Republican infighting reveals the strength of Trumpism as an ideology 📊 February 7, 2021

Compared to the Democrats, Republicans are more ideologically pure, more averse to compromise, and less committed to their party brand

Dear reader,

The last five years must have been all the while fascinating and burdensome for political scientists. The next few years might be quieter, yet for now, persistent infighting among Republican lawmakers is raising a ton of interesting questions about the role of ideology and the strength of opinion leadership in electoral accountability — even for presidents who have been impeached, and possibly convicted, of serious crimes.

It is also a busy time to be a journalist, hence this post is coming to you late in the evening on Sunday instead of the much-more-preferable early afternoon hours. This is partly due to me being busy, but also due to having to brainstorm some ideas on the fly. Which reminds me: you have anything you’re wondering about or want to share, feel free to pass it along. I get some of my best ideas from emailing y’all.

Next week is another cold and snowy one here in Washington. As always, I’m wishing you a safe and healthy week.

—Elliott


Thanks as ever for reading my weekly data-driven newsletter on politics, polling, and democracy. As always, I invite you to drop me a line (or just respond to this email) with any thoughts worth sharing. Please click/tap the ❤️ under the headline if you like what you’re reading; it’s our little trick to sway Substack’s curation algorithm in our favor. If you want more content, I publish subscribers-only posts once or twice a week. 

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Republican infighting reveals the strength of Trumpism as an ideology

Compared to the Democrats, Republicans are more ideologically pure, more averse to compromise, and less committed to their party brand

The highly-public intra-party fighting among Republican politicians over the last month is serving as an interesting natural experiment on the influence of opinion leaders over their partisans. Since several GOP House members voted to impeach Trump last month, and a few more could vote to convict him in two weeks, both the party rank-and-file and regularly voters have been gunning for accountability. As a result, Democratic leaders’ intra-party ratings are much higher now than for Republican leadership.

That’s probably because several GOP leaders bucked their recently-dethroned president after he incited a violent mob to attack Congress last month. For example, going against the grain has hurt Mitch McConnell’s favorability with Republicans, pushing an already-dismal overall rating even lower. Liz Cheney’s rating with Republicans in Wyoming has also sunk — which makes sense since she voted to impeach Trump in a very high-profile break with party orthodoxy.

This has got me thinking about Republican ideology. As I’ve written before, Trump was a particularly powerful leader in terms of his ability to sway his supporters’ attitudes. In the past, political scientists have written about how party trumps original preferences in determining issue positions; since 2015, they have amended their conclusions to include the former president’s sway trumping party.

The leadership’s break from Trump, and the related consequences in the court of public opinion, naturally raises two questions about the ordering of these psychological forces and the role of party opinion leaders in that hierarchy. First, is party leadership taking a dent because of Trump’s direct leadership, or because of voters’ devotion to Trump and Trumpism — what we might consider to be indirect pressure from ideological predispositions? And, second, is this particular to the GOP, or would Democrats would pay a similar price for going against their voters and former president?

Let’s take these out of order.

It is probably impossible to formulate a precise answer to the latter question without resulting in some sort of social science experiments. However, note that Republicans’ devotion to Trump, as opposed to the party writ large, is much stronger than Democrats’ devotion to Biden vs than the overall party. Just take a look at the results from a recent HuffPost/YouGov poll:

According to the poll, 40% of Republicans say they're more supporters of Trump than the GOP. But for Democrats, only 14% are more devoted to Biden than the Party. When Donald Trump said he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue (or incite an insurrection against the US government) and get away with it, he was tapped into something that was potentially specific to his party — and maybe himself.

As to whether this is specific to Trump or a broader product of Republican ideology, I think we have a partial answer already. Trump is out of office now, not tweeting or otherwise directing his supporters, and yet they are fighting against their current leaders who rejected him. A significant minority of GOP congresspeople are following their lead, voting to strip Liz Cheney of her leadership position, for example. The aversion to compromise among Republicans is a well-documented part of their ideology, as is attacking moderates who work with Democrats. Mitt Romney’s ratings have taken a dip since resisting Trump and working with Biden, for example — even though he was the party presidential nominee not even a decade ago.

Still, the answer probably lies somewhere in between the poles of the question as I set it up. Republicans’ support of Trump even as he’s gone is likely stronger than it would have been for a different president, but I don’t think the magnitude of that difference is very large. Perhaps a John Hawley or Tom Cotton could have been performing similarly even after being kicked out of office. Yet here, too, I don’t think we can get a precise answer.

...

Republicans’ infighting in recent weeks has taught us a lot about their values. Authoritarianism v democracy; compromise v ideological purity; Trumpism v the old orthodoxy. But it also teaches us about the psychology of being a Republican voter. Today, we have perhaps raised as many questions as we have answered. Yet whether the party continues to be a vessel for Trump even after he’s gone is a critical lesson about what it means to be a Republican today.


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