The increased likelihood of Donald Trump as the GOP presidential nominee, as evidenced by his win in Florida and other states last week, spells the end of the Republican Party as we have known it. Successful political parties unite interests under a broadly shared policy agenda. The Clinton Democrats may seem ethically challenged, condescending and bordering on dictatorial, but they share basic positions on many core issues and a unifying belief in federal power as the favored instrument for change.
In contrast, the Republican Party consists of interest groups that so broadly dislike each other that they share little common ground.
GOP libertarians want more social freedoms; social conservatives want less. Neocons hunger for war, while most other Republicans, both libertarian and constitutionalist conservatives, reject Bushian interventionism. The rising populist wave now inundating the party and driving the Trump juggernaut both detests, and is detested by, the party’s media, corporate and intellectual establishment.
Some “movement” conservatives are returning the favor, essentially blaming the white working class for their own failures. Among some on the right, it appears, capitalism and the law of the jungle are always noble, and those who fail to make the grade clearly are not. No surprise, then, that the new generation of voters seems more ready for socialism than for laissez faire.
Against weak and squabbling opposition, Trump has employed his crude persona, and equally crude politics, to dominate the primaries to date. But in the process he has broken not only the party structure, but also its spirit. Indeed, some of the party’s most promising emerging leaders, such as Nebraska U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, have made it clear they cannot support a candidate who seems to have little respect for the Constitution, or any other cherished principle.
In contrast, the Democrats, for all their manifest divisions, remain united by a desire to reward and parcel out goodies to their various constituencies. Hillary Clinton, as the troublesome Bernie Sanders fades, will gather a Mafia-like commission of Democratic “families” – feminists, greens, urban land speculators, public unions, gays, tech oligarchs and Wall Street moguls. Given the self-interest that binds them, few Democrats will reject her, despite her huge ethical lapses and appearance of congenital lying.
Who’s to blame for the destruction of the GOP? Some may argue the Tea Party faction and evangelicals behind Ted Cruz siphoned off too many conservative voters, who might have backed a more acceptable candidate. But many social conservatives have flocked to Trump, blunting the Bible-thumping brand that drove the Texan’s strategy.
The other icon of the Right, the Tea Party, also appears increasingly in decline. One Gallup poll shows the Tea Party with less than 20 percent support among voters. Simply put, these forces are too weak, and disunited, to defeat Trump.
Those most responsible for the party’s decline, however, are those with the most to lose: the Wall Street-corporate wing of the party. These affluent Republicans placed their bets initially on Jeb Bush, clear proof of their cluelessness about the grass roots – or much else about contemporary politics. They used to attract working- and middle-class voters by appealing somewhat cynically to patriotism and conservative social mores, which also did not threaten their property and place in the economic hierarchy. Now these voters no longer accept “trickle down” economics or the espousal of free trade and open borders widely embraced by the establishments of both parties.
The fecklessness of the party leadership has been evident in the positions taken by corporate Republicans. Reduce capital-gains taxes to zero? Are you kidding, Marco? New trade pacts may thrill those at the country club, but not in towns where industries have fled to Mexico or China.
And then there’s immigration. Simply put, most Americans – upward of three-fifths, according to one recent poll – consider immigration a “threat to the country.” The idea of expanding H-1B visas for skilled foreign workers, as suggested by mainstream GOP leaders, is a classic case of stupidity: supporting an electorally toxic position that really only benefits people – notably tech oligarchs – who also largely bankroll the other party.
Increasingly, the grandees are clueless how to appeal to a party rank-and-file that is no longer theirs. Far from being a country club party, roughly 53 percent of Republicans, according to Pew, come from households with incomes under $75,000. These are precisely the people who feel corporate America and the party economic gospel no longer work to their benefit.
These voters will be key to Trump’s strategy in November. He hopes many middle- and working-class Democrats will defect to his cause. Upward of 20 percent of Democrats, according to some surveys, are ready to bolt to embrace The Donald.
This could prove critical in many states, particularly in the upper Midwest. A study just published by Working America, a political-action auxiliary of the AFL-CIO, interviewed some 1,600 white working-class voters in the suburbs of Cleveland and Pittsburgh during December and January. It found strong support for Trump, even among self-identified Democrats.
Although some respondents might be motivated by racial concerns, they were most impressed with Trump’s “attitude,” the blunt and forthright way he talks. Among issues, “immigration” placed third, far behind the No. 1 concern: “good jobs / the economy.”
Rather than a Republican revival, Trump’s candidacy represents an anti-party insurgency. Nate Silver suggests that Trump’s candidacy has more in common with that of Ross Perot in 1992 than that of a typical mainstream Republican. Perot also ran a somewhat nationalistic campaign openly hostile to the parties’ dominant establishments.
In November, there may not be enough white middle- and working-class votes to put Trump over the top, but the GOP “mercenaries” don’t appear capable of stopping his hostile takeover of their party. In fact, the attacks by Mitt Romney and others have handed Trump exactly what he thrives on – a photo op to stand up to powerful “losers,” “idiots” and “morons.”
After the disaster
The election of Trump would elevate an unscrupulous, amoral and patently ignorant bully to the White House. This result seems unlikely as the corporate GOP either opts out of the election, or even rallies to Hillary Clinton. Trump’s campaign may bring some more independents and Democrats to the Republican cause, but he has alienated too many people – women, Hispanics, educated voters – to win a 50-state election.
Trump’s defeat will leave the Republican Party in shambles. Even party Chairman Reince Priebus admits another presidential defeat could undermine the party’s viability. “We don’t exist as a national party if we don’t win in 2016,” Priebus suggests. “You can’t compete 16 years out of the White House, it’s just not possible.”
Of course, the GOP in 2017 still will control the House of Representatives and more statehouses than its rivals. But it may lose the Senate in November, leaving Clinton a clear path to dominate the Supreme Court. This will strip away the only barrier to ever more intrusive rule by decree. Clinton has already made it clear that, unlike her husband, she is ready to circumvent Congress if it dares decline her initiatives.
In this way, the rest of the country will increasingly resemble what we already have in California – a central governing bureaucracy that feels little constrained about expanding its power over every local planning and zoning decision. The federal republic will become increasingly nationalized, dispensing largely with the constitutional division of power.
Centralism, as known well in California, comes naturally to a one-party state. Businesses, particularly large ones, faced with uncontested political power, will fall in line. How many times have I heard California business people, even supposedly powerful ones, tell me they are frustrated with Gov. Jerry Brown’s increasingly draconian rule but sheepishly add that they are too afraid to say anything.
Looking ahead, the only hope lies in a mounting reaction, perhaps manifesting in a new party, to over-reach. As Clinton works to serve her “families,” like public employees, crony capitalists and the academia/media PC police, she could ignite a rebellion not only among the Trump constituency but also many more moderate, suburban voters who find Trump too crude, divisive and unpredictable.
This new movement should be built around the idea that, in the information age, power can, and should, devolve to localities as much as possible. Even Californians prefer local, as opposed to centralized, control. This could spark a widespread populist rebellion which, in 2020, could finally tame the federal Leviathan and allow American politics to return to something the founders may have envisioned.