WASHINGTON — President Trump’s marriage to leaders of the Republican Party began as one of convenience, not love.
It’s starting to get a lot more inconvenient.
The fractures in the GOP from 2016 — largely papered over following Trump’s surprising November victory — are reopening, creating an extraordinary circumstance. The gap between a sitting president and the mainstream of his own party is becoming a chasm.
Trump increasingly appears isolated, unable to rally allies to his legislative agenda. Republican senators, meanwhile, feel increasingly free to openly ignore him, unafraid of political repercussions as they dismiss his pleas to reopen the disastrous health care debate or change decades-old rules of their chamber.
They criticize his demeanor, his tweets, his frequent obfuscations and unfounded claims. They rallied to defend their former colleague, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, from Trump’s truculent public statements against him. And they just forced on him a bill that curtails Trump’s executive power to lift sanctions on Russia, as he has hinted he might do.
There was a tense if polite GOP honeymoon period after the election, when party regulars thought winning the White House would be a salve for a GOP that was shaken by Trump’s unexpected rise and the divisive 2016 campaign.
But Republicans are failing, six months into Trump’s tenure, to deliver on their promise of a functioning government that could make conservatives’ long-deferred dreams real. And Trump has shown little desire to temper his erratic impulses. The result is a party that increasingly seems unmoored and ineffective, unable to coalesce around a central vision.
Trump has purged top-level White House aides who came from the Republican National Committee — ranging from an assistant press secretary to the chief of staff. When he tweets, he often talks about Republicans in the third person — as if he’s not one of them, much less the party’s de facto leader.
When asked whether Trump’s slipping credibility in Congress was hurting his ability to get things done, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders last week practically pointed her finger down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House podium: “I think what’s hurting the legislative agenda is Congress’s inability to get things passed.”
The party that controls all the levers of power in Washington seems, at least for now, powerless to get out of its own way.
“It’s devastating,” said Rick Tyler, a longtime Republican strategist who has worked for Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz. “I don’t really know who speaks for the conservative party anymore. There’s no one to look to; there’s no one leading it. The party has to stand for something. It can’t be based on personality.”
“He doesn’t resemble the party,” he added of Trump, referring to the president’s position on conservative issues. “In the long term, it’s going to hurt the party. And he’s already proven that, in the short run, there’s no demonstrable benefit to having Donald Trump lead the party. None.”
Some of these tensions are spilling out into the states, as members of Congress head home for their summer recess after failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Maine Governor Paul LePage, a Republican and Trump acolyte, called Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who opposed the ACA repeal, “downright dangerous” and “more interested in preening for the cameras than in making real progress.”
“Ms. Collins is a Republican, but last week, unconscionably, she did not support her party’s effort to repeal Obamacare,” LePage wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Wednesday in which he also targeted Senator Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats.
‘I don’t really know who speaks for the conservative party anymore.’Rick Tyler, longtime Republican strategist
Collins and King responded in a joint statement, saying the health care bill would have been “extremely harmful to our state, particularly our most vulnerable populations.’’
In interviews on Capitol Hill last week, Republican senators hesitated when asked a fundamental question: Is Trump the leader of the Republican Party?
“I don’t know that I want to get into those kinds of questions,” said Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican.
“I think he’s president of the United States, and he ran as a Republican,” said Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama. “In that sense I guess you’d say he is. But he might have some views that would not be called orthodox Republican doctrinaire.”
The Republican Party under Trump has become a loose collection of fragmented interest groups that at times overlap, but at other times are diametrically opposed.
“The party’s regrouping. I guess they splinter and regroup and reconstitute themselves; they always have,’’ Shelby said. “Parties are made up of coalitions.”
Even though Trump did not win over the Chamber of Commerce Republicans and the country-club Republicans in his populist-fueled campaign, there was a notion that Republicans would accede to Trump’s unconventional style as a trade-off for getting their long-held policy beliefs enacted into law. For the first seven months of his presidency, Republicans may have privately rolled their eyes at his govern-by-tweet style but they largely avoided open warfare with him and his 35 million Twitter followers.
That is beginning to change.
“Most Republicans wanted Trump to succeed, understood he was new to governing, and were willing to give him a chance to get his bearings,” said Trump critic Ana Navarro, a longtime Florida-based Republican consultant who has advised John McCain and Jeb Bush. “But more than six months have now gone by. I think there’s a significance to that number in people’s minds.”
“Six months and he keeps lying, he keeps attacking Republicans, he keeps incessantly tweeting crazy rants, he blames Congress, and doesn’t take ownership of his failures,” she added. “People are losing patience. Six months is not an insignificant amount of time for people to . . . put up with such dysfunction.”
The split is most emblematic in Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona who is running for reelection. Last week he published a book called “Conscience of a Conservative” that excoriates Trump and the damage Flake believes he is doing to the Republican Party.
“I feel compelled to declare: This is not who we are,” he wrote. “Too often, we observe the unfolding drama along with the rest of the country, passively, all but saying, ‘Someone should do something!’ without seeming to realize that that someone is us. . . . The question is: Will enough of us stand up and wrest it back before it is too late?”
He also says that Republicans made a “Faustian bargain” in hitching their future to Trump’s, and compared the party to a “tranquilized elephant’’ that has lost its way on economic growth and free trade.
“Never has a party so quickly or easily abandoned its core principles as my party did in the course of the 2016 campaign,” writes Flake. “And when you suddenly decide that you don’t believe what had recently been your most deeply held beliefs, then you open yourself to believing anything — or maybe nothing at all.’’
Flake is among the more mild-mannered senators, making his strong words all the more striking. He has never been a firm Trump supporter, but over the past seven months, he had generally refrained from being overly critical.
Now, Flake faces reelection and primary challengers who will test the future of the party. Trump has said that he will try to unseat him, and his latest comments have triggered a backlash among conservatives.
Laura Ingraham said she looks forward to campaigning for one of Flake’s GOP opponents. “Stand by for the fireworks!”
“Jeff Flake is a liberal,” Mark Levin said on his radio show, even though Flake has strong ratings among conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the National Rifle Association.
And there is not yet any widespread sense he will be joined by other GOP senators in publicly bashing Trump. Last week, as senators roamed the hallways, many were reluctant to associate themselves with Flake’s remarks.
“I haven’t read it, haven’t heard it, don’t know anything about it,” said Senator Jim Risch, a Republican from Idaho. “I don’t have any comment on that. I don’t know anything about this.”
“I haven’t read his book, so I’ll wait to read it before commenting on it,” said Cruz, a Texas Republican.
A graver danger for the party may be signs that Trump’s base is shifting away from him. A Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that just 33 percent of voters approve of his job performance, the lowest rating he has had in that survey since being sworn into office, and 7 percentage points lower than it was a month earlier.
Among Republicans there was an 8-point drop in Trump’s approval rating from a month earlier, from 84 percent in late June to 76 percent in late July.
One of the few consolation prizes for Republicans is that Democrats, too, have yet to find their way. The opposition party is still riven by the split between liberals and centrists that marked last year’s campaign, and it still hasn’t hatched an effective strategy to counteract Trump’s appeal to working-class voters in the heartland.
“I think that both parties right now have had difficulties,” Corker said. “But that’s kind of where we are with a polarized country.’’Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.