The most remarkable thing about the tumultuous past few weeks in American politics has been the behavior not of President Trump but of the Republican Party.
People assume that political parties are immortal, but they can and do die. The Federalist Party was, in a sense, the United States’ first political party, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. But the party veered into authoritarianism and lost any ideological consistency or integrity. It finally withered after its opposition to the War of 1812 (the first time the Capitol was stormed), which was seen as treasonous.
The collapse of the Whig Party has closer historical parallels with today. Founded in opposition to Andrew Jackson, the Whig Party contained both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions. In 1848, it tried to paper over its divides by nominating a celebrity general, Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder who hadn’t been involved in politics and was opposed by most of the Whig establishment. Although he would go on to win the election, his nomination led anti-slavery Whigs to defect. Eventually, they helped establish the Republican Party, and by the late 1850s, the Whig Party had shrunk into oblivion.
Could these parallels hold today? The modern Republican Party has long harbored several factions that lived together uncomfortably — libertarians, evangelicals, states’ rights advocates and (let’s be frank) racists. They have been able to paper over the divides for decades. But in recent years, two factors have propelled the party into crisis. The first is that the Iraq War and the global financial crisis broke the back of the Republican establishment, opening the way for Trump, who appealed not to discredited party elites but to the base, with the help of raw cultural and racial rhetoric.
The second factor has been the increasing awareness of its leaders that it is really not a majority party. In the past eight presidential elections, the Republican candidate for president has won the popular vote only once — in 2004, in the wake of 9/11 and the early days of the Iraq War — a trend unprecedented in U.S. history.
Nonetheless, the electoral college and the Senate, along with gerrymandering and voter suppression, have enabled the party to win power without winning a majority. That has made it less responsive to the demands of the majority, national elites and the mainstream media. It has found a way to thrive by cultivating its own smaller ecosystem, creating its own facts, theories and heroes.
But that ecosystem is splintering. Fox News, central to the party’s ability to indoctrinate its base with myths, half-truths and falsehoods, is losing market share. (Disclosure: I host a weekly show on CNN.) The newcomers — Newsmax and One America News — are willing to enter a fantasy world where even Fox News will not go. Perhaps most important, the Republican base is shrinking, not by a huge amount but significantly. Partly, this is a matter of long-term demographics; partly, it is Trump. Polls suggest that Trump’s approval rating has now descended into the 30s, with about 50 percent of independents supporting his removal from office. Republicans in swing districts across the country may find themselves in an impossible situation: unable to get nominated unless they embrace Trump but unable to get elected if they do.
If these trends persist — a big “if” in a country where party loyalties remain very strong — we might see a dangerous dynamic. Some Republicans, both at the elite level as well as among ordinary voters, will defect from the party, unwilling to sign on to the Trump family cult. The rump Republican Party will become a minority party in more of the country. But it will be dominated by people who reject American democracy and are enamored of conspiracy theories, enraged by their powerlessness and increasingly willing to support extreme, even violent means to achieve their ends. In other words, the future Republicans in Congress may look a lot like the mob that stormed it last week.