This means loyalty to Trump is likely to be the central issue in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Trump is encouraging his supporters to challenge Republican incumbents who are critical of him. Trump's base may be strong enough to win Republican primaries, but the real test will be whether Trump believers can get elected.
Congressional Republicans were bewildered by the president’s decision to cut a deal with Democrats on the debt limit and hurricane aid. They felt betrayed. A third of Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the agreement.
But Trump’s deal-making does not seem to have shocked his populist base. So while Trump is deeply unpopular with the rest of the electorate, his standing remains very high among Republicans. His base is sticking with him.
Look at the issues. Disaster relief for hurricane victims? Sure it’s government spending, but this is an emergency. Keeping the federal government open? Some conservatives favored a government shutdown, but it would have caused a huge voter backlash.
Raising the government debt limit? Defaulting on our debts would create grave risks for the economy. But when Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin addressed skeptical House Republicans and implored them to “vote for the debt ceiling for me,” he got booed.
The president even promised to revisit his decision to end the program that allows “dreamers” — young illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children — to remain here. The 800,000 dreamers have a lot of public sympathy. Trump wants a deal. Congress will allow the dreamers to stay, at least for a while, and in return, Trump will get funding for his border wall.
Meanwhile, deficit hawks are dismayed by Trump’s apparent lack of commitment to debt reduction. He is calling for big tax cuts while ruling out cuts in spending on Medicare and Social Security — programs strongly supported by his populist base. The result could add $1.5 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.
“Any thought of fiscal responsibility has gone out the window,” Corker said earlier in October. “Now that we’re in charge we don’t care about fiscal issues. It’s very disheartening.”
But Trump’s populist base doesn’t support him because of his ideology or his policies. They support the man. They admire Trump as someone who is defiant of the establishment and won’t be pushed around. And who understands their grievances. They believe that he sees them and hears their problems while the media and other politicians don't.
Trump is known to admire another president who made politics all about himself — Andrew Jackson. Jackson had a fervent populist following and equally fervent critics. Jackson’s supporters became the Democratic Party. The Anti-Jacksonian Party turned into the Whig Party.
Stephen Moore, chief economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said recently, “Just as Reagan converted the GOP into a conservative party, Trump has converted the GOP into a populist working-class party.’’
Both Reagan and Jackson got themselves re-elected and their vice presidents elected after them. They proved that a party in their own image could win. This still looks like a tough test for Trump.
Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His book, "Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable," will be out next spring (Simon & Schuster).