WATERFORD, Mich. — The Republican Party’s metamorphosis starkly showed this week in the faceoff between a parade float championing Donald Trump and «Mr. Perks,» an 18-foot pink pig on wheels emblazoned with the words «End Washington Waste.»
Americans for Prosperity, a free-market group that helped propel the tea party uprising in 2009, drove in the pig to make a point at a conservative rally about federal earmark spending. The Trump rig, equipped with a sound system and pulled by an old ambulance, posed a threat.
“This event is not about Trump,” said Annie Patnaude, the Michigan director for AFP, explaining why the Trump display had to move away from the live band and full buffet tables she had set up. “This is about pork.”
Rob Cortis, the float’s owner, hails from the now dominant part of the Republican Party, in which the former president is still celebrated by many as the rightful winner of the 2020 election, a debunked claim. A list of Trumpian priorities — from “infrastructure” to “Stop the Steal” — were bolted to his trailer, with no mention of the old conservative traditions of limited government or lower debt.
The last time conservatives found themselves with a new Democrat in the White House and no control of Congress, Americans for Prosperity played a prominent role in an April 2009 rally in nearby Lansing that brought out thousands of activists to denounce spending, with the same oversized pig as a prop. But the energy has shifted in the Republican Party. About 100 people showed up Wednesday, even as Cortis had moved to the other side of the parking lot to cool off.
“I don’t need the aggravation and drama,” he said.
Aggravation and drama have defined the Republican Party since Trump left office. In just the past two weeks, Republican leaders have punished his enemies, continued to pursue a revisiting of the election results and, on Capitol Hill, opposed bipartisan efforts to create a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection there. A few members expressed concern for those who broke into the building where they work.
A new generation of Trumpist acolytes — such as Missouri attorney Mark McCloskey, who became famous for drawing a gun on Black Lives Matters protesters — have announced their intention to run for high office with a set of Trump issues that motivate them. McCloskey has announced plans to run for the Senate.
The moves pose a threat to the party’s efforts to reclaim moderate, largely college-educated voters who were turned off by Trump, while muddying an attempt to shift the national focus to the less popular parts of Democratic policies.
They also mark a continued repudiation of the orthodoxy that last restored Republicans to power and governed the party for two generations.
Republican leaders have been alarmed by GOP-leaning voters moving away from the traditional conservative political conversation. Some even showed early support for parts of President Biden’s policy agenda, including another round of government checks for Americans, which Trump also supported, and plans for a massive infrastructure spending bill paid for with tax increases.
That has left Republicans wrestling to merge their past revolutions with their current one.
“How do we marry the Party of Reagan with the Party of Trump?” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), one of the party’s most influential new strategists, when asked about the focus of the Republican Study Committee, a conservative caucus of lawmakers he leads.
A recent poll by the National Republican Congressional Committee, released to GOP members of Congress and obtained by The Washington Post, uncovered just how palatable higher taxes are among voters if they feed the populist anger against wealthy interests.
Voters in battleground House districts were split on Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. When it was noted the plan would be paid for “by raising corporate taxes and raising taxes on the wealthiest families,” support for it grew by six points, to 56 percent.
The same poll found 3 in 4 voters in battleground districts agreed with the statements: “The power of a few elites and special interests rigs the system against regular people” and “Government is run by the wealthy and big corporations that [are] only looking out for themselves, not us.”
Trump was able to push away from GOP traditions, ride that populist anger and marry it to a zest for cultural battles that resonated among a wider swath of voters. Trump advisers said he was totally unconcerned about spending, which was an animating issue of the tea party, sometimes remarking that he wouldn’t be around to pay the debt, urged aides to “run the presses” and often pushed for packages with higher prices than some of his more conservative aides wanted. In a sign that his position was persuasive, the House GOP caucus voted in March to once again allow members to push for earmarks that spend federal money on specific projects they favor, reversing its tea party-era opposition.
In an effort to reorient the party away from the diverging priorities, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Banks have called for a new framing of the GOP around class divisions.
“Corporate America is [the] Democratic Party,” McCarthy said in a late-April interview with the conservative think tank American Compass, laying out the new message: “The American worker is the Republican Party.”
Banks considers it a mistake, for instance, that the last Republican tax bill included permanent cuts for corporations but only temporary cuts for people. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found nearly 1 in 3 Republicans support raising the corporate tax again, from 21 percent to 28 percent, as Biden has proposed. GOP leaders in Washington have refused to consider an increase.
“That told working-class Americans that cutting corporate rates is more important than individuals and families,” said Banks, who also opposes raising tax rates. “All of our members should go back to their districts, pull together working-class voters and do town halls and just shut up and listen.”
