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The Split The GOP Should See Coming

Conservatives and Trump supporters might have an awkward breakup sooner rather than later

Just over a month into the new presidency, Republican senators are avoiding constituents. Donald Trump's approval ratings are hovering around 40 percent. And some conservatives are confused as to why Trump has taken more time to complain about CNN's coverage of him than to, say, end the Deferred Action program that protects young undocumented immigrants. Trump's supporters, on the other hand, are an entirely different story: They're thrilled. For many of Trump's most ardent fans, conservatism (and Trump's adherence to it — or not) isn't the point. Trump himself is. And that could create big problems for the GOP, as they try to make sense of a rapidly changing (and very confusing) administration.

Of course, part of the issue before the Grand Old Party is that Trump was never a conservative darling in the first place — which, oddly enough, helped him gain popularity with liberal and moderate Republicans. The #NeverTrump movement launched by many "establishment" Republicans who opposed Trump's nomination and presidential campaign wasn't about Trump being too extreme, but about him being too liberal. (He has even — frequently! — supported Democrats in the past.)

Tom Nichols, a commentator and senior contributor to the conservative magazine The Federalist, told MTV News, "I'm one of those conservatives who thought that Trump was never a conservative and said so many times during the campaign." But he added that after Trump's win in November, many GOP members in Congress saw the sudden electoral shift — which gave the Republicans control of both the House and Senate and most of America's statehouses — as an opportunity. And so, Nichols said, "I think congressional Republicans believe — and this is my own view — that they should act quickly to get whatever they can from a Trump administration, before it changes course or implodes from some unforeseeable event." Noah Rothman, a conservative author and an editor of Commentary magazine, said that for those Republicans, "Trump now represents the GOP, and whatever is good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA."

So far, that's working out well for the Republican party platform. In his first month in office, Trump has banned funding for non-governmental organizations overseas that provide or "promote" abortion services (the so-called Mexico City policy, first implemented by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1984). He has also rolled back financial regulations passed under the Obama Administration after the 2008 crisis, and his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, has the "Constitutional conservative" bona fides that GOP stalwarts seeking a suitable replacement to the late Justice Antonin Scalia have been hoping for. The National Review described Gorsuch as having "shown a willingness to respect the judicial duty and enforce the Constitution’s structural protections against federal overreach." Even Trump's aggressive new deportation policies aimed at millions of undocumented immigrants aren't too far outside of standard rhetoric.

The problem for Republicans, then, hasn't been the policy — it's been the execution. Trump may have the most conservative cabinet in presidential history, but the release of his Muslim travel ban was, in the words of one GOP commentator, "a hopeless disaster." His press conferences have been more interpretive jazz than substance, and the proposed "repeal and replace" of the Affordable Care Act is turning out to be more "delay for as long as possible." Not to mention the controversies regarding Trump's relationship with Russia that have claimed his National Security Advisor and forced Republican Congressional leaders to call for an extensive investigation.

But as conservatives are forced to answer to (or flee from) angry constituents, they are also receiving criticism from Trump supporters for whom party loyalty — and in fact the party itself — is far less important than the man they propelled into the White House. When Senator John McCain criticized Donald Trump for his "America First" policy and for railing against the press, Trump's supporters railed against him on radio shows and online for being a "modern-day Benedict Arnold." Of course, McCain has supported nearly all of Trump's nominees for office, but for Trump's supporters, that's not good enough; they demand complete loyalty.

In fact, many of Trump's supporters seem to believe in Trump far more than they do in things like supply-side economics or any standard Republican policy prescription. Many aren't for any conservative principle at all, but rather are against whatever liberals — or people they perceive as liberal, or the media, or Hollywood — have proposed. As Nichols put it to MTV News, "They do not really share a lot of ground with conservatives despite the superficial overlap on some issues. For example, they hate the welfare state, but only because they think it is rewarding people who don't deserve it, especially minorities. They don't want to roll back that welfare state, they just want its spoils redirected back to people they prefer, and mostly to themselves." Trump's supporters, Nichols said, have maintained their allegiance through every one of Trump's reversals of policy and slips of the tongue because there is no grounding ideology behind their support. To them, it doesn't matter that Trump may have violated conservative doctrine — all that matters is that he's Donald Trump, President.

Hill Republicans may be pretty pleased today, but problems will arise when what Trump wants — and, thus, what Trump's supporters want — comes into conflict with what conservative Republicans want. "What do Congressional GOPers do," Nichols said, "if those Trump voters demand things — like keeping the super-expensive parts of the Affordable Care Act they like, among others — that are anathema to longstanding conservative ideas?" Some Trump supporters even reject traditional conservatism out of hand, believing that cult figures like Milo Yiannopoulos (who has the conservative bona fides of a tree squirrel) have done more for conservatism — and, more importantly to them, pushed back more effectively against liberals — than Paul Ryan ever could. In fact, even before the election, Ryan faced a Trumpian primary challenger. In 2018, there's no reason that couldn't happen again.

Rothman told MTV News that the issue facing Trump's supporters is that Trump's ideology is largely based on himself. "Conservatism is on the outs, but Trumpism is undefinable," he said. "Until we can graft some meat onto the bones of what is essentially an ideology built upon the caprice of one unusually capricious man, it will remain a flimsy foundation upon which to build a movement. Conservatism is waiting in the wings to pick up the pieces." But Trump didn't win because he was a conservative. In fact, he won because he wasn't. And his supporters don't particularly care about his conservative bona fides. For them, it's just about winning — no matter who gets left behind.