This past election season has felt truly surreal. Political commentators both left and right understood as early as late 2012 that the Democrats would be vulnerable in 2016, and a good Republican candidate, one who could maintain the party’s core demographics while simultaneously siphoning some black and Latino votes, had a nonzero shot at tipping the scales, someone bland and vaguely Hispanic like Marco Rubio — especially if the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton.
The Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton.
So what did the Republicans do? They nominated a candidate who most observers agree is the single worst candidate ever fielded by a major party in the United States of America. While, for a moment in July, Donald Trump seemed terrifyingly electable, it lasted about three days into the DNC. And then he went after Gold Star father Khizr Khan.
Ever since then, his campaign has been in a state of utter collapse. Trump, quite literally a textbook narcissist, has seen to it that he utterly dominates the news cycle. This is quite unfortunate for Republicans because this dominance is rooted in petty attacks, like that against Mr. Khan, with a heaping spoonful of scandal, like murky Russian ties, and controversy, like assaying Trump’s true net worth in the increasingly noticeable absence of his tax returns — all of this leading to pundits calling him a fascist while the Republicans’ moderate class run from him. In droves.
Against all odds, Hillary Clinton, a candidate that against a normal candidate should receive 50% ±1% of the popular vote, has opened up a commanding 8-point lead on Trump. Purely by staying away from the media. Against a campaigner as self-evidently incompetent as Trump, Clinton has an excellent chance — currently 26.8%* according to FiveThirtyEight — of winning by a landslide, a victory type that Americans haven’t seen since the 1980s and many pundits did not even think possible in the modern, hyperpartisan political climate.
But if you think this is the Republicans’ bottom — hah! They haven’t even found their bottom yet!
The Green Screen
American politics have been cyclic, coinciding remarkably well with the Kondratieff cycle. The main political parties — the Democrats and Republicans — tend to assemble into coalitions during the primary and midterm phases, while the general election decides which coalition governs and which one opposes. These, in turn, tend to be focused around driving narratives — ideologies that animate coalitions for generations at a time.
The largest governing majorities — supermajorities in any sense of the word — were the Republican governing coalition of the Progressive Era and the Democratic New Deal governing coalition that followed. The post-Teddy Roosevelt Republicans were themselves a policy iteration on a Republican coalition that had largely stayed in power since 1865, mainly due to the era’s North-South politics, while New Deal coalition continued to follow Progressive politics until the Civil Rights Act and Southern Strategy fractured it.
It is also noteworthy that major governing coalitions become focused around uniquely charismatic Presidents. One could therefore say that American politics are divided into the Jefferson period, which defined Jefferson’s Democrat-Republicans and their opponents (initially Federalists and then Whigs); the post-Lincoln period, defined by the loose ends Lincoln had left; the first and second Roosevelt periods, when the progressives were the governing coalitions’ leaders; and the Reagan period, which actually started when Nixon won the Presidency and may or may not have ended in the mid-2000s.
But charisma is a two-edged sword, and Trump is certainly charismatic. Like Teddy Roosevelt, Trump is giving voice to a marginal faction; unlike Roosevelt, who was essentially kicked upstairs into the vice-presidency, thereby allowing him to be in the right place at the right time to implement his agenda, Trump is trying to win the Presidency rather than inherit it.
Trump is far better at inheriting things than winning them.
Because the core of his support is the populist right (aka alt-right aka Neo-Nazis aka proto-fascists), and because — unlike any of his interchangeable dozen-or-so opponents, he actually got his base fired up — Trump is hugely popular among a group approximately the same relative size as UKIP’s (ex-?)base in Britain. But because he espouses this particular ideology to the exclusion of all others, for a whole host of reasons, he was electable (in the sense Nixon was electable in ’68) in the primaries, but is wholesale unelectable — because he does espouse an ideology that is so profoundly foreign — to the left.
Trump needed a good handler to become remotely electable in the general, but his narcissism demands sycophants. Manafort couldn’t handle him, and at this point his primary advisors are mediamen Steve Bannon (formerly of the execrable Breitbart News) and … Roger Ailes. The rest of his inner circle reads like a who’s-who of Republican washouts, and the party’s big-name operatives aren’t interested in his campaign.
