At the outset of the 2016 cycle, there was a great deal of hope among Republicans for their chances against Hillary Clinton. The Democrats had significant problems in the wake of eight years that had left voters dissatisfied with the direction of the country. The candidates they presented to primary voters included a number of accomplished governors, some inspiring young Senate talents, and a more ethnically and ideologically diverse field than the party has had in some time. For a number of reasons, this field failed to connect with the primary voters. The decline in trust of elites of all varieties allowed anyone who had held office to be painted as an insider. As candidates who must balance the will of donors and the populace, they lacked the fierceness of Donald Trump’s gut level appeals for dramatic change. His ability to command free media, to escape real attack until it was too late, and to bring into the primary disaffected voters who typically don’t participate in the selection process rendered many of the ideological debates moot.
As the conservative candidate with the best campaign operation, Ted Cruz ended up as his last real foe – but his inability to expand beyond his conservative wing left more moderate and secular voters turning to Trump. The speed at which he took over the Republican Party was impressive, particularly given how little money he had to spend, how easy it was for him to manipulate the media, and how he was able to do it all while going to sleep every night comfortably ensconced in Trump Tower. There would be no slumming it at Iowa or New Hampshire motels for this golden child.
The real risk for the Republican Party now is that they have a candidate who seems completely uninterested in the future of their project. He has rejected in large part what has become their agenda in recent years – a brand of fiscal conservatism focused on limiting government, reforming entitlements, and encouraging free trade and skilled immigration that we might call Ryanism – and replaced it with his nationalist form of Trumpism, which for all its inconsistencies clearly breaks with the fiscally conservative consensus on spending, entitlements, and trade.
Many in Washington seem to think that once Donald Trump loses – and he is far likelier to lose as of today than he was just a month ago – that this brand of nationalism will evaporate. They believe he is a black swan candidate who is more about name ID and celebrity appeal than about any real idea. But there is a core idea in his campaign, clear for any to see: that the elites have failed you, that they are feckless and corrupt, and that he alone as a true outsider can set things right. There are people, real people, who believe Trump is their last hope for the country, and they vote. Assuming they will stop voting after a Trump loss seems unlikely.
The worst case scenario for Republicans might be this: Trump’s latest hires, who seem less focused on winning the White House and more on what comes after, lead the Republican Party to split with the candidate and largely focus on protecting their Senate majority. In November, Trump loses in an election that is not close – say 6 points nationally – but is not so large a loss that Republicans are swept from power. The takeaway from McConnell and others is that not much needs to change – their majority was re-elected even in an awful year for the top of the ticket. Reince Priebus and the cinnamon gum swallowing Sean Spicer serve as sacrificial lambs. And a year from now, McConnell and the leadership in the Senate is making the strong case that what the GOP really needs to do to wipe the taste of Trump from their mouths is to work with President Clinton to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
If this is the course the party takes, there is a real risk of backlash, one where Trumpism supplants the ideological populism that has animated the party in recent cycles with a more inchoate nationalist populism unmoored from any principle. The small dollar donations that fueled Trump will back similar candidates, and Trump’s new project – a news network – will promote those candidates incessantly to his base of supporters. Don’t think that this is out of the question.
As comfortable as Mr. Trump may feel with Mr. Bannon’s style of politics, their unconventional alliance, and the possibility that the coming weeks could resemble a conservative publicity tour more than a conventional White House run, fueled speculation that Mr. Trump was already looking past November. In recent months, Mr. Trump and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have quietly explored becoming involved with a media holding, either by investing in one or by taking one over, according to a person close to Mr. Trump who was briefed on those discussions.
The opportunity this gives the Democrats is clear: they will have the latitude and incentives to expand their coalition, forming the equivalent of a new American Tory party. Socially liberal in the sense of redistribution and the occasional catering to identity politics appeals, Democrats will have the opening to become even more corporatist and pro-business, collaborating with groups and companies who find the Republicans too toxic to sponsor. This would give Democrats the freedom to ignore a number of their more radical members and just offer lip service to the Democratic Socialism of Bernie Sanders, instead expanding their appeal to suburban voters who have proven more difficult to win in recent years. As the only globalist game in town, the elites will naturally sort into the Democratic coalition, which currently looks to dramatically expand its foothold among the college educated. Republicans will be left with a messy coalition patched together with duct tape, which cannot agree on just about anything, including on whether they agree.
This isn’t the worst case scenario for Republicans, of course. There are always ways things could be worse. But it is still quite bad for them. The important conversation that needs to begin now, and is beginning in fits and starts, should focus on what comes next. Is it possible for leaders to bring people along and guide the fire of this populist anti-elite fervor in a productive direction? Perhaps not – but left to itself, this fire will burn uncontained. It is worth it to try.