In 2016, the Republican Party found itself in the midst of a Civil War over its future – and Republican elites recognized it too late to do anything about it.
Elected officials, Republican luminaries, and the donor class allowed themselves to believe that the old political rules and expectations, even in a time of disruptive change across all arenas of the economy and society, would reassert themselves. They allowed the experts – the political consultants, pollsters, and scientists – to guide them to the conclusion they wished to reach: that Donald Trump was a brief phenomenon who would flicker and fade.
First, they said he would not beat them. Then they convinced themselves he could not beat them. Then they convinced themselves he did not want to beat them.
It all seems amusing in retrospect – the fact that for months after the idea became ludicrous, many well-paid Republicans held on to a thin reed of hope that Trump himself did not even want to be president, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Ah, when we were so young and full of dreams of Marco Rubio.
Trumpism is now a phenomenon too great in size to be assigned to just one aspect of the party or the country. Yes, it is ultimately due to the economic and social crisis of the American working class, and their feeling of abandonment by both American political parties. Broken down into its particulars, yes, it is in part due to the failure of the Republican Party to learn accurate lessons from the George W. Bush years. Yes, it is in part due to the sycophantic media that has played to Trump’s enormous advantage. And yes, it is due to the era of Obama’s autocratic rule with pen and phone, which has seen the nation become more tribal and divided.
The fundamental question facing the Republican Party when Donald Trump arrived on the scene was whether they were going to continue to follow their consistent ideological path for much of their history, which asserts the liberty of all people to pursue their dreams, or whether they would fall prey to the lure of white identity politics. As I wrote last May:
Conservatism today encompasses a mix of ideological strains and political motives. One of its most prominent intellectual strains is classical liberalism, which holds that free people, endowed with the rights of life and liberty, exchanging property within a free market, are the best directors of their fate.
This is an inclusive message, facilitating the hopes and dreams of every man and woman of every race and creed. It understands that humanity is fallible, public institutions led by people are given to error, and therefore, the force of government ought to be used sparingly and only when absolutely necessary. This strain has allowed libertarians who believe in limited government and individual freedom to work together with conservatives despite the many philosophical differences between them.
But the political program that has been emerging in the Republican Party in recent years does not resemble this. Instead, it sadly amounts to little more than identity politics for white folks. It is a crass and often anti-intellectual trend that is wedded to persistent (and often left-wing) fictions about the threat of economic freedom and creative destruction. But it remains a powerful force within the American right and arises in electoral politics as regularly as stomach acid from too much red meat. From it are born many pernicious beliefs: One, government must act to subdue the impulses of free individuals, even if there is no clear or direct harm to others. Two, government bureaucrats, instead of the market, ought to determine how many people from which countries and in what careers ought to be allowed to live and work in America. Three, the global free enterprise system, driven by technology and trade, is a destructive economic force that rewards the haves and punishes the have-nots, and must be tamed through mandates, tariffs, and subsidies. And four, broad-based social engineering is needed to counter government and market failures and to sustain an idealized version of American society (think Leave it to Beaver but where a mustachioed Ward works in a steel mill in perpetuity).
There has been a great deal of pixels spilled concerning the war within the GOP over the past several years, but it turns out to not have been particularly accurate to who the players were, in part because it largely ignored the differences between the strains of populist frustration with Republican leadership. The Tea Party largely represented an inherently ideological critique of the GOP – that it had lost touch with its fiscally conservative roots, failed to live up to their limited government promises, and allowed Barack Obama (and to a degree George W. Bush) to run roughshod over the Constitution.
Conservative elites rightly viewed the Tea Party as an ally in their case against the GOP’s elected leaders and party establishment figures, and channeled that populist outrage into new institutions and toward new candidates who toppled incumbents and Washington-favored choices in favor of new and more ideologically driven politicians.
The weakness of the Tea Party – if you could call it a weakness – is that it is a fundamentally ideological movement. It has principles and believed its politicians ought to be held accountable to those principles. This makes it more predictable and easier to manage – and Mitch McConnell and other leaders, once sideswiped by the outburst, worked very hard to learn how to manage it. These factors led to the Tea Party’s absorption, just as all successful political movements are absorbed, as just another part of the Republican Party’s base – they forced the party to have different priorities, yes, but they were now firmly part of it.
For quite some time, the mistake the Republican and conservative elites made was thinking that the outburst of Trumpism was similarly predictable – that his supporters too would have ideological factors which would make Donald Trump’s political inconsistencies on every issue under the sun a liability. But this ignores how identity politics behaves in practice. The ideological issues – the inconsistencies on bailouts, immigration, war, abortion, and virtually every issue except for his own stupendousness – don’t matter when Trump’s inherent message amounts to such a basic identity politics appeal: I will look out for you.
There is some good to be found in this, however, as I noted in National Review. “President Obama’s core domestic-policy agenda was designed to pull working- and middle-class voters left. It assumed that once they received the government’s redistributive largesse, they would be invested in maintaining it — and maintaining the Left in power. Trump’s rise bespeaks the utter failure of this program for the American working class: They have seen the Left’s agenda up close and do not believe it is good enough to make a nation great.”
They want more. Now, what they want in the immediate does not look like limited government conservatism. If the Tea Party’s mantra was “no more bailouts”, the Trump army’s mantra is “where’s my bailout?” And for nationalist Republicans, Independents, and disaffected Democrats, this is a message that has far greater appeal than many might have imagined. It will continue to be a challenge moving forward for conservatives to offer a message that appeals to these impulses in a healthy manner, not in the vengeful attitude of Trumpism.
Last August, I posed the question: are Republicans for freedom or for white identity politics? Trump has proven that a sizable enough portion of the party and of willing crossover voters are emphatically in favor of the latter. He is as of today poised to win the nomination of the party over the objections of the Republican elites, who settled at long last on Marco Rubio as their vehicle, and the frustrations of conservatives, who are holding out hopes for Ted Cruz. Neither was able or willing to settle on the other in time to make a difference.
The success Donald Trump has found tells us a great deal about the weaknesses of both factions – but most of all, it shows us what can happen when you realize you are locked in a battle to the death over the future of your party only after the voting starts.