When Bannon replaced Manafort, the Washington Post asked whether it was because (1) Trump was a fool, or (2) he was making a post-election play. Greg Sargent, the writer, thinks the answer is (1) — and perhaps to Trump and Bannon, it is — but Roger Ailes, now formerly of Fox News due to a harassment scandal, remember — is much savvier and much more opportunistic.
I would not be remotely surprised if Ailes was just the first one (or at least the first one in a position to act on it) to read the tea leaves: If Trump is only successful in attracting the regressive-populist alt-right, and literally toxic to anybody else, then simply by sticking to his message he can attract a following of (monetizable) zealous converts. The seed direct-mailing list is there, and Trump generates a not-insignificant amount of publicity — indeed, his own self-promotion is what is killing him this election — putting many of the ingredients in place. Lure in some known Trumpian TV and radio personalities, like Pat Buchanan and Sean Hannity, and — voilà!
But at this point the pattern starts to become clear. This “Trump News Network”, run by Bannon and Ailes, legitimizes the alt-right, in the process continuing to drive away social conservatives, libertarians, and the tattered last remnants of Northeasterner Republicans. The alt-right are American nationalists, but that in itself has the problem that nationalism is tied to ethnicity while American nationhood … isn’t. It is precisely because most Americans** agree, at some level, that openness to diversity is a fundamental defining feature of being American — an idea which no nationalist anywhere would ever be caught dead espousing — that Trump’s politics and agenda are so fundamentally foreign to Democrats and non-Trumpian Republicans alike.
A permanent Trump coalition effectively precludes the Republicans from retaking the White House in 2020, possibly ever. And Trump himself would continue to help the internal strife along. One side or the other*** will decide they’ve had enough and form their own third party, and that will be the end of the postwar Republican Party, the party of the Reagan governing coalition.
A New Start
It can’t happen soon enough! The Reagan coalition is dying. Literally. It has failed miserably at attracting young voters, or at producing black or Latino votes in an increasingly diverse American society, and its core voter is essentially an Angry White Pensioner. The 2012 Republican autopsy said as much. And Trump’s rise — and that of the alt-right in general — go backwards rather than forwards, firing up the core at the expense of alienating literally everyone else. Clearly, the Republicans — or their successors — will need a new base and a new charismatic politician to build a platform around.
It will take a while. Ike was a charismatic politician, but he didn’t do anything to rebuild the base; rather, after the 1932 election, the modern Republican governing majority did not get its charismatic leader for 48 years — 12 elections!
But the Republicans, once they’re severed from the toxic Trumpist wing, might be able to actually start attracting new voters. As a friend of mine puts it, the Reagan coalition is failing because it was made up of voters “on the wrong side of the animating question of postwar American history”, and the sooner it realizes this, the better. Because as long as they’re in denial (and the Trumpists are clearly in denial, to the tune of a functionally nonexistent minority vote) …
… would be able to admit that yes, their last generation of governance was based around a coalition on the losing side of what is now a half-century-old issue, and that the so-called Party of Ideas needs some damned new ideas damned fast if they hope to remain relevant at all.
But they can’t do that until they finally succeed in cutting out the cancer at their core, which itself won’t happen until their activist base stops misidentifying what their party’s cancer actually is (hint: look in the mirror). Fortunately for all involved, Donald Trump has made it both obvious and damned easy. Republican leadership needs to take this chance, and recognize that it’s okay to lose the next three cycles or so if the party (or what remains of it) comes out stronger in the end.
* This number is derived by taking the average of the three forecast models’ chances for a Clinton landslide. Amazingly, the polls-only model, not the nowcast, shows Clinton furtherest in the lead.
** I.e. Americans who aren’t Trump supporters.
*** Most likely, either (a) because the Republicans get their shit together and find a candidate who can ensure the Trumpian nominee (probably Donald J. Trump) doesn’t get nominated in 2020, leading to The Donald making his own run and fragmenting the remnants of the Republican base, or (b) because the other Republicans finally have enough and defect en masse … possibly to the Libertarians?