Donald Trump is now officially the 45th president of the United States, and he is wasting no time using the “pen and phone” he inherited from Barack Obama. In his first week in the oval office, he issued 13 executive orders. And that number is likely to rise considerably in the weeks ahead.
Democrats, still seething from Hillary Clinton’s unexpected loss, are likely to oppose Trump at each and every step he takes. But some of his actions could draw opposition from traditional Republicans as they struggle to define the new Republican Party under President Trump.
Trump is a man of action, and he is chomping at the bit to deliver on the many promises he made during his presidential campaign; hence, the flood of new executive orders. He should have little problem repealing Obama’s many executive orders. But new executive orders are a different matter.
The power of the president is limited by the Constitution. And executive orders are not laws. Nor can they change laws; only congress can do that.
The president is head of the executive branch of government and charged with faithfully executing the laws passed by Congress. He has considerable leeway as to how to accomplish this. But he does not have a carte blanche. The Supreme Court struck down 13 of President Obama’s executive actions because he exceeded his constitutional authority.
Donald Trump put together an unusual coalition to pull off his stunning electoral victory. His most avid supporters — the ones who interrupted his rallies with chants of “build the wall,” “lock her up” and “drain the swamp” — consist largely of independent voters, disgruntled blue-collar Democrats and frustrated Republicans. The people Hillary Clinton called “deplorable.”
But half his votes came from traditional Republicans who felt like they were dressed for an evening at the theater and somehow wound up at a NASCAR racetrack. They voted for Trump, but only because they disliked Hillary Clinton more and feared Clinton would pack the Supreme Court with liberals who would interpret the Constitution for the next 30 or 40 years. For them, voting for Trump was a tough decision.
Trump made it clear in his inauguration speech that he is partial to his core supporters — what he calls his “movement” — and considers traditional Republicans part of the “establishment” he intends to overthrow. The big question now is whether Trump will continue his war against traditional Republicans in an effort to assuage his populist supporters or reach out and try to unite these two factions in order to govern the nation based on conservative principles.
Factionalism is nothing new in our two-party political system. The composition of both parties continually evolves as they try to build coalitions that can capture the majority of the votes.
Back in the 1950s, the Republican Party had two main factions: the “Main Street Republicans” and the “Wall Street Republicans.” The Main Street Republicans were led by Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio; they believed in small government, low taxes, fiscal responsibility, individual liberty and a non-interventionist foreign policy. They were backed by small business and chambers of commerce and popular in the West and Midwest.
The Wall Street Republicans were more liberal: they favored big industry — “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country” — and the big banks; were OK with big government but wanted to make it more efficient; and thought America should rule the world.
The Wall-Streeters were also known as the “East Coast establishment.” Their leaders were politicians such as Nelson Rockefeller, Thomas Dewey, Margaret Chase Smith, Prescott Bush (father of George H.W. Bush and grandfather of George W. and Jeb Bush) and George Romney (father of Mitt Romney).
This coalition wasn’t very effective at winning presidential elections. The only Republican elected president between 1932 and 1968 was Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.
The big showdown between the two factions came in 1964, when the party nominated Barry Goldwater as its candidate for president. Goldwater refused to reach out and compromise with the Wall Street Republicans, who consequently sat out the election, resulting in a crushing defeat for Goldwater at the polls.
In 1968, the Republicans bounced back from Goldwater’s defeat when party unity was restored and Richard Nixon was elected president. But that was an unusual time, because the nation was divided over Vietnam. And the South, which had been part of the Democrats’ coalition, was disenchanted with the Democrat Party’s stand on civil rights and voted for third-party candidate George Wallace.
A major political realignment occurred when Nixon ran for re-election in 1972 and he added the southern states to the Republican fold. The result was a crushing defeat for the Democrats, as they lost the electoral vote by 520 to 17. (Now that’s a landslide!)
The Republicans didn’t pick up the South by appealing to the old segregationist policies of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond; that would have alienated the traditional Republicans who had long championed equal rights. Rather, Republicans appealed to evangelical Christian voters in the South, and the Religious Right became a third member of the Republican coalition.
The Democrats countered the Republican’s southern strategy by successfully running a couple of popular southern governors for president — Jimmy Carter from Georgia and Bill Clinton from Arkansas. But until Donald Trump came along, presidential winners were usually members of the shaky Republican Party coalition: the constitutionalist Main Street Republicans, the liberal big-government East Coast establishment and the Religious Right.
The East Coast establishment of the Bushes and Romney seemingly controlled the national Republican Party with their big-money donors. The Main Street Republicans were angry at the Wall Street Republicans over the bail-out of the big banks; the regulatory encroachment of bloated federal bureaucracy that was stifling small business; and continued U.S. involvement in wars around the globe. The Religious Right was frustrated over social issues and a perceived hostility to traditional Christian values. It saw the Main Street Republicans as too libertarian and constitutionalist for the active agenda they sought.
Trump took advantage of this in-fighting and brought a new set of voters into the mix as he forged his “movement.”
The old Republican coalition is now in disarray, and it remains to be seen what the new coalition under President Trump is going to look like. We may have to wait until the mid-term elections in two years to find out.