In Free-Range Trump, Many See Potential for a Third Party – The New York Times

Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, at the Capitol Hill townhouse where he lives part-time and runs Breitbart News. Credit Lexey Swall for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The Republican Party likes to think of itself as a big tent — not always a harmonious one, but full of all types.

In the minds of many, however, it’s grown too full, and badly needs an excision. Now more than at any point in its modern history, the party has reached such a breaking point that historians, political analysts and Republicans themselves say it faces the possibility of splintering and spawning a third party.

“We haven’t lanced the boil,” Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, said in an interview, evoking the swelling tensions between the anti-establishment agitators like himself, who mostly align with Mr. Trump, and the party’s ruling class in Washington, which seems to grow more mistrustful of the president by the day.

“They all thought they were going to lance the boil the day after the election, when they had the catastrophic Trump defeat,” Mr. Bannon added. “And that’s when all accounts would be settled.”

Instead, Mr. Trump’s election has continued to vex his party. The partnership and cooperation that would ordinarily flow from one-party control in Washington are virtually nonexistent, leaving the president and his party with very few legislative victories so far. And his lack of political loyalty or ideological mooring — he stunned Republicans by striking a short-term fiscal deal with Democrats last week — has left Washington guessing about which new alliance or policy U-turn might come next.

But for all the uncertainty Mr. Trump has sown, he has accomplished something that could prove defining for the country’s 200-year-old two-party system: He is clearing an opening, intentionally or not, for a new party.

Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, said the conditions were so ripe for a split, “I’ve been startled that this has not happened.”

As a political neophyte and former Democrat who was resisted throughout the primaries by the Republican establishment, Mr. Trump put to rest the conventional notion that presidential nominees need the blessing of their party’s power brokers to win. Now, Mr. Beschloss said, “entry is very easy.”

“Basically, all you need are money, TV, communications and an issue,” he added.

To be sure, the barriers to creating a relevant third party are high and longstanding. But the nationalistic, conservative populist agenda that Mr. Trump ran on has wealthy patrons like the Mercer family, the software billionaires, and Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur. They have told friends and associates that they are committed to seeing the movement that Mr. Trump ignited live on.

 A Trump rally in Phoenix last month. Opinions about the president inside the Republican Party have changed less than his low overall popularity might suggest. CreditTom Brenner/The New York Times

“People in Washington in the political establishment who think we’ll get rid of Trump and go back to normal have made a terrible miscalculation. That’s not going to happen,” said Patrick Caddell, a political strategist who has worked for Democrats for most of his career and has warned that a breakup of the Republican Party is only a matter of time.

“The paradigm shift that we went through in 2016, it’s still in motion,” Mr. Caddell added.

Even with his historically low approval ratings, Mr. Trump is redefining what it means to be a loyal Republican. His antagonism, born of frustration over his stalled agenda, of the top two Republicans in Congress, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, is exacerbating the rifts between leadership-friendly Republicans and more anti-establishment renegades.

“Before Trump, I saw the ongoing battle between what I would call the pragmatic governing wing and the purists — that was the litmus test issue,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who announced last week that he was retiring, in part because he was fed up with the gridlock and infighting in Congress.

“Now, since Trump,” Mr. Dent added, “the issue has become, more or less, Trump loyalty.”

Representative Dave Brat, the Virginia Republican who unseated Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, in 2014, said the rise of anti-establishment figures like Mr. Trump on the right and Senator Bernie Sanders on the left showed the desire for disruption in both parties. But that disruption has been slow going in Congress, much to the irritation of voters who have little loyalty to the Democratic or Republican brands.

“That is the new movement — Bernie through Trump,” Mr. Brat said. “It hasn’t permeated Congress, and that’s why everybody is ticked.”

For all practical purposes, neither Mr. Ryan nor Mr. McConnell has a functioning majority they can count on to pass legislation, as has been vividly illustrated by the failure to fulfill longstanding vows to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And Republicans said they expected that opposition to party leaders would become the new test for candidates in the primary fights before the 2018 midterm elections.

“I think people underestimate the extent to which the Republican Party could be in full-blown civil war by March or April of next year,” said Bill Kristol, the editor at large of The Weekly Standard.

“It could become a crystallizing moment,” Mr. Kristol added.

Complicating matters even further, Mr. Trump has given Congress a deadline of early next year to come up with a fix for the order he rescinded last week that protected young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Mr. Bannon, in an interview with “60 Minutes” that aired on Sunday, said he believed the issue would be one more factor pushing Republicans toward a tipping point.

“I’m worried about losing the House now because of this,” he said. “And my fear,” he added, “in February and March it will be a civil war inside the Republican Party.”

Opinions on Mr. Trump have changed less than his low overall popularity might suggest. Ninety-eight percent of Republicans who supported him in the 2016 primaries still approve of him today, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released last week. Among Republicans who voted for another candidate in the primaries, his approval rating is 66 percent.

Further widening the divide, not only has the president been unwilling or unable to bring the warring factions of his party together, he has repeatedly attacked Republicans he deems insufficiently committed to his causes, in some cases trying to unseat them by encouraging primary challenges.

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said that some Republicans had seemed to quickly forget that Mr. Trump’s issues were winning ones in 2016.

“They were giddy to echo the Trump economic prosperity and security messages, and in some cases were almost accidental progenitors of what he stood for,” Ms. Conway said. “Every single Republican on Capitol Hill at some point and at some level successfully ran and won on promises to do any number of things that the president is now is eager to execute.”

“And when Donald Trump promises to drain the swamp,” Ms. Conway added, “it doesn’t just implicate K Street, it implicates lawmakers on Capitol Hill. This is a test for them as well.”

Given Mr. Trump’s mercurial nature, few Republicans will guess whether he can remain a viable leader of a movement that is fundamentally conservative in many ways, most notably its hostility toward large-scale immigration.

The most significant thing about Mr. Trump’s spending-and-debt deal with Democrats may not be that he revealed any hidden liberal leanings, but that he undermined his already weakened political party, one that has long been an uneasy amalgam of business-oriented elites and the more rural, religious grass roots.

“He’s a free-range chicken,” said Michael Steele, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee. “And he’s out there on the range playing with whomever he wants.”

As a president who has essentially borrowed the Republican label, Mr. Trump’s independence is unsettling the very foundation of the party, Mr. Steele added. “It’s already started to reshape the landscape,” he said.

And in breaking so publicly with the most prominent symbols of his party’s establishment, he may have made it easier for others to do so, too.

Source: In Free-Range Trump, Many See Potential for a Third Party – The New York Times

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