Donald Trump’s true believers are losing the faith.
As Trump struggles to keep his campaign promises and flirts with political moderation, his most steadfast supporters — from veteran advisers to anti-immigration activists to the volunteers who dropped their jobs to help elect him – are increasingly dismayed by the direction of his presidency.
Their complaints range from Trump’s embrace of an interventionist foreign policy to his less hawkish tone on China to, most recently, his marginalization of his nationalist chief of staff, Steve Bannon. But the crux of their disillusionment, interviews with nearly two dozen Trump loyalists reveal, is a belief that Trump the candidate bears little resemblance to Trump the president. He’s failing, in their view, to deliver on his promise of a transformative “America First” agenda driven by hard-edged populism.
"Donald Trump dropped an emotional anchor. He captured how Americans feel," said Tania Vojvodic, a fervent Trump supporter who founded one of his first campaign volunteer networks. "We expect him to keep his word, and right now he’s not keeping his word."
Earlier this week, Vojvodic launched a Facebook group called, “The concerned support base of President Trump,” which quickly drew several dozen signups. She also changed the banner on her Facebook page to a picture of Bannon accompanied by the declaration: “Mr. President: I stand with Steve Bannon.”
"I’m not so infatuated with Trump that I can’t see the facts," she said. "People’s belief, their trust in him, it’s declining."
The swiftness and abruptness of Trump’s shift from bomb-throwing populist outsider to a more mainstream brand of Republican has taken the president’s stalwarts by surprise.
“It was like, here’s the chance to do something different. And that’s why people’s hopes are dashed,” said Lee Stranahan, who, as a former writer at Breitbart News, once worked with Bannon. “There was always the question of, ‘Did he really believe this stuff?’ Apparently the answer is, ‘Not as much as you’d like.’”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
The deflation of Trump’s base threatens to further weaken a president who’s already seen his public support drop to historic lows. Frustration among the president’s allies has intensified in recent days, with many expressing worry that Bannon, the intellectual pillar of the nationalist movement that catapulted Trump to the presidency, is being pushed out.
As Bannon’s influence wanes, on the rise is a small group of Wall Street-connected advisers whose politically moderate and globalist views are anathema to the populist cause.
The palace intrigue intensified this week after Trump refused to say he still had confidence in Bannon and downplayed his role in his campaign victory. And it’s feeding suspicions that the president is changing his priorities.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the president’s most vocal backers on Capitol Hill, said he’s been disheartened by the chief strategist’s isolation.
"A lot of us look at Steve Bannon as the voice of conservatism in the White House," said King, who has known Bannon for years.
The displeasure over Bannon’s reduced status has trickled down to Trump’s grass-roots army of volunteers. Among those unsettled is Shane Bouvet, a 24-year-old campaign volunteer and blue-collar single father from Illinois who became something of a hero in the Trump movement. On the eve of the inauguration, Trump, who had read about how Bouvet trekked across the country by car so he could watch the swearing-in, gave him a $10,000 check.
Bouvet later said the gift saved the life of his father, who was battling cancer and needed the money to cover medical costs.
That day, Bouvet also was introduced to Bannon. The two spoke briefly, and Bouvet came to identify with the adviser who, like him, represented a “forgotten America” that Trump had appealed to with his blue-collar pitch. He said in an interview that he still supports the president, but was troubled by reports that Bannon is on the outs and that senior adviser Jared Kushner, a New York City real estate scion, is accumulating influence.
“I see a lot of people upset about his role,” Bouvet said of Bannon.
“I love our president,” he added. “I would tell him, follow his heart instead of whispers in his ears.”
On his South Florida-based radio show, Trump backer John Cardillo has begun to hear from listeners who are disillusioned with the rising influence of moderate staffers like Kushner and Gary Cohn, the Goldman Sachs executive-turned-Trump economic adviser.
For Cardillo, too, it’s been a letdown. During the 2016 Republican primary, he was attracted to Trump because of his insurgent streak. As a former New York City police officer, Cardillo identified with the candidate’s blue-collar style. He fell hard and got aboard the Trump train early, backing the insurgent candidate over home-state favorite Marco Rubio.
Trump voters “felt like they were voting for an anti-establishment candidate — and they’re terrified, they’re losing faith," Cardillo said. "They’re saying, ‘Why does he have these people around him?’"
