In a previous post, I outlined the ways in which Donald Trump’s policy positions deviate from those of central Republican Party stakeholders. An important question, then, is how a figure such as Trump managed to take over a major American political party? Adding to the puzzle is that he did so while raising and spending little money, without significant organization, with no experience in public office and without a serious team of policy advisors.
One set of factors concerns the rules of the Republican nomination contest. Traditionally, candidates who do poorly in the early nominating contests lose the ability to raise the money necessary to continue. This serves to narrow the field. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, however, made it possible for less viable candidates to remain in the race by finding one or more deep-pocketed sugardaddies. In the recent nominating contest, the establishment candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich – had the money to stay in the race despite poor performance. This divided the moderate Republican vote, allowing Trump to squeak out victories in a number of close contests.
Also, the GOP adopted winner-take-all rules in hopes of advantaging frontrunners. A candidate who won only a plurality of the primary vote in a state – perhaps only one third in a crowded field – was awarded 100% of the convention delegates.
The establishment candidates focused their fire on one another rather than Trump, in hopes of eliminating rivals for the position of Trump’s last remaining opponent. This allowed Trump to remain relatively unscathed in the early contests while his competitors weakened one another. Yet the field failed to narrow until deep into the spring. Trump also did especially well in states with open primaries, where he racked up votes by independents. These factors allowed Trump to pile up victories and delegates despite seldom winning an outright majority of votes in any given state.
While Trump was able to take advantage of these rules of the game in unexpected ways, the problems for establishment Republicans go much deeper. Americans are increasingly choosing to live in areas where neighbors share their partisan and ideological inclinations. Moreover, Republican-dominated state legislatures have gerrymandered congressional districts to advantage Republican candidates. They have also used voter suppression laws to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning groups. There are, as a result, fewer states and congressional districts featuring competitive general election contests. In heavily Republican areas, moderate GOP incumbents face a much stronger challenge from more conservative candidates in the primary than from the Democratic candidate in the general election. A number of mainstream Republican Senators and Representatives – including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor – were swept from office in 2014 by Tea Party challengers within their own party.
While establishment Republicans retain the ability to raise money from business supporters, they have increasingly lost control of the party’s base, which has allowed insurgent forces – whether Tea Partiers or Trump’s populist-nationalist supporters – to challenge the establishment.
Three factions have jockeyed for power within the modern Republican Party in recent decades: neo-conservatives, social conservatives and business conservatives. All three have been weakened or discredited. Neo-conservatives (e.g., George W. Bush, John McCain, etc.) led the country into two costly and unwinnable wars (Afghanistan and Iraq) that have proven unpopular even among many Republicans. Social conservatives (Mike Huckabee, Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, etc.) have lost clout as increasingly fewer young American identify as fundamentalist/evangelical Christians or align with social conservatives on lifestyle issues. Meanwhile, the anti-regulatory, pro-Wall St. stance of business conservatives (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich) has been discredited by the financial crisis and its lingering effects.
In short, a hollowed-out Republican Party is a shell of its former self. At the national level, the GOP has no ideological center. It has instead become a regional party focused on the South and the interior West. Demographically, the party rests upon a shrinking base of white males. It continues to enjoy built-in advantages in many states and localities due to years of gerrymandering and voter suppression laws. It also does relatively well during mid-term elections when turnout is lower. But changing demographics, ideological incoherence and successful court challenges to voter ID laws suggest that the Republican Party is no longer viable in presidential campaigns and will, over time, weaken at the congressional and state levels.
The ease with which Trump brushed aside the Republican establishment is evidence of the party’s underlying weakness. Trump’s candidacy itself has further divided and undermined the party. Some party leaders have withheld support from Trump, even exploring the possibility of cohering around an independent candidate for president or backing Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. Others have endorsed Trump in a reluctant and pro-forma manner, while being forced to disavow his inflammatory language on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. A few – mostly marginal figures (e.g., Newt Gingrich) – have jumped on the Trump bandwagon.
To be sure, some aspects of Trump’s success arise from idiosyncratic factors, such as Trump’s celebrity, his financial independence, his skill at attracting media attention and his instinct for tapping popular sentiments – especially anti-elite and nationalist feelings – that establishment candidates have been slow to exploit.
Nevertheless, Trump’s nomination signals a grave crisis for the Republican Party. His undisciplined campaign itself and the prospect of a crushing defeat to a weak and unpopular Democratic candidate in November will only add to the GOP’s woes.
Given that the structure of the American political and electoral systems strongly favor two dominant parties, it seems likely that the Republican Party will survive in some form, but only after a period of bruising internal combat among competing factions. Trump himself is unlikely to remain a major player after November, but the populist, nationalist constituency to whom he appealed will remain available to future candidates.
As the Republican Party seeks to redefine itself through this sorting-out process, two factors are worth considering. First, Ronald Reagan, who led Republicans out of the wilderness and into the center of American politics offered a sunny, optimistic charisma. The contrast with the dark, angry emotions represented by Trump and the Tea Partiers could not be greater. There is no question that anger can be a powerful motivator. But it cannot provide the basis for a sustainable governing majority. The tone and image of the party must change if is to broaden its appeal.
Second, the Reagan coalition was built upon a coherent intellectual foundation focused upon deregulation, supply side economics, free trade and a strong military. This core program emerged from a two decade process of conceptual work among policy intellectuals who debated ideas within a constellation of think tanks, magazines and academic programs. With the Reagan consensus now shattered, a similar process of updating the intellectual foundations of the Republican brand must now take place before the party can hope to rise again.
Once a coherent and broadly appealing intellectual message is available, a charismatic and skilled presidential candidate must emerge who can articulate these ideas and provide a rallying point for the various constituencies to whom the message is directed.
This process of reconstructing the basis for a nationally competitive Republican Party is likely to unfold over several election cycles. During the interim, the Democratic Party will have the opportunity to consolidate its national-level dominance for a generation or more. Much will depend, however, upon whether the Democrats can manage their own internal rifts. Under Bill Clinton, the Democrats became a party of interest groups held together by transactional politics. The emergence of a much more ideological left-wing of the party as represented by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren serves as a challenge to the Clinton formula. If the Democrats manage to win both the House and the Senate in November, along with the presidency, then the most significant political cleavages that shape the coming four years could center around the struggle not between conservatives and liberals or Republicans and Democrats, but between ideological and transactional elements of the Democratic Party.
Political parties are constellations of interests and ideas. At some moments in history, these constellations cohere and consolidate. At others, they splinter and break apart. After a period of relative coherence beginning with the Reagan presidency, the Republican Party has entered an era of internal division and redefinition. Trump is but a symptom of the GOP’s deeper maladies.