There is supposedly a schism in the Republican Party. You see it on TV, you read about it in the legacy conservative journals, and you see it discussed at length on social media. It isn’t real, but that doesn’t much matter; it appears to be real, and so it must be dealt with. We are to believe that a power struggle has been engaged between the establishment wing of the GOP led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Rep. Liz Cheney against the Trump wing of the party, which is nearly everyone else including, importantly, the voters.
It is entirely clear that the establishment wants Trump excised from the party even though the voters do not, but this misses a larger point. What McConnell and all of the right-leaning anti-Trumpers don’t understand, what they have never understood, is that the Trump phenomenon is not first and foremost a cult of personality, it is a set of policies and a worldview. Getting rid of Trump, even if that were possible, would not change that. The GOP of the last 30 years is over. To see what has replaced it, we must go back those 30 years.
1992 saw the first post-Cold War presidential election. In it, both the Republicans with George Bush and the Democrats with Bill Clinton chose a neoliberal, global-minded vision for their parties. But with so little daylight between them, a lane was created for other ideas and voices. Two figures would compete and ultimately lose in 1992 that presage Trump and the current populist moment on the right.
The first was an outspoken, boisterous billionaire who promised he would run Washington like a business. This of course was Ross Perot, who in 1992 ran the most successful third-party challenge for the presidency in modern history, garnering nearly 20 percent of the popular vote. And it wasn’t just his outsider status that relates him to Trump. It was also very much his policy approach.
Perot’s signature line was about the great sucking sound of jobs going to Mexico. He ran first and foremost on protectionist economic policies meant to keep jobs in the United States. He was also very suspicious about immigration and its effects on American workers. Finally, Perot was an anti-war candidate who did not believe the first Gulf War achieved its aims.
So here we have a billionaire businessman, opposed to trade deals, opposed to open immigration, and opposed to foreign entanglements. Is that starting to sound familiar? One area Perot seemed less interested in, or at least less focused on, was the culture war. But there was another figure in the 1992 race that was very much interested in it.
Much to the chagrin of the GOP in 1992, Patrick Buchanan launched a long-shot primary challenge against Bush. Front and center in the Buchanan campaign was a fight for the culture of America. He believed America was losing its way and its roots in the Judeo-Christian and Western traditions. He believed that Republicans were simply throwing in the towel on a whole host of social issues, from gay rights to school choice. Although he would lose to Bush, he did well enough to earn a convention speech that year, one that has become known famously as the culture war speech. Here’s a line from the opening, referring to that year’s Democratic convention. Who does this remind you of?
My friends, like many of you last month, I watched that giant masquerade ball up at Madison Square Garden — where 20,000 liberals and radicals came dressed up as moderates and centrists — in the greatest single exhibition of cross-dressing in American political history.
This is downright Trumpian. Not only was Buchanan attacking the excesses of the left, he was doing it in a mocking tone. At the time, the concept of political correctness, which 30 years later Trump would say is “killing us,” was new. But Buchanan was already railing against it. Long before Andrew Breitbart said it, Buchanan understood that politics is downstream from culture.
If further evidence is needed regarding the Reform Party roots of Trump, we need to look no further than the 2000 election, the last serious stand of Perot’s new party. Two names emerged as the top contenders for the presidential nomination of the Reform Party that year. One was Pat Buchanan. The other was Donald Trump.
By 2016, we had in Trump a single figure that brought together Perot’s populist and protectionist domestic and foreign policies along with Buchanan’s scrappy culture warrior status. But that still would not have been enough. The other key component would be the electorate itself, a shift Trump saw when almost nobody else did.
Throughout the 1990s, the Reform Party was a 20 percent party. That is to say somewhere around a fifth to a quarter of the country was sympathetic to its vision. The ’90s were, after all, pretty happy-go-lucky. The neoliberal approach from both Republicans and Democrats seemed to be more or less working. There was no appetite for major change.
The 21st century would change that. After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the United States would embark on a new forever war. The opening of Chinese markets would put continued pressure on the American workforce, which was told time and time again that manufacturing jobs were not coming back. More towns, especially in the Rust Belt, were failing by the wayside of globalism.
On the cultural front, we would begin to hear all about our white privilege. Our kids would start learning a version of American history in which we were the bad guys. It was insisted that men can become women, Christian bakers were forced to bake cakes for gay weddings, and Catholic nuns were forced to pay for abortions. In almost every way, the problems described by the Reform Party 25 years earlier had all just gotten worse.
This was the political landscape that existed as Trump emerged as a candidate for the 2016 race. He tore through his competition not on the force of his personality, but on the force of his ideas, almost all of which have their roots back in 1992. Republican primary voters had had it with the establishment. They wanted change. They wanted a candidate who put their interests first, not the interests of a grand global, capitalist project, but the interest of the American worker and citizen.
If McConnell and Cheney succeed in pushing Trump to the sidelines, it won’t matter. Their Republican Party, the one that went along to get along, the one that wanted no piece of the culture war, the one that preferred to create a backstop of judges rather than using government to help the American people, is finished. It no longer speaks for the voters if it ever did.
Those who tilt at the vain windmill of going back to the old GOP would have the party resurrect its support among suburban whites. But why? The lesson of 2020 was that Trump’s populism, rooted in the Reform Party, opens opportunities to working-class and non-white voters that are far more promising. Republican voters want more than the defensive Republican politics of the past 30 years, they want a new aggressive form of politics that advances their interests rather than slows down the erosion of their America.
There is no going back, and if that means losing some elections, it means losing some elections. Perot lost, and Buchanan lost — but did they? In fact, over time their ideas gained ascendency in the GOP and now define it. This is about much more than Trump. It always has been. The future of the Republican Party belongs to whoever can marshal the new GOP and expand its reach. That means putting the American people first. Republican voters will accept nothing less.