Republicans Don’t Like the GOP Anymore. Is That Because It’s Too Much Like Donald Trump–Or Not Enough Like Him?

The Pew Research Center is out with a new poll with some very bad news for Republicans. Support among Republicans for the Republican Party has dropped precipitously in the last six months alone, even as Democratic favorability has remained steady overall:

The Republican Party’s image has grown more negative over the first half of this year. Currently, 32% have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 60% have an unfavorable view. Favorable views of the GOP have fallen nine percentage points since January. The Democratic Party continues to have mixed ratings (48% favorable, 47% unfavorable).

The Democratic Party has often held an edge over the GOP in favorability in recent years, but its advantage had narrowed following the Republicans’ midterm victory last fall. Today, the gap is as wide as it has been in more than two years.

Republicans, in particular, are now more critical of their own party than they were a few months ago. About two-thirds (68%) express a favorable opinion of their party, the lowest share in more than two years. Six months ago, 86% of Republicans viewed the GOP positively.

That much is clear from the data. But the trickier part is why. Pew never asked the reasons why Republicans had lost support for their own political party, so it’s up to prognosticators and pundits to try to explain–the same pundits who were so hilariously wrong about Trump’s McCain comments dooming his presidency.

Predictably, Amber Phillips of the Washington Post assumes that Republicans must be tut-tutting at the state of their party in favor of the establishment, and against Donald Trump and the tea party:

There are a few forces likely at play here — not the least of which is Mr. Donald Trump…Third, Republicans are in the midst of a primary battle with an unprecedented number of candidates (16!) and no clear leader. In fact, the 2016 Republican field is the most fractured in recent memory. Nasty primary battles are never a great time for any party. On top of all that, Republicans are dealing with Trumpmania.

The real estate magnate’s improbable and inescapable presidential campaign has clearly tapped into a small but fervent anti-Washington sentiment (a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found about 14 percent of the population supports Trump’s run for president).

But for obvious reasons, Trump is incredibly divisive: That same poll found 61 percent of Americans would never, ever consider voting for Trump under any circumstances.

Far be it from me to defend Donald Trump or the most extreme elements of the Republican base, but Ms. Phillips’ argument strikes me as a case of wishful thinking with precious little evidence behind it. Yes, the Republican Party has become too extreme for the general public; yes, Donald Trump and Tea Party candidates only have the support of the angriest conservative voters in the country; yes, primary battles are difficult.

But none of those facts, singly or collectively, signals that Republicans are dismayed at their own party because it has gotten too extreme. Rather, the enormous burst of base support for Donald Trump is simply yet another piece in a long trail of evidence from the ouster of Eric Cantor to the formation of the Tea Party itself that the Republican base feels that its establishment wing isn’t nearly extreme enough.

Ms. Phillips’ final statement is particularly puzzling:

These latest approval numbers for the GOP show that party leaders who are nervous about Trump have real reason to be. If they don’t cut ties with Trump, and do it quickly, their nightmare appears to be on its way to becoming true: People are associating Trump with the Republican Party — and as a result, turning away from the party itself.

Really? It seems difficult to believe that Republican voters are now associating the party with Donald Trump. As it stands, both the RNC itself and every other candidate in the party are all training their fire on him, and Donald Trump is withstanding the heat and thriving, even as he threatens to make a third-party candidacy.

Rather, it seems far likelier that fervently nativist Republicans, having found in Trump a voice who actually speaks for them and represents their interests, have grown disgusted with the establishment Republicans whom they regard as in hock to what they call the “cheap labor” big business crowd. It may have escaped the notice of most pundits, but even before Trump’s candidacy many base Republicans were already seething at the party’s corporate-friendly, anti-American-jobs stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or, as they like to call it, “Obamatrade“).

As usual, there’s just no reason to believe the conventional wisdom here. Republicans probably aren’t upset with their own party because it has become too extreme and too much like Donald Trump. In all likelihood it’s the other way around.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.