Donald Trump and the Republican Schism of 2016

The Republican Party of the last forty years is unraveling. Donald Trump is the straw that broke the elephant’s back.

A portrait of businessman Donald Trump is seen in West Des Moines, Iowa, January 23, 2016 (Tony Webster)

Unless Donald Trump were to unexpectedly suffer losses across the dozen states that hold their presidential nominating contests on Tuesday, it is hard to imagine how the property tycoon’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party could lead to anything but a schism on the American right.

The last 72 hours saw an escalation of the farce that the Republican presidential contest has descended into. Trump traded his most vulgar barbs yet with his closest competitor, Marco Rubio. He unwittingly quoted Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and quite deliberately refused to disavow the Ku Klux Klan, despite being asked to several times on a Sunday morning news program.

NBC News argues that the Republican Party is “coming apart before our very eyes.” The Cook Political Report‘s Amy Walter agrees. “It’s been divided for years,” she tweets, “but Trump is [the] catalyst for its ‘creative destruction’.”

Not too late

A Trump nomination is still uncertain. The “Super Tuesday” contests tomorrow should give plenty of delegates to the other candidates and may help winnow the field further. The winner-takes-all primaries in Florida and Ohio later in March also look unfavorable to Trump.

The New York Times reported this weekend that the party is making contingency plans, including challenging Trump at the nominating convention in Cleveland, Ohio this summer if no candidate wins a majority of the delegates beforehand.

Trump’s outrageous and outright racist comments may yet catch up with him. His voters didn’t care when he proposed to ban all Muslims from the country or suggested that protesters at a rally of his should be “roughened up,” but who knows? Maybe associating himself with the Ku Klux Klan will be a bridge too far.

If anything, it could harden opposition to him. Only around a third of Republican voters have supported Trump so far. If the rest finally had enough (and take a look at these comments collected by Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View to restore your faith in the sanity of ordinary conservatives), they could coalesce around a single challenger (probably Rubio) and deny him the nomination after all. It’s not too late.

Lasting damage

It probably is too late to repair the damage Trump has done to the Republican Party, though.

As we reported earlier this month, Trump has already ruined its brand with Hispanic voters. Blacks haven’t particularly cared for the party since the last realignment, which saw Southern white voters move away from the Democrats when they supported civil rights in the 1960s and 70s. They’re unlikely to change their minds now.

The biggest damage to Republicans may have been done with reasonable middle-class voters of every complexion.

The Atlantic Sentinel has argued that Republicans need to be the party of the middle class if they want to win back the presidency. Voters in the middle, in states like Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, decide who becomes president, not resentful poor whites in Alabama or Tennessee. The former care about bread-and-butter issues like affordable health care and higher education. A party that doesn’t even talk about these issues, let alone offer solutions for them, has no future in the twenty-first century.

Last hurrah

Republicans who haven’t lost their minds are pinning their hopes on Rubio, but he only looks like the future of the Republican Party. (“Like a Benetton commercial,” joked Nikki Haley, the Indian American governor of South Carolina, who endorsed him.) His policy, as we have pointed out, is really the last hurrah of Bush Republicanism. Rubio is more alarmist about Islamic terror than the last Republican president and far too reactionary on cultural issues like gay marriage and gun rights to appeal to moderate and young voters.

Politico has called Rubio the second coming of Mitt Romney, the 2012 candidate. The similarities range “from policy platforms that are largely in sync to a brain trust that boasts a number of the same key figures.” Of course he’s more electable than Trump, but that is a low bar. The only thing Rubio does is put a friendlier face on a platform that has failed Republicans in two presidential elections so far.

This would seem to confirm Daniel Berman’s thesis that political parties need to go through three election cycles to recover from a bad defeat.

The first loss is written up to bad luck. This is what Republicans did in 2008. Given George W. Bush’s unpopularity at the time and John McCain’s disastrous choice for vice president, few Republicans could have been surprised they lost.

The second defeat “is usually written up to the candidates,” according to Berman, “either the unusual strength of the incumbent or the flawed nature of their opponent.” This is what happened in 2012.

It makes sense then to find a better candidate to sell the same policies. Hence Rubio.

Now he needs to lose before Republicans will admit they have a deeper problem.

It took Britain’s Labour Party three defeats between 1979 and 1987 for it to admit it had veered too far to the left — and then one more defeat, in 1992, before it choose a leader who could appeal to voters in the middle.

Democrats in the United States similarly had to lose three presidential elections between 1980 and 1988 before they recognized that they too needed to reinvent themselves as a more centrist party.

The Republican Party is in the middle of a similar realization. It has yet to come to terms with the failures of the Bush Administration. Trump, who has said Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction to invade Iraq, is a sign that at least it’s starting to. But this won’t be done in time for the next election.


However Trump loses — and there is still little reason to assume he eventually won’t — Walter is right: he is, or should be, the catalyst for a systemic shift.

Nate Silver writes at FiveThirtyEight that many elections are hailed as transformative but seldom are. “This time,” though, “we really might be in the midst of one.”

It’s almost impossible to reconcile this year’s Republican nomination contest with anyone’s notion of “politics as usual.”

One indicator of a realignment could be how many self-declared supporters of a party vote against their own candidate.

Silver points out that between 1968 and 1972, a quarter to a third of Democrats defected to the Republican candidate, Richard Nixon, who broke the “New Deal” coalition on the left.

In 1992, around one in four Republicans voted for Patrick Buchanan in the primaries and Ross Perot in the general election: nativist candidates who in many ways, except crassness, presaged the Trump phenomenon.

More and more conservatives, if not many elected officials, have started declaring in recent days that they would vote for a third-party candidate, or not vote at all, if Trump is nominated. A split, not necessarily a realignment, looks imminent.

Even if Republicans manage to defeat Trump at the eleventh hour, he has unraveled something that cannot be put back together again. The Republican Party as it has existed for the last forty years is done. What comes next?

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