The gripes go beyond Bannon’s apparent downgrade. Many of Trump’s most stalwart supporters, including radio show hosts Michael Savage and Laura Ingraham, called last week’s bombing of Syria a betrayal of Trump’s pledge to be an “America First” commander-in-chief who would avoid unnecessary conflicts overseas.
Concerns about Trump’s foreign policy approach intensified on Wednesday when he backed away his oft-repeated campaign line that NATO is “obsolete.” Instead, during an appearance with NATO secretary Jens Stoltenberg, Trump called the organization a “great alliance.”
Howie Carr, an influential Boston radio show host and vocal Trump backer, said he’s been mostly satisfied with the president’s tenure so far. But he said he and his listeners weren’t on board with the Syria bombing and warned against a U.S.-led push to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“People are concerned because it’s such a morass over there,” Carr said. “I don’t think any of my listeners have any great stomach for overthrowing Assad, as odious as he is.”
Other Trump boosters worry that he’s ditching his economic agenda. They wonder why he backed off his vow to label
a currency manipulator, and are chagrined by his reversal on his position that the Export-Import bank should be eliminated.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer took issue with the premise that Trump’s switch on labeling China a currency manipulator amounted to abandoning a campaign promise.
"The president’s tough talk … on a variety of subjects was to get results for the American people. That’s what he has pledged to do, to get more jobs here, to grow more manufacturing, to keep our country safe," Spicer told reporters. "At the end of the day, this is always about developing a better situation for the American people, and I think he’s done that."
Still others are concerned about Trump’s lack of progress on reforming the tax code.
Larry Kudlow, a veteran economist who advised Trump’s campaign, expressed dismay that the president hadn’t yet released a tax plan. He said he was beginning to wonder whether the president is about to walk back his pledge to cut taxes.
"What is their product?" Kudlow asked. "It doesn’t make any sense to me. I’m not giving up hope. But it’s looking very shaky to me."
Conservative economist Stephen Moore, who also advised the Trump campaign, said he’s reached out to the White House about the lack of a tax package.
“They’re all over the map," he said. "I don’t know if they’re listening or not."
Then there’s immigration, the issue that catapulted Trump to front-runner status. Activists are increasingly alarmed that the president has yet to follow through on his pledge to rescind protections for undocumented parents and children put in place under former President Barack Obama.
Brenda Sparks, an “angel mom” whose son was killed by an illegal immigrant, appeared onstage with Trump at an August campaign event in Phoenix. She said he promised her that he would overturn the program known Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, in short order.
While Sparks said she didn’t think it would be done immediately, "I had expected it before now."
"I still support Trump but I’m going to hold his feet to the fire," she said. "He has not lived up to that promise."
Michelle Dallacroce, an anti-immigration activist, is more pointed. Immigration is "why we voted for Donald Trump," she said. "This could be the most elaborate reality show. I’m wondering, was this all an illusion for us, using our movement so he could get in there?"
Trump is hardly the first president to get crosswise with his supporters. After running on a promise to infuse Washington with change, Obama faced sharp accusations from backers that he was moving too slowly to change the culture of the capitol. Governing, Obama learned, was a lot different than campaigning.
Not all of the president’s backers are disappointed. They point to his successful nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and his roll-back of environmental regulations as early wins.
"There’s always going to be things that aren’t perfect, but it’s exciting," said Ed Martin, a conservative leader in Missouri.
But as Trump evolves, some of his loyalists are beginning to compare him to another Republican who lost the support of the party’s base: Arnold Schwarzenegger. After being elected California governor in 2003, the former movie star took on entrenched Democratic interests, lost badly, then tacked sharply to the left.
This week, some Trump diehards passed around a column by conservative commentator Kurt Schlichter headlined: “Trump Can’t Let His Real or His Fake Friends Turn Him into Schwarzenegger Part 2.”
Schlichter, in an interview, said conservatives were fundamentally distrustful of Republican politicians who had often misled them. He urged the president to take some immediate actions, however small, to put his supporters at ease.
“You’ve got to understand the base. It’s like dating a girl whose father cheated on her mother. She’s always going to be suspicious,” he said. “He’s got to constantly provide wins because he’s got an emotionally damaged base that’s been abused.”