By Ryan P. Burge, Eastern Illinois University
Donald Trump has been the former president of the United States for less than two weeks and his presence in the media has been spotty. After his small ceremony at Joint Base Andrews and his final flight on Air Force One, he has receded a bit from the American conscience. But, there was one story that cropped up that hit a nerve on social media – Trump wanted to start a new political political called the Patriot Party. Subsequently, it seems that the former President has been talked down from that threat, but the fact still remains: the GOP is incredibly divided now between those who are loyal to Trump, and those who are loyal to the conservative brand of politics that was the hallmark of the Republican Party for decades.
There is no better encapsulation of this reality than Congressman Matt Gaetz, a die-hard Trump loyalist and firebrand, flying from his home district in Florida to the state of Wyoming to drum up support to primary out Liz Cheney, a Republican who comes from Republican royalty and is in the House Republican Leadership. Cheney’s crime, in the eyes of Matt Gaetz, is that she voted to impeach the President in the wake of the Capitol Insurrection.
So, if the Republican Party splits, who goes with the MAGA crew and who stays loyal to the roots of the GOP? I don’t have specific questions about the Republicans splitting up, but I have a very simple proxy for how this rupture might occur. Those Republicans who strongly approved of President Trump in November of 2019 would leave and form the MAGA party, and those who only “somewhat approved” or less would stay loyal to the GOP. That means ⅔ of Republicans would leave, and ⅓ would stay according to the CCES. But how does that break on religious lines?
The results are a mix of things that I would have expected alongside findings that really surprised me. For instance, it’s no shock that 72% of white evangelical Republicans would side with the MAGA party – after all, white evangelicals are Trump’s base of support. But, here’s something that I didn’t expect: 72% of white Catholic Republicans would go with Trump and leave the GOP behind. The Catholic vote is a divided one, but among those who affiliate with the GOP, huge numbers really like Donald Trump.
Other surprises are that nearly ⅔ of mainline Protestant Republicans are in the MAGA stream – not a lot of country club Republicans to be found here. But, it’s also worth pointing out how evenly split the Mormon community is when it comes to Donald Trump. I have written elsewhere about how they were the only voting bloc to shift significantly in 2016 (many voted third party), but even into 2019 many LDS Republicans were still tepid about Donald Trump. That’s one reason Mitt Romney has a base of support in Utah – his positions are appealing to a significant chunk of this constituency.
Would this rupture break on lines of religious devotion? Would more faithful church attenders be more loyal to the GOP or loyal to Donald Trump? I restricted the sample to White Republican Christians and divided them into six attendance categories.
What’s notable here is how little change there is in the composition of the MAGA party and the GOP based on attendance. For those white Christian Republicans who never go to church, 73% strongly approved of President Trump in November 2019. That share did go down slightly in the middle of the attendance spectrum. Amongst yearly and monthly attenders, ⅔ would break for the MAGA camp, and ⅓ would align with the GOP. But, among those who attendly more than once a week, Trump has the strongest support of all – 78% strongly approved, which means that this is the attendance category that is tilted the most away from the GOP.
Having posited how this MAGA vs. GOP might play out among people of faith, it seems prudent to get a sense of what the politics of the MAGA party would look like compared to those left behind in the GOP. So, I analyzed the differences on two of the most salient dimensions of policy in 2020: abortion and immigration.
Undoubtedly, the MAGA party would be more restrictive of abortion rights than those remaining in the GOP. Those in the GOP would be nearly twice as likely to support abortion as choice compared to the MAGA party (35% vs 19%). And this carries through on other dimensions of abortion politics. Over a third of MAGA would support making abortion completely illegal – it’s just 24% of GOP Republicans. This same divide is maintained when it comes to late term abortion, abortion in the case of rape/incest, and providing federal funds for abortion.
The divide is much bigger when it comes to immigration. For instance, 58% of those remaining with the GOP would support a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally. It’s just 33% of those who strongly support Donald Trump. Nearly 7 in 10 in the MAGA party would cut legal immigration to the United States by 50% – it’s 46% of those who are less loyal to the President. However, providing additional funding for border patrols receives strong support from both factions of conservatives.
It’s impossible to overstate this simple fact: the median member of the Republican House caucus is much further to the right today than they were even 15 or 20 years ago. How’d that happen? Well, here’s a startling statistic. John Boehner, former speaker of the House, retired from his seat in October of 2015, just over five years ago. Half the members of the current House GOP caucus did not serve with John Boehner. Boehner left because he felt the party was becoming too extreme – and he was right. The GOP continues to elect more and more fringe members including Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene. The politics of Liz Cheney used to be mainstream Republican doctrine just ten years ago, now she’s a pariah in her own party.
If Donald Trump wants to, he could easily split the GOP and take at least two-thirds of their base with him. Or, he could do something even more menacing – continue to push the GOP even further to the fringe by backing candidates that are in the mold of Boebert, Gaetz, and Jim Jordan in primaries of more moderate members of the Republican House caucus. That would allow Trump to keep his hands on the levers of the GOP from his enclave in Florida, but it will likely make governing impossible. That may be the most enduring legacy of Donald Trump.
Ryan P. Burge teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. He can be contacted via Twitter or his personal website. Syntax for this post can be found here.
The articles on this blog are truly some of the best in understanding these important trends. One that might be interesting, is the intersection of demographics, with broadly Christian Nationalist ideals and political action. Questions like: what age groups comprise the main active Christian Nationalists, is it as boomer generation focused as it appears? Is the slow decline in percentage Americans identifying as Christian (per. Pew Research and others), in particular with younger generations, a factor in Christian Nationalist political engagement? And finally given demographic realities, is the Christian Nationalist “movement” likely ever to be a growing one, or a declining one?