Democrats are skeptical that Republicans will be able to make the case without Trump on the ballot, especially because Biden has focused his communications about the economy on winning support from working people. They point to polls that have long affiliated Republicans with the interests of the wealthy and big companies and the party’s broader refusal to raise taxes on upper-income Americans.
“A Republican pivot won’t change those perceptions after decades of their party pushing and passing tax policy in the opposite direction,” said Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster at Global Strategy Group who has been advising Democrats on midterm messaging.
There has been some movement on other issues in corners of the party. Two Trump allies,
Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), backed his call for larger stimulus checks for Americans and have separately backed plans to raise the minimum wage. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has more recently urged Republicans to look favorably on unionization efforts at Amazon. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
But the bulk of the Republican pitch so far has been on cultural issues, which the party has attempted to reframe as a matter of class oppression, feeding into the sense of grievance so successfully mined by Trump.
“Right now, what are the dominant concerns among conservative voters?” Banks said. “A lot of it is free speech or political correctness, the wokeness of the moment.”
In a presentation to donors last month, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel focused on “fighting Big Tech” and “election integrity,” according to a person present who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private exchange. There was no talk of government spending or debt concerns. Much of a recent National Republican Senatorial Committee poll also focused on Big Tech and other cultural issues.
When donors gathered at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club earlier this year for a retreat, they cheered most heavily when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) promised to take on Big Tech, media outlets and even corporations, people present at the gathering said. Trump said little in his remarks about traditional GOP concerns — only briefly mentioning immigration and trade.
“There was this playbook written in 1980 that applied conservative principles to the problems of 1980, and it is now a very dog-eared playbook that conservatives have been flipping through ever since,” said Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, which advocates for revisions to GOP policy. “Trump himself I liken to an earthquake. He knocked things down and showed what was weak.”
That has left a challenge for traditionally free-market conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity, which has historically been backed by the family that owns Koch Industries. The group has long advocated a more libertarian approach to economic policy, including lower corporate and individual tax rates.
“I think the movement for sure is not as singularly focused as it was in 2009. There are a lot of distractions,” said Tim Phillips, who is president of Americans for Prosperity and who spoke at the Waterford event as part of a national tour to raise awareness about Democratic tax and spending policies. “But I am sensing now a growing energy and an unhappiness with what is going on.”
Others, such as Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, have largely avoided talking about Trump, even though the former president seems determined to remain a national focus by continuing to spread debunked allegations about the last election and attack his Republican critics. Short is instead pushing out polling about taxes — and how they could go up — through Pence’s group, Advancing American Freedom. In an interview, Short said he knows concern about higher taxes is not front of mind for the party, but that it could be again.
“If Republicans are focused on the tax plan and talking about it, that will drive news coverage, too,” Short said. “The more we’re fighting internal battles, we’re allowing Democrats to accomplish more because we’re distracted.”
Amid the buffet tables in Waterford, where pulled-pork sandwiches were on the menu, there were some signs of hope that the party will find a way to unify. Cortis, who sells crude pro-Trump merchandise including a car magnet that compares Vice President Harris to a prostitute, decided to stay for the rally and said he shared the concern about Democratic tax increases. Others at the event said they sensed a broader coalition in the state growing out of frustration with coronavirus restrictions and economic concerns.
Meshawn Maddock, co-chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, spread false claims of voter fraud in the state after the 2020 election and warned of a potential “civil war” before the Jan. 6 riot. But she attended the Americans for Prosperity event, where her daughter spoke, cheering on the speakers as they denounced spending and warned of coming inflation.
She said attendance at recent Republican gatherings in the state had been strong. “What is happening is, there is a harvest out there,” she said of the anger in the state. “And the Republican Party is going to reap the harvest.”
But the Trumpian focus of the party still carries risk in these parts of the country, where a significant share of college-educated suburban voters turned against the GOP during the Trump years. Former Republican congressman Dave Trott represented Waterford during Trump’s first two years after first winning election during the height of tea party influence in 2014. He has since renounced the party.
“It is just so strange to me. When I ran, it was about fiscal conservatism and keeping the size of the federal government smaller rather than larger. It was about the national debt,” he said. “And now Trump, because of his persona, it seems like he has hijacked the party, and we are focused on nonsensical things like the ‘deep state’ and conspiracy theories.”
The question is whether these divisions fade as the nation gets closer to another election and Republicans turn their attention more on their opponents.
“That’s the main priority: to stop the Democrats,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said he has been working with Trump on drafting a new policy agenda for 2022, though advisers say the former president remains more interested in re-litigating the past election. “Democrats have done a better job of uniting us than we have.”