On July 18, 2015, about a month into his long-shot campaign for president, Donald Trump famously attacked John McCain. "He's not a war hero," he said. "He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." Campaigning in Iowa that summer, Trump mocked Jeb Bush for being "low-energy." In February 2016, Trump said Bush's brother, the forty-third president, had lied in order to invade Iraq. When Mitt Romney attacked Trump the following month, Trump responded by calling the 2012 Republican nominee a "choke artist." On his path to the 2016 GOP nomination and then the presidency, Donald Trump positioned himself at odds with the leadership of the party he sought to command.
The majority of Republican officials and voters supported Trump in his general election contest against Hillary Clinton, believing that, no matter his faults, his presidency would be better than his Democratic opponent's. Trump did not repay the favor. As president, he continued to bash fellow Republicans whenever they annoyed him. In recent months, he criticized his attorney general, the first U.S. senator to endorse his candidacy and the man who gave his campaign policy heft. He fired the two highest-profile members of the Republican establishment to hold positions in his White House. He lashed out at the Senate majority leader. In the midst of his unhinged August 15 press conference, he again vented his spleen at McCain. Two days later, he tweeted, "the people of South Carolina will remember" the misrepresentations of "publicity seeking Lindsey Graham," and said it was "great to see" another sitting Republican senator, Jeff Flake, draw a primary challenge from a nut ball.
This is not how presidents act. The American president is not only head of state, not only head of government, but also head of his political party. His behavior over the last two years makes it clear that Trump does not see himself as the leader of the Republican Party. Nor does he see his role as a dealmaker in a grand coalition, the man who will protect GOP majorities, and cajole and persuade his friends in private. More often than not he is annoyed at his party, at its officials, at its factions. And the feeling is mutual. Recently Chuck Todd invited around 70 different Republicans to appear on his show in support of the president's remarks about the white supremacist rally and murder in Charlottesville. None accepted.
This president is not the leader of the GOP. He shows no interest in the job, is not good at it, and has no feel for the party structure, what makes it tick. But he is the leader of a party: the party of Trump. In truth, that is the only party to which he has ever belonged. And the party of Trump is larger than you think. Most Republican regulars support the president's response to Charlottesville. Pollster Kristin S. Anderson puts the floor of Trump approval at a quarter of the electorate. This attachment is personal. A somewhat tongue-in-cheek poll by two academics found that half of Republicans would support delaying the next presidential election if Trump also supported it. Trump knows his people. The nucleus of his support may be fans of The Apprentice, readers of the National Enquirer, listeners of Alex Jones, lost boys posting to 4Chan and Reddit. But beyond that core are several concentric circles of disaffected voters, populists, independents, Evangelical Christians, and everyday Republicans. They find in the party of Trump something that they think the mainstream Republican Party lacks: a willingness to say anything, an eagerness for combat, an insouciance toward other people's feelings, toward norms of discourse and behavior. "Donald Trump reflects and connects to the vulgar manliness in the American (or any) people," writes Harvey Mansfield in Commentary. "He is demotic rather than democratic, intuitive himself in finding what is instinctive in us." Members of the party of Trump lap it up.
Allegiance to Trump is not just personal or attitudinal. There are also policy implications. When political scientist Lee Drutman analyzed voter data from last year's election, he found that the Republican Party is divided by ideology: "By making questions of national identity more salient, Donald Trump succeeded in winning over ‘populists' (socially conservative, economically liberal voters) who had previously voted for Democrats."
Trump's emphasis on social issues broadly construed—on abortion, guns, judges, crime, drugs, immigration, terrorism—and his rejection of orthodox GOP support for free trade and entitlement reform transformed the Republican makeup. What Drutman describes as a "split in the Republican Party between populists and conservatives" can also be interpreted as a division between the party of Trump and the Grand Old Party. The two parties may agree on some issues, but they differ in tone and outlook and on crucial policy questions. It is difficult for them to function as a coalition government. Trump's health care reform is stalled in Congress, his tax reform is inchoate, and his infrastructure plan is nonexistent. The two parties are able to unite against the left, but have trouble finding common legislative ground.
Making things more complicated is the fact that there are more than these two parties. Drutman also found divisions within the Democrats. "To the extent that the Democratic Party is divided, these divisions are more about faith in the political system and general disaffection than they are about issue positions." The Democratic Party of Barack Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton is satisfied with the status quo, and uses identity politics as a veneer for economic policies that benefit Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and multinational corporations. What we might call the party of Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is both more radical on questions of political correctness and identity and hostile to the established order. The party of Sanders wants radical change. Beginning with Medicare for all.
Recent events have brought to light the distinction between the party of Trump and the GOP. But it would be foolish for Democrats to believe that they are out of the woods, that America has settled, for the moment, on a three-party system. What we have are four parties: The mainstream Republicans, the party of Trump, the mainstream Democrats, and the party of Sanders. White House chief strategist Steve Bannon's bizarre call to the editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine can be seen as a clumsy attempt to forge a new majority by rejecting the mainstream Republicans and aligning with the party of Sanders on trade, entitlements, and infrastructure spending. But the effort is doomed to fail. In twenty-first century America culture and identity take precedence over economics, and it is in regards to culture and identity that the true break between left and right is found.
President Trump's isolation from the party whose nomination he wrested from insiders and scions is just part of a larger trend in American society and politics. The widening divisions within and between parties are symptoms of our fractured republic, of the unbundling, disaggregation, and dissociation of our communal lives. Mounting political violence, too, is a consequence of the polarization that estranges Americans from one another and turns every disagreement into an apocalyptic battle royal. Trump, McConnell, Pelosi, and Sanders are pulling the mystic chords of memory in four different directions. And they won't quit doing so. Until the chords snap.