During a press conference today, Trump reacted to the news that Democrats funded the dossier on Russia, defended Republican Party unity, and called out Democratic disunity. The Republicans have no wish to go back to losing,  as Richard Wagner explains.

It started with a discussion of the opposition research into Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and possible ties to the Trump campaign.  That the Democrats funded may hurt the credibility of the case, a little, but it isn’t illegal.  Aside from that, it’s no worse than Don Trump Jr. meeting with a Russian lawyer in an attempt to gain negative information on Hillary Clinton.  This revelation does, however, make it far more difficult for Democrats to assert the moral high ground.

All of that aside, the media’s questions about the quickly led to a discussion of party unity.  Given recent spats between Trump and Sen. Bob Corker, one of the reporters naturally followed up with the following:

Q    Do you know which Republicans helped fund that?

Q    Mr. President, (inaudible) Senator Bob Corker and his chairmanship?

THE PRESIDENT:  I don’t think so.  I think it’s fine the way it is.  We have actually great unity in the Republican Party.  Yesterday, I was —

Q    (Inaudible) Bob Corker and Jeff Flake?

 THE PRESIDENT:  That’s okay.  Look, you know they have to do their thing.  We have great unity.  If you look at what happened yesterday at the meeting, we had, I guess, virtually every senator, including John McCain.  We had a great conversation yesterday — John McCain and myself — about the military.

 I think we had a — I called it a lovefest.  It was almost a lovefest.  Maybe it was a lovefest.  But we — standing ovations.  There is great unity.  If you look at the Democrats with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, that’s a mess.  There’s great unity in the Republican Party.

How united are the parties?

One would have to be delusional to believe that the Republican Party is a “lovefest”, but this choice of words we can attribute to Trump being Trump.  Since a few years into the Iraq War, the Republican Party began factioning.  The factions become more pronounced during the Tea Party surge of 2010 when many mainstream Republicans were primaried out of office by Tea Party Republican challengers.

Currently, the Republican Party seems to be divided by remaining establishment Republicans, Tea Party libertarians, and Trumpian populists.  Despite the enormous infighting, the Republican Party seems able to unite.  Reluctantly, they did unite behind Trump after he won the GOP primary.  Even Bobby Jindal and Rick Perry fell in line, with Rick Perry earning a cabinet appointment for his loyalty (Sec. of Energy).  

However, the last election showed great disunity in the Democratic Party.  The DNC spent much of 2009-2013 kicking out the old Blue Dog faction, a group of conservative Democrats that supported working across party lines.  The DNC would not have gone after progressives had they fallen in line behind Hillary Clinton, but many did not.  While Bernie Sanders did endorse Clinton, one could cut the tension with a knife.  Many Bernie supporters went to Jill Stein, a few went to Trump, and many just didn’t vote at all.  Many die-hard Bernie supporters gave a not so gentle “I told ya so” to establishment Democrats following Trump’s victory.

The Democratic Infighting Continues

All the while, the battle for the Democratic Party leadership between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez really showed this division.  The Clintonite/Perez side is in power in the DNC but has been steadily losing elections over the years.  Obama ran against them and won in 2008, but slowly he fell in line.  He himself gave Tom Perez a strong endorsement over Keith Ellison.  This neoliberal faction basically focuses on heavy fundraising, balancing a pro-business agenda with a sensible welfare state, favors a rather interventionist foreign policy, free trade, and tries to appeal to progressives with a strong emphasis on political correctness (“first woman president” and the like).  Above all else, party loyalty is a must!

The Keith Ellison/Bernie Sanders side is less enthusiastic about political correctness though they generally support it.  These are the progressives.  They are far more critical of big business, favor progressive taxation, the kinds of trade policies advocated also by Trump during the campaign, and a more diplomatic and less hawkish foreign policy (not to be confused with nationalism or isolationism).  They do often agree with neoliberals on the welfare state, though they want a far more substantial one, including Medicare-for-all.  Though they are socially liberal, they’ve shown a willingness to support socially conservative Democrats in red districts, as they figure it’s better  to have economic  progressive than a solidly conservative Republican.”

This infighting between these two factions is fierce. While the progressives had no love for the Blue Dogs, they do remember their fate.  And they are not prepared to suffer the same fate. The last election showed their willingness to risk short-term loss for long-term gain, as so many of them either didn’t vote or showed lackluster support for Hillary Clinton.  

This was repaid recently as Perez Democrats have gone on a purging spree to remove Keith Ellison supporters.  

Trump Is Onto Something

Despite Trump’s poor approval ratings, and despite internal party tension, the Republicans have no wish to go back to losing.  They’ve finally become a Presidential Party again, even if they didn’t win the popular vote.  For them, too much is at stake to rebel against Trump.

While that’s still a possibility, it would be self-destructive.  They will likely get another Supreme Court nominee or two out of the Trump Presidency if they keep him in power, and that alone is reason enough for establishment Republicans to bite their tongues and fall in line.

For Democrats, however, the two factions have thrown down the gauntlet.  They are fighting for the heart and soul of their party, and are unlikely to come together.  Had Perez made more of an effort to accommodate progressives, he could have unified the party in opposition to Trump.  However, their strategy going forward, given their unwillingness to share the party with progressives, will be to relentlessly attack Trump, and that is all.  They will hope to convince progressives that Trump is so horrible that anything is better than Trump.  Establishment Republicans tried this tactic in the years leading up to Romney, and that clearly failed.  Will it work better for establishment Democrats?

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Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...

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