President Donald Trump is running out of Republican Party factions to offend and alienate after firing Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist who was a bridge to the president’s conservative base.
Along with Friday’s blow to his base, a defensive and sometimes erratic Trump in the past few weeks alone has attacked once-supportive business leaders, GOP lawmakers and voters eager to distance themselves from far-right and white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia. He’s also lashed out at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a key player in any effort to push forward his legislative agenda.
On paper, Trump, whose candidacy amounted to a hostile takeover of the GOP, appears increasingly on an island within the party — with no legislative victory in sight and dwindling approval ratings.
Trump’s increasingly combative and defiant actions in recent weeks has eroded support from key groups that helped deliver him the White House. Several prominent polls show his job approval rating in the high 30s overall — and while support for him is still relatively high among Republicans, that figure is also sliding downward.
To some in the faction of the party that composes his base, Bannon has long been something of a spirit guide. But now, he is no longer in the West Wing, just steps from the Oval Office. The departure is even more awkward because it comes at a time when the president and senior aides have publicly mentioned and praised the base more and more as poll numbers were showing signs of decline.
A major blow
Bannon’s ouster was the first major blow to Trump’s most loyal GOP faction since he took office, and an indication that no Republican faction is immune from attack.
“At some point, he’s basically crossing out all of his allies,” said Jerri Ann Henry, a Republican political strategist.
“Now, even though his base is small — depending on how it’s measured, 35 percent or 25 percent of Republicans — they’re not budging,” she said. “The more chaos he creates, the more they like it. That’s what he ran on, after all.”
But, more broadly, Trump could hurt himself with GOP voters with his fiery tweets, uninhibited rhetoric — such as Tuesday when he, for the second time in a few days, appeared to give cover to the white supremacist groups involved in the deadly Charlottesville protests — and his willingness to cut ties with the very corporate titans with whom he vowed to make big deals, political strategists said.
“Some of those allies … might not like him but will listen to him because he’ll make the right economic policies and cut the right deals,” Henry said Friday. “If so, he’s probably lost a bigger chunk than just business community” after corporate executives left a White House advisory council after the president’s reaction to Charlottesville, drawing Trump's ire.
John Feehery, another GOP strategist, was blunt about Trump’s standing with the party: “There’s just not a lot of love for the president in Republican circles.”
But that doesn’t mean Republican voters and lawmakers are going to disown Trump.
“There’s the president,” Feehery said. “And then there’s the president’s legislative agenda. And there is a lot of love for his agenda — health care, some kind of tax reform, and even on infrastructure — in the Republican Party.”
That means if Trump and congressional Republicans can find a way to pass even modest versions of the policies they promised on the campaign trail, the president could keep his base intact while pleasing enough Republican voters on enough issues to secure their votes in 2020.
“Look, some of this is by design. Sure, the president steps on his own messages. But some of it is by design,” Feehery said. “I think he really enjoys trolling the Republican establishment and the mainstream media, which helps him with some people.”
He won the GOP nomination and then the White House in 2016 without the support of so-called establishment Republican leaders such as the Bushes and Mitt Romney. And GOP operatives believe that despite his actions that might alienate the party’s factions, he is still positioned to win a second term.
“Like it or not, want it or not, I think if I were putting money down, I would put it on re-election,” Henry said. “On all of these issues and scandals, the burden of proof is still in others’ court, not his.”
Feehery agreed that Trump’s alienation of most of his own party’s factions might not matter come November 2020. He noted that even in the midst of the Charlottesville fallout, “just look at his poll numbers among Republicans.”
“Re-election will be based on how is the economy doing and who the candidate is on Democratic side,” he said, pointing out that the former is quite positive for Trump and the opposition party has no clear candidate nor alternative agenda.
“Like Trump, Jimmy Carter was an outsider. But the difference is Carter was an outsider with a lousy economy,” Feehery said. “The economy gives Trump a lot more capital than Carter had.
But there are Republican lawmakers who could complicate Trump’s ability to get things done in Washington — and subsequently, his expected 2020 campaign. Just this week, Trump attacked some among their ranks: Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona. And another, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, warned of “great peril” for the country because the president so far has not shown the “stability” or “competence” for the job.
“Those are people who have been keeping the party together for the last number of years,” Henry said of those lawmakers. “That group has been alienated, and I think it’s larger than base. Importantly, that has been the group that has been willing to negotiate.”
Trump, she said, “could be in trouble if this group is moving to a place where they’re no longer willing to negotiate with him.”