WASHINGTON — President Trump’s embrace of the country’s racially charged past has thrown the Republican Party into crisis, dividing his core supporters who have urged him on from the political leaders who fear that he is leading them down a perilous and shortsighted path.
The divisions played out in the starkly different responses across the party after Mr. Trump insisted that left-wing counterprotesters were as culpable as neo-Nazis and white supremacists for the bloodshed in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. Much of the right was ecstatic as they watched their president fume against the “violent” left and declare that “very fine people” were being besmirched for their involvement in the demonstration.
Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, said in an interview that if Democrats want to fight over Confederate monuments and attack Mr. Trump as a bigot, that was a fight the president would win.
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“President Trump, by asking, ‘Where does this all end’ — Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln — connects with the American people about their history, culture and traditions,” he said.
“The race-identity politics of the left wants to say it’s all racist,” Mr. Bannon added. “Just give me more. Tear down more statues. Say the revolution is coming. I can’t get enough of it.”
Much of the party’s political class, however, was in shock. Former Presidents George and George W. Bush issued a rare joint rebuke of Mr. Trump’s stance, saying hate should be rejected “in all forms.”
And among younger Republicans there was a sense that the damage would be profound and enduring.
“The last year and especially the last few days have basically erased 15 years of efforts by Republicans to diversify the party,” said David Holt, a 38-year-old Oklahoma state senator running for mayor of Oklahoma City. “If I tried to sell young people in general but specifically minority groups on the Republican Party today, I’d expect them to laugh me out of the room. How can you not be concerned when the country’s demographics are shifting away from where the Republican Party seems to be shifting now?”
The political blow that Mr. Trump has sustained is deep and worsening. Barely one-third of Americans now say they approve of the job he is doing, according to twopolls released this week — a fresh low for a president who was already among the most unpopular in modern times.
With midterm elections looming next year, Republican leaders find themselves in precarious territory, unwilling to abandon Mr. Trump for fear of losing his supporters even as the president’s position slips with the broader electorate.
“The political price we may pay almost should be catastrophic,” said Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist. “A hanging in the morning will clarify the mind.”
But Mr. Trump’s tenacious base sees in the Charlottesville fallout something to cheer: a field general leading the latest charge in the battle to take their country back. Much as Mr. Trump promised he would restore America to its lost greatness during his presidential campaign — a vow that, to many, clanged with sentimentality for a whiter, less tolerant nation — he is using symbols of the Confederacy to tell conservatives that he will not allow liberals to blot out their history and heritage.
“Good people can go to Charlottesville,” said Michelle Piercy, a night shift worker at a Wichita, Kan., retirement home, who drove all night with a conservative group that opposed the planned removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee.
After listening to Mr. Trump on Tuesday, she said it was as if he had channeled her and her friends — all gun-loving defenders of free speech, she said, who had no interest in standing with Nazis or white supremacists: “It’s almost like he talked to one of our people.”
Conservatives like Ms. Piercy, who have grown only more emboldened after Charlottesville, believe that the political and media elite hold them and Mr. Trump to a harsh double standard that demands they answer for the sins of a radical, racist fringe. They largely accept Mr. Trump’s contention that these same forces are using Charlottesville as an excuse to undermine his presidency, and by extension, their vote.
But Republicans who are looking at the country’s rapidly changing demographics — growing younger, less white and more urban — say Mr. Trump’s Republican Party is not the party of the future.
Representative Will Hurd, who is half-black and represents a sprawling, heavily Hispanic district in Texas, said of Mr. Trump’s latest eruption, “It’s embarrassing.”
Representative Tom Rooney, 46, of Florida said it baffled him that Mr. Trump was so equivocal. “To the people in my generation, it’s just something that’s so obvious: This is repugnant,” he said.
Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who has written a new book excoriating the “Faustian bargain” his party made with Mr. Trump, said on Wednesday that being complicit now would extract a big political price later. “We’ve got to stand up to these kinds of things if we want to be a governing majority in the future,” he said.
Yet for many Republicans, evidence that a more inflammatory wing of the party is ascendant is hard to ignore. The party’s far right claimed a victory on Tuesday night when Roy S. Moore, the former Alabama chief justice who was removed twice from the bench, won the most votes in the state’s primary election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s vacant Senate seat.
Mr. Moore, who has defied orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building and told lower court judges to ignore the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, will now face the party establishment’s candidate of choice, Senator Luther Strange, in a runoff election next month.
When Mr. Moore spoke to a congregation in Jasper, Ala., this week, he did not mention the events in Charlottesville, nor did anyone else. He did, however, receive a round of head nods for declaring, “We’re living in the most apostate civilization in the history of the world,” a statement that echoed the so-called alt-right’s castigation of liberal “degeneracy.”
When the two highest-ranking Republicans on Capitol Hill addressed Mr. Trump’s latest remarks, neither mentioned the president by name.
Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader, issued a short statement that declared, “There are no good neo-Nazis.” Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin put out a harshly worded denunciation of white supremacy, but his swipe at Mr. Trump was indirect. “There can be no moral ambiguity,” he said. (The Bushes also did not name Mr. Trump in their condemnation of racial hatred.)
Those who singled him out, like Senator Jerry Moran, Republican of Kansas, were in the minority. “White supremacy, bigotry and racism have absolutely no place in our society, and no one — especially the president of the United States — should ever tolerate it,” Mr. Moran wrote.
Like the president, Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters dismiss his critics as opportunists. They see the charges that Mr. Trump is too accommodating of racists as an accusation that they must be racist, too.
“He was being realistic about what was going on,” said Denise O’Leary, a medical assistant in Wichita. Ms. O’Leary wondered why no one else was coming down on the leftist demonstrators. “There was violence on both sides, there was,” Ms. O’Leary said. “We need to be honest about that.”
To Rollie Weisser, a semiretired freight hauler from Wisconsin, the hypocrisy is absurd.
“President Trump caught a bunch of hell because he didn’t come down hard enough” on white supremacist protesters, Mr. Weisser said one morning this week as he sipped coffee in a West Bend, Wis., McDonald’s. “They say he came down too hard on Kim Jong-un.”
Mr. Weisser added, “Make up your mind.”
David Bozell, the president of the conservative activist group For America, said conservatives like him sometimes did not dare speak up in support of the president anymore: “We’re being told, ‘Sit down, shut up, you Nazi.’”
As for those upset by the president’s contention that the right’s violence was matched by the left’s, Mr. Bozell invoked the five white officers killed last summer by a sniper who expressed anger about police shootings of blacks. “Tell that to the families of those slain Dallas police officers,” he said.
Mr. Trump has always appreciated the emotional pull of questioning bias and fairness, especially with his white working-class base. And he fully understands how their vote for him was in many ways an attempt to rebalance the inequity they saw holding them back — economically, politically and culturally.
But there are growing signs that his support among the most faithful voters is sliding. Gallup and the Marist Poll, which both released surveys this week, found that right-leaning voters were drifting away from Mr. Trump. Seventy-nine percent of registered voters who identified as “strong Republicans” in the Marist Poll now approve of his job performance, compared with 91 percent in June.
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