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.
“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 two polls 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.
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