But then Donald Trump came along. And once he’s gone, Republicans are going to need a whole new autopsy.
You can see it in the way GOP officeholders have reacted to the president’s latest eruption of racist bile. But first, I want to look at some key inflection points that brought Republicans to where they are today, and set them on a path they will find almost impossible to deviate from even as their long-term prospects get worse and worse.
Around the same time that 2012 autopsy was being prepared, four Republicans and four Democrats in the Senate tried to fashion a comprehensive immigration reform that would be acceptable to both parties. Their bill included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and beefed-up border protections. It passed the Senate by a 68-to-32 vote. But the bill died in the House after then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) decided his tea party members would never go for it.
One of the so-called Gang of Eight, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), suddenly found himself vilified by conservative media as a traitor to the cause. He ran for president in 2016 anyway, and discovered, like other Republicans, that his party wasn’t after what he thought it was.
It turned out that what Republican primary voters wanted was a xenophobic bigot who wasn’t shy about making explicit appeals to white nationalism. In terms of the effect Trump was having on the party, the most revealing moment may have been one that few noticed. It was when Rubio, his campaign faltering, aired an ad in which he said, “This election is about the essence of America, about all of us who feel out of place in our own country.”
The cruel irony was that the whole point of Marco Rubio was supposed to be that he didn’t feel out of place in the new America. Young, bilingual and fond of quoting hip-hop lyrics, Rubio was supposed to be the one who could translate conservative ideology to a diverse electorate. And, now, here he was trying to sound like a 70-year-old white guy angry because he heard someone speaking Spanish down at the grocery store.
It failed, of course. And Trump managed, through a series of fortuitous events — the help of the Kremlin, the backstop of the electoral college — to become president despite losing nationally by nearly 3 million votes.
As you watch Republican lawmakers run the other way when asked about Trump’s latest racist comments, remember that they are caught in a dilemma. They know they had a long-term problem before Trump, and he has made it worse. How would you like to try to convince minority voters that the GOP welcomes them?
But those same Republicans also know that their constituents are the very people who put Trump in the White House. His voters don’t just tolerate Trump’s racism, they cheer it.
The GOP also knows that its power is built on a series of structural factors — the electoral college, the fact that the Senate gives the same two votes to Wyoming’s 577,000 voters (84 percent white) as it does to California’s 39.6 million (only 37 percent white), and a more advantageous distribution of voters across congressional districts — that enable them to hold power even when they lose.
To make the most of those structural advantages, they’ve added other efforts, including aggressive gerrymandering and voter suppression, intended to make it as difficult as possible for African Americans, Latinos and young people to vote. All of which has combined to not only make the GOP the party of white people, but make it a party that must stay the party of white people, lest it lose the power it does have.
In the short and medium term, this strategy — appeal only to white voters, keep them as threatened and angry about increasing diversity as possible, and rig the system to give their votes more weight — is extraordinarily effective, morally abhorrent though it might be.
But it gets more difficult to pull off by the year. And when it stops working, Republicans will be faced with a choice: Overhaul their identity to become an inclusive party, or cling to the whites-only strategy even more fiercely.
If they did the former, it would be risky: It might produce temporary setbacks as some of their angry white voters become disinterested in a party that fails to provide them the red meat of hate and fear that Trump so enthusiastically serves up. But it would also create a way forward that could keep the party relevant in years to come.
The problem is that politicians have a hard time seeing past the next election. And if they conclude, “Forget about 2030 or 2040, the only way we can win this next election is to dance with the white nationalists that brung us,” then that’s what they’re going to do.