This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
In an election defined by Donald Trump, the polarizing billionaire poses the ultimate political Rorschach test. Trump has thrust the GOP into pandemonium, a civil war, a realignment, an existential crisis—so we hear. To some, Trump is sui generis, a blank slate who offers no clue to where the Republican Party is going. To others, Trump is the GOP’s “Frankenstein monster,” the natural end point of the party’s long and self-destructive slide. Trump is a “wrecking ball” swinging through both political parties. Trump will prevail by winning over working-class whites; Trump will go down in flames and take his party with him.
Whatever the Trump cards say to you, however, a few consensus points are coming into focus. Whether or not Trump wins the GOP nomination—or even the White House—the Republican Party will never look the same. He has forced his party into a long-overdue reckoning. Depending on the outcome, Republicans could recalibrate toward the center, or gravitate further toward the extremes, making the GOP look more like the far-right parties gaining traction in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. At the same time, the forces roiling the GOP are also stirring up Democrats. Amid globalization and rising economic inequality, both parties are being forced to answer to populist voters angry at public institutions and elites who have failed to help struggling workers.
The crisis is far more acute, however, for the GOP, which has fallen badly out of touch with its electorate. A mere 30 percent of Republican voters are “enthusiastic about” or “satisfied” with their elected politicians, according to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll. Just 41 percent say they are “enthusiastic” or “satisfied with” the future of the party.
By contrast, Democratic voters report a much sunnier outlook—notwithstanding the burst of outrage that has buoyed Senator Bernie Sanders. A full 72 percent of Democratic voters are “enthusiastic” about and “satisfied with” both their elected politicians and the party’s future. Democrats will face challenges reconciling volatile voters’ conflicting demands, but have a long history of straddling fractious coalitions.
GOP voter anger has only been stoked by party leaders’ increasingly desperate campaign to stop Trump. And Republicans’ primary fallback candidate is an even more doctrinaire conservative, the widely disliked Texas Senator Ted Cruz.
Both Trump and Cruz are riding a tsunami of GOP discontent that has been building for years. The GOP coalition between social conservatives and free-market Republicans built so successfully by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s has been tested repeatedly since the Tea Party burst onto the scene in 2009. Galvanized by the Wall Street bailouts following the 2008 financial crisis, Tea Party activists challenged the GOP establishment and triggered the foreshocks of the Trump earthquake.
These included the Tea Party’s opposition to immigration reform, its suspicion of trade deals, and its hostility to corporate welfare and “crony capitalism.” Cruz captured the Tea Party mood in 2013 when he led a government shutdown to protest Obamacare.
But Tea Party gains on Capitol Hill have failed to mollify angry GOP voters, in part because the party’s economic agenda has continued to ignore working-class Republicans. Fixated on shrinking government, destroying labor unions, cutting taxes for the wealthy, and protecting their big corporate donors from regulation, GOP leaders failed to notice that their electorate had other worries. Substantial numbers of GOP primary voters support tax increases, labor unions, and a higher minimum wage, according to research this year by the RAND Corporation.
Trump has captured these voters with a faux-populist message—even though his actual policies would hurt the working class. Trump promises “major tax relief” for middle-income Americans, but his tax plan would actually favor the wealthy and send the deficit soaring. Nevertheless, Trump has built a robust populist coalition, including voters who are both concerned about immigration and supportive of progressive economic policies, according to RAND’s 2016 Presidential Election Panel Survey. The survey found that 51 percent of primary voters backing Trump support raising taxes on those earning more than $200,000 a year; 38 percent favor labor unions, and 86 percent agree that “people like me don’t have a say in government.”
But if Trump has gathered new voters under his party’s umbrella, he has also fractured the GOP still further with his direct challenges to Republican orthodoxy, including his defense of Planned Parenthood, protectionism, and vow never to touch Social Security or Medicare. Some Republicans have rallied behind him, noting that the party has long aspired to win over working-class voters. But other Republicans have recoiled in horror at Trump’s flimsy grasp of foreign policy, attacks on Mexicans and Muslims, and tacit promotion of violent protest.
The dilemma for anti-Trump Republicans is that Cruz may prove even more polarizing. For better or worse, Trump’s core beliefs have been hard to pin down. Cruz, by contrast, is unapologetically rightist. Like Trump, he would build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border—then go one step further by halting increases in legal immigration. Cruz would eliminate the Internal Revenue Service and four other major federal agencies, defund and prosecute Planned Parenthood, and slash taxes for the wealthy. He denies climate change, opposes gay marriage and even civil unions, and promises to “carpet bomb” terrorists. His nomination would lead to “cataclysmic” and “wholesale losses” for the GOP, predicts former Kansas senator and unsuccessful presidential candidate Bob Dole.
