What Happens to the Republican Party After Impeachment?
New polling shows us where the GOP might go and if Trumpism could survive without Trump.
As the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump ended with his second acquittal, some of the biggest related questions hanging over American politics are still up in the air: Can and will the Republican party stay in one piece following Trump’s ideologically heretical presidency and reckless behavior during the transition? Will Trump’s opponents mainly fight to regain control and return the party to its immediate pre-Trump internationalist “makers not takers” orientation? Or will most give up and create an entirely new organization? Can whatever right-of-center movement that prevails compete effectively in national politics? Is the populist-nationalist movement better off with or without Trump at its head? And what kind of political role will the former President want to play over the next four years?
But underlying all the other uncertainties dogging Republicanism and conservatism is a question whose answer seems muddier than ever, at least if a detailed recent survey of 2020 Trump voters is to be believed: What policy positions do Trump voters, who still comprise the vast majority of party members, want their leaders to champion?
For according to the poll, conducted shortly after the January 6 Capitol riots by YouGov for the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center, these voters hold a wide range of often-contradictory views—including on such supposedly core Trumper issues like foreign trade and American engagement in world affairs. There’s even a surprising degree of ambivalence about Trump’s own political future and the shadows it casts.
The demographic profile of the Trump voters canvassed will not surprise any politics mavens. Trump voters are more male (53 percent versus 49 percent) than the general population and markedly older, with a 39 percent plurality falling in the 45-64-year age group as opposed to just 22 percent nationally. (See here for details.) The rest of these Trump supporters skew older still.
Trumpers are overwhelmingly white (82 percent), heavily Christian (73 percent) and Protestant (48 percent), and decidedly “born again” (59 percent). Moreover, more consider religion as important to their personal identity than race, gender, or political beliefs (which came in second). At the same time, only 38 percent say they attend religious services more than once or twice a month, and a non-trivial 26 percent call themselves either atheists, agnostics, or “something else.”
Moreover, in terms of religious identity, these Trump voter results don’t differ much from those reported in a 2019 Pew Research Center survey. In fact, the atheist, agnostic, and “something else” percentage was exactly the same.
More than half of YouGov’s Trump voters say they earn $60,000 annually or less—somewhat less than the last nationwide median for households ($68,703), resulting in a 48 percent plurality viewing themselves as “middle class.” And they’re also moderately less well educated than Americans overall, with only 30 percent possessing a bachelor’s degree or higher versus about 40 percent for the nation as a whole.
Politically, fully 74 percent of the respondents identify as conservatives and just 23 percent as moderates. Seventy-six percent call themselves Republicans or Republican leaners, but 29 percent regard themselves as leaners or independents. Interestingly, 23 percent voted for either Barack Obama or someone other than Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012. More interesting would be knowing how many voted for Obama in 2008, but the YouGov pollsters didn’t ask.
Fully 92 percent of these Trump voters viewed his term in office as “good for the United States,” and 68 percent termed it “very good.” And in apparent tension with their strong self-identification as Republicans, by 66 percent to 24 percent (with the rest undecided), they described themselves as supporters of Trump rather than of the GOP.
Nevertheless, this expression of Trump loyalty displays some underlying softness, and seems surprisingly unrelated to how they believe they’ll vote going forward. It’s true that 81 percent say they’d back the former President if he runs for the White House in 2024, and that nearly all regard his presidency as a success. Moreover, 70 percent believe his claim that last November’s election was “stolen from him.”
Yet only 54 percent of respondents say they would “definitely” support a 2024 Trump White House bid. And neither any alternative candidate’s loyalty to Trump, nor their vote (if applicable) on 2020 election certification, was described as a major determinant of their choices in the upcoming 2024 GOP primaries. In addition, despite the heated emotions of the Trump era on both sides of the divide, 48 percent of respondents termed Democrats “good people” and by 57 to 43 percent, they called “working together with Democrats to solve our country’s problems” as a “good idea.”
Of these Trump voters’ backing for policy Trumpism, immigration leads the way. Eighty six percent endorse the border wall, and 89 percent favor tighter immigration enforcement at workplaces. Yet support for reducing immigration generally, and for deporting illegal immigrants, was only 65 percent and 62 percent, respectively.
Trade policy responses, however, were downright confusing. By 60 percent to 40 percent, these Trump voters agreed that America’s foreign trade helps rather than hurts the U.S. economy. Yet by the same ratio they believe that trade reduces rather than increases domestic employment, and only 18 percent want to see more of it (as opposed to 35 percent who want less and 47 percent who are satisfied with current levels.) Suspicion of China runs high as well—although human rights and especially national security concerns figure here, too.
No questions were asked about the Middle East “forever wars” against which Trump has inveighed (and where he reduced but did not end U.S. military involvement). But respondents did express enthusiasm for the U.S. security alliances often criticized by the former President by a lopsided 69-31 percent margin.
On domestic issues, these Trump voters look awfully Tea Party-ish. That is, economic libertarian and social conservative streaks both seem strong. Regarding the former, 84 percent view the federal government as “too big,” 74 percent agree that “The government does too many things that charities and private businesses could do better,” and 75 percent believe their taxes are “too high.”
In addition, many more Trump supporters say they have substantial control “over what happens to [them] in life” than say they can exert little control. This cuts somewhat against findings that many of the kind of white working class voters who supported Trump did so because they’re dying “deaths of despair” from sources of economic stress like opioids addiction or heart disease.
On social issues, these Trump voters strongly—though not overwhelmingly—oppose abortion, same sex marriage, and stronger gun control laws.
But some dissenting opinions are visible here, too. In this vein, the proposition that “Cutting the rate of taxes paid by the richest Americans helps to increase economic growth for all of us” is endorsed by only 53 percent of respondents. (Two-thirds, though, believe in a trickle down effect from tax cuts for “large corporations.”) Further, by 63 to 37 percent, they support maintaining current Social Security benefit levels for future retirees “even if we have to raise payroll taxes to pay for this.”
Trump voters’ social conservative views seem more strongly held, as just under two-thirds of them believe that both the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision broadly legalizing abortion and its pro-same sex marriage ruling should be overturned so that individual states can set policy. And these Trumpers emphatically believe that America’s racial justice problems are largely behind it.
In some ways, these splits and contradictions in Trump voters’ views, and those of Republicans more broadly, are nothing terribly new. After all, major rifts among American conservatives opened soon after the unifying effects of Cold War-era anti-Communism became irrelevant. The economic makeup of the Republican base also has clearly become more downscale since the early 1990s. In addition, the Middle East wars undercut the prestige and authority of the internationalists. So when Trump came along, the large portions of the party’s base turned off by the establishment wing’s economic and foreign policy orthodoxies in particular finally were presented with a figure shrewd and dynamic enough to seize the resulting opportunity.
The YouGov poll results suggest that, whatever Never Trumper Republican politicians decide, the party’s much more important rank-and-file is still willing to give the former President another chance. However, those voters are also open to other champions deemed likely to carry on Trump’s substantive legacy. Moreover, Trump’s gains in 2020 among minority voters make clear that the former President can expand his base if he runs again—the more so if Biden’s performance disappoints and if memories of Trump’s election challenges and the Capitol riot fade. Anyone dismissing this possibility should ask why else so many Democrats tried to ensure Trump was disqualified by the Senate from seeking public office again.
In principle, Trump-ism without Trump would have even wider appeal by recapturing GOP moderates and independents alienated by the turbulence of the transition—and however the Biden record turns out. But the question raised beforehand by the Trump November defeat—whether other conservative populists boast enough charisma to generate the Trump loyalist turnout levels also required for Republican success—remains front, center, and unanswered.