President Trump capitalized on unhinged anger that had been brewing for years on the right — among talk radio listeners and Fox News viewers, among anti-immigrant groups fanning fear of brown-skinned newcomers, among more “respectable” pundits spinning a tale that the “establishment” had betrayed “real” Americans. With Hillary Clinton there to generate a vicious Pavlovian response on the right, Trump squeaked by with some substantial help from Russians, who either fantastically understood the dynamic on the right or had some direction as to where to direct their social media messaging.
Like the proverbial dog that caught the bus, the GOP now finds it impossible to govern rationally with an irrational base and equally irrational media echo chamber. McKay Coppins writes:
“Trump seems uniquely able to give voice to voters’ anger, but incapable of channeling it towards a larger purpose,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist whose firm released a client memo on Friday featuring data that suggested the president’s endorsement had no impact whatsoever in the Alabama race.
At this point, Conant said, no one can predict how the roiling anger in the conservative electorate will manifest itself during next year’s midterms—but it’s unlikely it will subside anytime soon. “We need to be honest about the fact that there are some powerful people inside the Republican Party who have no interest in governing,” he told me. “They’re focused like a laser on decapitating the party’s leadership, and have no interest in growing the party’s base into a lasting majority.” The resulting dysfunction, he said, will only further inflame voters’ frustrations.
In other words, if politicians and voters on the right and center-right want rational, productive governance, they need a new base of voters. That sounds strange. A party or section of a party that wants to fire its base? Well, that is precisely what happened in the 1960s, when the Democrats unloaded white Southern anti-integrationists, ceding the South to the GOP. It could do so because the population in the North and Midwest was growing, minorities were registering and voting in large numbers and previously non-voting or infrequent-voting segments of American electorate (e.g. the youth vote, legal immigrants) sided with Democrats.
The GOP post-civil rights era was whiter, more hostile to government and more susceptible to populist rhetoric. Ramesh Ponnuru, one of the few Republicans willing to own up to this history, wrote in 2010:
In some cases these conservative positions were motivated by straightforward support for an official policy of white supremacy, or by a desire to enlist segregationist southern Democrats in the burgeoning conservative movement. But some people held these positions while also sincerely wishing for segregation to end. They believed that their conservative principles — principles that do not on their face entail hostility to blacks — compelled opposition to the civil-rights movement’s platform. Most critics place Goldwater in this group.
Notwithstanding the right’s attempt to rewrite history, in practice this meant the right opportunistically seized the segment of the electorate the Democrats had abandoned, and with it a segment of voters who seethed with white grievance. Many of these voters treated the 1968 campaign of George Wallace as a way station, winding up as card-carrying Republicans. The objects of Wallace’s ire from the vantage point of the Trump years are remarkably familiar — “pointy-headed” intellectuals, urban elites, liberal media, foreigners and advocates for racial justice.
Just as the pre-civil-rights-era Democratic Party had coped with an odd coalition of Southern whites, New England conservatives, farmers, Rust Belt industrial workers, etc., the GOP for a time balanced the competing demands of business, social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, Midwest traditionalists, libertarian Westerners, etc. As the parties became ideologically monochromatic and Southern whites (i.e. evangelical Christians) became the indispensable core of the party, the GOP coalition that lasted through 2008 — and routinely subsumed the more populist, white grievance elements in the party (e.g. Pat Buchanan) — splintered. Two presidential defeats, a shopworn set of policy prescriptions, a right-wing media echo chamber built on irrational fear and baseless resentment and the widening chasm between red/rural America and blue/urban America left the old GOP “establishment” bruised and sclerotic.
Now with the reins of power firmly in hand, the shell of a great national party finds itself at the whim of what amounts to a mob. The populist mob, amplified by the right-wing media, seeks contradictory things (repeal Obamacare, but don’t touch their health care) and remains mesmerized by a set of economic fables (e.g. immigrants steal jobs). Its political identity is warped by resentment of minorities, secular Americans and immigrants. The mob seeks emotional catharsis, not tangible, incremental change. Unsurprisingly, its political leaders are now virtually indistinguishable from the right-wing entertainers who for a couple decades fanned their white grievance. The core of Trump’s base is immovable because it is irrational; experience and evidence will not influence it.
Rather than pursue the fruitless effort to woo and persuade these voters, traditional Republicans should consider reverse-engineering their party. Their beliefs — support for free-market economics with a safety net; American leadership in the world; defense of institutions that restrain demagogic power and faith in government not to solve all problems, but to create conditions that solve some problems; support for civic virtues (empathy, civility, etc.) — may find a following among suburbanites, college-educated voters, immigrants, nontraditional families (who have been scorned by social conservatives), millennials, small-business people, workers in the New Economy and Democrats and independents resistant to that party’s tilt toward Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Western European-style democratic socialism. Maybe that’s enough to form a viable national party; perhaps it’s merely half of a new coalition with center-left, disaffected Democrats.
Does that sound a bit shaky, a proposition without a clear path to success? Indeed, but just as Democrats in the 1960s had to make the leap from the party of Southern segregationists to the party of civil rights, so, too, will Republicans who want rational governance reflective of their democratic ideals need to leave the party of Trump and find their own way in a chaotic political environment. If you cannot abide by the ethos that infuses a party’s base, you need to find a new base.