IT'S NOT THE FIRST TIME that Republicans—or Democrats, for that matter—have faced a political identity crisis. Trump’s campaign has been widely compared to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid. Goldwater lost by a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson, but he is credited with mobilizing a generation of younger conservatives who later rallied behind Reagan in 1980. Some wonder whether 2016 is what MIT political scientist Walter Dean Burnham calls a “critical election” that brings about a political party realignment every 30 or 40 years. Such shifts occurred after the elections of 1932, when Democrats built a majority coalition around black and ethnic Americans, farmers, and Southern whites; and again after 1968, when civil-rights advances drove Southern whites toward the GOP.
Now the electorate is shifting yet again, and no one knows where the political landscape’s plates will lock. Republicans face a basic math problem amid the accelerating growth of what Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg calls “a new majority coalition of racial minorities, single women, millennials, and seculars.” Greenberg calculates that these groups formed 51 percent of the electorate in 2012, and will comprise 63 percent in 2016. Republicans’ rightward lurch could mobilize progressives and even produce a “wave” election for Democrats this year, Greenberg predicts, with substantial GOP losses down ballot. GOP leaders have repeatedly warned that demographic shifts threaten to shrink their party over the long term, but the presidential hopefuls best equipped to diversify the GOP—Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio—left Republican voters flat this year.
At the same time, the populist outrage roiling the GOP could come back to bite Democrats, too. Hillary Clinton has struggled to fend off questions about her trustworthiness and her Wall Street ties, and has failed to excite the white working-class voters flocking to Sanders. Sanders’s success in the primary with young and blue-collar voters, many of them upset about the same issues firing up the pro-Trump crowds, has stirred fears in the Clinton camp that the former first lady would lose key voting blocs in a matchup with Trump.
Whoever wins this fall will preside over an uneasy and unstable majority. The nation itself remains deeply polarized, a state of unsteady equilibrium that argues for a party recalibration in 2016, as opposed to a realignment. Democrats have won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, while leaving Republicans firmly in charge of Congress and the legislatures. If that pattern holds in 2016, expect government gridlock and dysfunction to continue or even worsen, and voter resentment to grow.
Where that leaves the political parties, and particularly the fractured GOP, will depend on what happens on Election Day. A GOP rout would intensify the Republican soul-searching already under way, forcing the party to address its failure to promote economic policies responsive to its electorate. Many Republicans complain that their party suffers from a dearth of new ideas, and some are calling for a platform that’s more conciliatory and tilted toward economic fairness. Just as Goldwater, while unsuccessful, paved the conservative way for Reagan, some speculate that some of Trump’s ideas will be picked up in the future by a more polished candidate.
“They have to avoid two mistakes,” says John J. Pitney Jr., an American politics professor at Claremont McKenna College who’s written extensively about the Republican Party. “Number one is ignoring the Trump phenomenon. Number two is embracing the Trump phenomenon. The smart path is figuring out what Trump supporters are worrying about, and find some sensible way to address it.”
A GOP disaster on Election Day could present openings for Democrats, helping cement Obama’s legacy and favoring the progressive agenda. If Republicans win the White House and/or retain control of Congress, however, the GOP may move even further to the right. This would continue the party’s current trajectory, as Tea Party orthodoxy has increasingly locked down the Republican agenda on Capitol Hill. That could mean a Republican Party that bears increasingly little resemblance to today’s GOP. This is what worries many longtime Republicans, who bemoan what they see as the party’s dwindling intellectual rigor and dignity.
“Something important is ending,” writes Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s hard to believe what replaces it will be better.” Many Republicans look at the anti-immigrant, anti-trade, anti–Wall Street rhetoric of their leading candidates, and no longer recognize their party. Similar populist messages are resonating around the globe. But in the parliamentary democracies of Europe, rightist parties may win a voice in government even with the backing of only a minority of voters. In our nation’s two-party system, only an electoral majority delivers the White House. That may leave the GOP playing an all-or-nothing game in 2016—and beyond. For Democrats, this year’s political turbulence presents both danger and opportunity. Republicans, however—at least those associated with the GOP’s establishment wing—face mostly danger. Even if they win the election, they will have lost their party.