clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump is stress-testing the Republican Party

Conservatives are stunned as Trump veers off the path on tariffs and guns in the past 36 hours.

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with leaders of the steel industry at the White House March 1, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

It’s been a very strange 36 hours for political conservatives.

It began with a meeting at the White House on gun control between Donald Trump and lawmakers in which the president proposed a policy agenda that the NRA’s Dana Loesch described Wednesday night as “punishing innocent Americans and stripping from them their constitutional rights.”

It ended with a shocking announcement by the White House that Trump plans to impose a 25 percent tariff on all steel imports and a 10 percent tariff on aluminum imports, a move blasted by Republicans as “a massive tax increase on American families” and a “huge job-killing tax hike” — and one that might launch an international trade war.

In between these events, news broke that the FBI downgraded Jared Kushner’s security clearance, reminding the Republican Party they’re suddenly supposed to be at war with law enforcement. And Trump lit into Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former senator from Alabama long in good standing with the conservative movement.

One conservative writer said of Trump’s tweets on Sessions:President Trump’s attack on Jeff Sessions is the only thing that’s ‘disgraceful’” while said that Trump’s shifts on gun control “was stunning and inexplicable.” Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro said of Trump’s gun control meeting: “This is all disgraceful nonsense ... but it proves once again that on matters of governing philosophy, Trump is no conservative. He’s just a guy who says stuff he thinks will play for the audience in front of him.” And one conservative NRA member put Trump’s comments on guns and due process quite simply: “That’s the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”

Since Trump took office, conservatives have stayed true to a single political strategy: Protect Trump. Underneath is an implicit bargain. Trump signs onto the Republican agenda, like the tax bill, while making no real effort to push any of the populist or otherwise unattractive (to Republicans) policies he sold on the trail. Republicans, in turn, look the other way or even defend him when scandal swirls — from conflicts of interest, sexual assault, or Russian meddling in the campaign.

But the dynamic changed in the past two days. Conservatives aren’t being asked to stand by Trump in the face of scandal. They are being asked to stand by Trump in the face of proposed policies they fundamentally oppose — and policies Trump has long supported. Trump is testing the limits of the unspoken conservative vow to protect him at all cost. And Republicans who support Trump’s only hope is that the man they voted for because he “tells it like it is” and “means what he says” actually doesn’t mean any of it.

“I think it’s impulsive and instinctive”

When Trump said he is actually going to tax aluminum and steel, the president set off a rare outpouring of intra-party fury.

Guy Benson, a Fox News contributor and political editor who has been very supportive of Trump’s economic policies, tweeted his displeasure with Trump’s decision on tariffs early Thursday morning:

When I spoke with Benson, he said, “The last 24 hours have demonstrated that [Trump]’s not a principled conservative and he can be swayed by the last person he listened to.”

And Benson blasted Trump’s decision-making. On tariffs, Benson said, “I think it is terrible economic policy. I think it’s impulsive and instinctive.” He added, “The consensus by economists is that its a terrible idea, and that’s economists from across the [political] spectrum. If you want to toss a wet towel on a robust economy, this is how you do it.” Benson is just one of many conservatives who made this point.

The tariff news came right after a meeting with Democrats and Republicans in the White House on guns. Trump put a number of ideas on the table. He suggested regulating bump stocks. He outlined an approach of “take the guns first” from those with mental illnesses and others who might present a danger to others and “go through due process second.” He also seemed interested in raising age limits on rifle purchases. Conservatives, to put it mildly, do not like these ideas.

And then last night, Trump tweeted that he had a “great” meeting with the NRA, just a day after a meeting in which he moved to the far left on guns. Then press secretary Sarah Sanders told media on Friday morning that Trump had not changed his position on guns, but that he supports an assault weapons ban “in theory,” while understanding there is little support for the idea. These latest twists probably left conservatives no more confident in his position.

Benson told me that his concerns regarding Trump were that Democrats could persuade him just as easily as Republicans. “If the Democrats were able to take over Congress,” Benson said, “Would [Trump’s] past liberalism come to the fore? Would they crowd out principles or sound policy?”

For the most part, conservatives have largely waved away Trump’s problems. His feuds with Attorney General Jeff Sessions or his son-in-law’s alleged financial scandals, for instance. They’ve done so because the policies that Trump espoused, on taxes and immigration and border security, matched their own.

But on tariffs and guns, Trump isn’t changing his mind — he’s regressing to the mean. A viewpoint that is in diametric opposition to the party that has given him its allegiance.

Trump has long supported high tariffs and restrictions on civil liberties

Trump’s views on high tariffs aimed at China have been well known since the day he announced his presidential run, telling then-Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, “What you do to China is you say, ‘If you don’t behave, we’re going to have to start taxing your goods coming into this country.’ … They charge us tariffs. We don’t charge them because we’re stupid.”

He’s never been terribly interested in gun issues beyond his sons’ love for hunting, but wrote in 2000, “I support the ban on assault weapons and I also support a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” And his willingness to ignore due process certainly isn’t new. (Just ask the Central Park Five.) His policy mindset on some issues may be malleable, but on these issues his views are the same as they were more than 30 years ago.

Trump won over Republicans, though, when he attended the NRA’s convention and earned the group’s endorsement. He sang a new tune: “The Second Amendment is under a threat like never before,” Trump said. “Crooked Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun ... candidate ever to run for office. And, as I said before, she wants to abolish the Second Amendment. She wants to take your guns away. She wants to abolish it.”

Trump relies on conservatives to provide a political security blanket against bad polling and worse news. But those bad polls tempt him to do what he has long said he would, on gun control and tariffs specifically. But that, ironically, would give Republicans carte blanche to scrutinize him themselves.

It’s a tough moment for Trump. His son-in-law is in trouble, one of his closest aides has left the White House, and his national security adviser might soon join her. He could use some friends. But instead, he’s pushing away a political party that gave him everything.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.