Ex-Sen. Tom Coburn has offered a theory for why so many Republicans still back President Donald Trump despite behavior that has alienated so many others.

"We have a leader who has a personality disorder," the Oklahoma Republican told The New York Times last week, but "he's done what he actually told the people he was going to do and they're not going to abandon him."

The first assertion offered a damning description of the president. But the second, in a different way, damns his party.

That's because Trump's aides and allies in Congress have spent much of this year trying to keep him from doing things he said he'd do in last year's campaign — which, in turn, shows how Republican politics have drifted from governing realities in 21st century America.

The delay in the tax bill Trump and GOP leaders had hoped to release on Wednesday provides an example. Candidate Trump initially proposed a cut so massive it would have taken millions more Americans off the tax rolls, cut the top personal rate to 25 percent and cut the top corporate rate to 15 percent.

Trump claimed it would produce such an explosion of growth that the deficit wouldn't grow at all. But the conservative Tax Foundation forecast $10 trillion in higher deficits, and the plan has been whittled down since.

Congressional Republicans acknowledge the scaled-back version — with a top corporate rate of 20 percent and top personal rate of at least 35 percent — will increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion. Red ink would rise even more unless the plan includes offsetting provisions to raise revenue.

But Trump has opposed some prominent options. And the resulting difficulty in making the plan add up contributed to the delay.

The same problem hobbled the GOP effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. Trump pledged better, cheaper health care for all Americans without touching Medicaid — a standard that Republican plans could not meet.

On other issues, advisers have kept Trump from labeling China a "currency manipulator" and imposing retribution on American companies that move factories offshore.

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They've kept him from terminating the North American Free Trade Agreement and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal. They've conceded there won't be a wall across America's entire southern border financed by Mexico.

They've kept him from summarily ending President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration program, and restoring torture techniques to the anti-terror fight. Courts have blocked iterations of a proposed travel ban that started with a pledge to keep Muslims out.

Trump's brash promises had a visceral appeal to a decisive segment of the Republican electorate. Blue-collar whites, alienated by Washington's inability to alleviate economic and cultural pressures, gave him two-thirds of their votes.

But they also set supporters up for disappointment when they collide with the demands of a modern, diverse country in a globally integrated economy. In this week's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump's approval fell to 38 percent, including a 7-point drop to 51 percent among whites without college degrees.

The gap between rhetoric and reality reflects a drift by the GOP base away from the value of expertise and education itself. In a recent Pew Research survey, 58 percent of Republicans said college and universities hurt the country — a view expressed by just 19 percent of Democrats.

Republicans "have become in large part the party of anti-ideas," writes Peter Wehner, a former White House aide to President George W. Bush. "There is a deep contempt for policy, and for ideas, and for the intellectual side and the governance side of politics.

"Donald Trump is a serious problem," Wehner continues. "The fact that so many Republicans … were attracted to him, and are staying committed to him despite the fact that we know what he is like, is an even deeper problem in some respects."

Some members of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Republican caucus, including Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, have lately spoken up against the president. But the squeeze from below won't ease soon.

Instead of the president's commitments, former White House strategist Steve Bannon faults fellow Republicans bent on thwarting him. He vows to mobilize the party's base to defeat them in 2018 Republican primaries.

"Corker, McConnell, that entire global establishment clique have to go," Bannon told Fox News recently. "I'm coming after all of them."

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