The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Will the GOP become the party of white backlash?

A white-nationalist demonstrator in Charlottesville in August 2017.
A white-nationalist demonstrator in Charlottesville in August 2017. (Steve Helber/AP)

With President Trump’s forthcoming nomination of a Supreme Court justice likely to rally and unify the Republican coalition, some commentators are (again) declaring the end of #NeverTrump conservatism. “On issue after issue,” says the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Henry Olsen , the #NeverTrumpers “are in the minority of their own party.” According to Emerald Robinson, writing in the American Spectator , they are “preposterously out of touch.” Robinson points to the passing of columnist Charles Krauthammer as an indication that “the eclipse of the neocon intellectuals is complete.” Nothing like dancing on the fresh soil of a giant’s grave.

It is difficult to deny Trump’s strength in the base of the Republican Party, evidenced by the degree of political intimidation many elected Republicans feel. But the most interesting and important questions remain: Is Trumpism a compelling ideological basis for the Republican Party in the future? Is it really the wave of the political future?

It should give the advocates of Trumpism — defined by some mix of protectionism, nativism and bitter resentment of elites — pause that the strongest advocates of the creed are some of the most frightening figures in American politics. I am not necessarily referring to the politicians Trump chooses to endorse in primaries — given that the president’s favor is more based on loyalty than ideology. I am talking about that subset of Republicans who take the ideals of Trumpism most seriously. People such as West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship, who, before losing the primary, ran ads highlighting the Taiwanese heritage of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. Or Iowa Rep. Steve King, who argues, “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Or Arizona Senate candidate and former sheriff Joe Arpaio , known for extreme ethnic profiling, terrorist raids, and cruel and unusual punishment. Or Virginia Senate candidate Corey A. Stewart, who has associated with white supremacists and thrown his state party into turmoil.

If politicians focused on issues important to black women, everyone would benefit, including President Trump's base, says Global Opinions Editor Karen Attiah. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The phenomenon of Republican extremism is hardly new. At the height of the tea-party movement, the GOP had candidate fitness crises in Nevada, Delaware, Colorado, Missouri and Indiana. But two things are now different. First, the GOP establishment is weaker than at any time I can remember. Second, the rhetoric of Trumpism is more explicitly racial than at any time I can remember.

For a party at its height of influence, Republicans remain in a tenuous position at the national level because of Trump. They lost the popular vote count by nearly 3 million in the 2016 presidential election, and Trump has done almost nothing to expand his appeal. Long-term demographic trends are running against the GOP, with the non-Hispanic white population declining from 76 percent to 63 percent over the past two decades and the country on track to be majority minority by 2045 .

Some Trumpites are brutally honest about the political challenge in this environment. “I believe that white voters will begin voting for Republicans in larger numbers than they do now,” says Thomas O’Malley in American Thinker. The political challenge for the GOP, in the meantime, is to “seriously reduce immigration and encourage population growth within the country.” Which clearly means population growth in that portion of the country with less melanin.

The problem? Trump already won the white vote by more than 20 percentage points in 2016. So how does the GOP rack up even greater white support? If Trump’s political strategy is any indication, this will involve a relentless emphasis on race and immigration — on kneeling black athletes, on immigrants who “infest” our country, and on Muslims who are targeted for suspicion.

A strategy of feeding white backlash against a multicultural future worked for Trump — barely — in 2016. Will it work for Republicans in 2018 and 2020? Perhaps, if Democrats move precipitously to the left. But in the longer run, will Trumpism appeal to millennials (who now consistently give Trump around a 25 percent approval rating )? Will it work with suburban women?

And what are the moral implications of a political strategy that employs racial and ethnic antagonism as a motivating factor? Is this really the set of values that Republican leaders want their children to absorb? Will conservatives so easily abandon conservatism for white identity politics? It is an approach to public life that will indelibly stain all who employ it — and all who excuse it.

“This is the question for Republicans going forward,” Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report told me. “Will the GOP be defined not just as the party of Trump but as the party that’s hostile to non-whites?” And what if there is no difference?

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