President Donald Trump deviated from the standard Republican line this week on two fronts: gun rights and free trade.
On guns, he suggested that he preferred to “take the gun first, go through due process second,” angering most of the Republican establishment and the National Rifle Association. On trade, Trump announced his administration will impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, flouting the traditional Republican support for free trade.
Yet, on gun rights, Trump is already trying to make nice with the NRA, tweeting Thursday, “Good (Great) meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA!” On trade, he is doubling down, tweeting Friday morning, “We must protect our country and our workers. Our steel industry is in bad shape. IF YOU DON’T HAVE STEEL, YOU DON’T HAVE A COUNTRY!”
So why the different reactions?
It all comes down to what Trump’s base wants.
The Trump base is anti-gun control and pro-NRA. Take a look at our latest CNN survey. An astounding 85% of those who approve of Trump’s job performance hold a favorable view of the NRA. A slight majority (52%) of that same group oppose stricter gun control. And remember when Trump entertained the idea of an assault weapons ban in his meeting with members of Congress? Just 31% of Trump approvers want semiautomatic weapons to be banned.
And it’s not just that Trump’s base likes the NRA and gun rights, it’s that they think it’s an important issue. The CNN poll found that 68% of Trump approvers said that gun policy was going to be important to their votes in the midterm election. Of those, 35% said it was extremely important. Among all Republicans, 40% said it was extremely important.
On trade, it’s exactly the opposite. Last year, the Pew Research Center asked a bunch of questions on free trade and trade agreements. Only 36% of Republicans thought that free trade agreements have been a good thing for America. Only 35% of Republicans believed that free trade had probably or definitely helped their financial situation. Back during the 2016 primary election, Pew discovered that Trump supporters in the primary (i.e. the core of the Trump base) were especially critical of free trade. Just 27% of Trump supporters thought that free trade agreements had been a good thing for the US. The vast majority (67%) thought they had been bad.
Moreover, trade is just not something that congressional Republicans could get voters riled up about. In a 2017 Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health survey, a meager 20% of those who stated that they were going to vote for the Republican candidate for Congress said that Trump’s trade policies were extremely important to their vote. That’s far less than said guns in the CNN poll and ranked ninth out of 11 issues asked by Harvard.
Although Harvard didn’t ask about guns, the 40% of Republicans who said it would be extremely important in the CNN poll would have been good enough to rank it as the second most important issue in the Harvard poll, after terrorism.
Of course, it could be argued that since Republican voters don’t care too much about trade, it might behoove Trump to give in to congressional Republicans on it. That is, switching sides on this issue won’t cost him too many votes. It’s also plausible that if the economic threats from other countries become too much, Trump could switch his position on tariffs. His biggest strength is the economy and if it falters, his approval is likely to drop.
But it should also be noted that Trump has been remarkably consistent in his position on trade going back decades and made it a major part of his 2016 presidential campaign.
If Trump is going to change his mind on tariffs and free trade, keep an eye on the Pennsylvania 18th District special election on March 13. The Republican candidate in that race, Rick Saccone, supports Trump on tariffs and trade. If Saccone wins, Trump may see it as a sign that he should continue to push for tariffs and against free grade. If Saccone loses, Trump may change his tune in a New York minute.