Former President George W. Bush is a surprisingly popular guy these days. He's hanging out with Lady Gaga. He's cracking jokes on stage with fellow former President Barack Obama. He's viewed favorably by a significant majority of Americans, including 82 percent of Republicans.
But if you spent the evening at the California Republican Party's convention last Friday, you got to hear the crowd roar with applause and laughter as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon declared George W. Bush to have been mentally incompetent, embarrassing, and to have been the most "destructive" president in American history.
(Congratulations, James Buchanan, you're off the hook!)
For all the time that folks like Bannon rail against elites for being stuck in a "bubble," the folks who sit in a state that Trump lost by a thirty-point margin are in one hell of a bubble if they think the way to grow their party is to start off by beating up on a reasonably popular Republican ex-president. (Especially given that last time Bush's name was on a ballot in California, Bush only lost by 10, and – because you can't just blame it on "but demographics!" – did better with white voters than Trump did.)
But I digress. I come today not to defend George W. Bush, but instead to consider how on earth it is possible for a party that mostly quite likes George W. Bush – and many of the policies the party stood for during his presidency – to nonetheless survive an era where the party's apparatus is driven by an extremely loud, extremely energized wing that casts him out and calls for the hangings of Republican senators, as if, well, this is just how we do things now.
Luckily, the Pew Research Center is on the case. Their annual dive into America's "political typology" sheds light onto the clusters Americans find themselves falling into these days, illuminating the deep divides on both the Left and Right.
The Left is not exactly unified at the moment; Pew finds four clusters – "solid liberals," "opportunity Dems," "disaffected Dems," and "devout and diverse" – and observes these groups are divided over things like the importance of "hard work and determination" in opening doors to success, over religiosity, and over whether America should pay less attention overseas. (What the Left does agree on? Disapproval of Trump.)
But the Right is dealing with its own divisions. Pew identifies four groups on the Right: "core conservatives," "country-first conservatives," "market skeptic Republicans," and "new era enterprisers."
Core conservatives are the largest group on the Right, at twenty percent of the politically engaged U.S. electorate. They like Trump, hold fiscally conservative views, think the U.S. economic system is generally fair and mostly think America benefits from being involved in the global economy. Most do not think immigrants are a burden, or that homosexuality should be discouraged.
Who does think these things? The "country-first conservatives," whom you could flag as the crowd most likely to cheer on Bannon's Bush-bashing. Why? As the name implies, this is ground zero for "America First"-ism. Less than half in this group think U.S. engagement in the global economy is good, while three-quarters think immigrants are a burden and take jobs. The idea that this group is in line with where America is at or heading is, to put it mildly, incorrect: seventy percent in this group think homosexuality "should be discouraged by society."
By Pew's count, this "country first" group makes up six–yes, only six–percent of the "politically engaged" American electorate.
Even if you throw the "market skeptic Republicans" in with this group – they too are immigration skeptics and less than thrilled with the global economy – you still can't match the size of the "core conservatives," those with views closer to Bush's moderate views on immigration and positive views about markets and engagement with the world. That's not even accounting for the "new era enterprisers," which are the young, diverse, socially moderate, pro-business, pro-immigrant bloc, and which are a larger group than the "country first"-ers.
To be sure, if you're a "country first" or "market skeptic" type on the Right, this is a thrilling political moment for you. One of your own is in the White House, and you have all of the levers of the Republican Party apparatus at your disposal. (Even, it seems, among the young; over the weekend, the California College Republicans followed the lead of their elders, electing a Breitbart ally to lead the state's College Republican organization.)
But what earns you great applause in front of a banquet dinner crowd may not be what earns you the votes you need to win. It is, ironically, the lesson the "core conservative" wing of the party learned the hard way two years ago.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."