What Would a Trump Victory Tell Us About the Republican Party?
I remain on record as saying that Trump will not be the nominee. I believe that his polling numbers are significantly overstated by virtue of an echo chamber effect, in which media reporting translates into declared popular support. and by sampling issues, in which polls assume that unlikely voters will actually vote. At the end of the day, my continued belief is that Trump will disappoint in Iowa (substantially), will crater in New Hampshire, and will then get out of the Republican race in an effort to avoid further embarrassment.
Obviously I have a position here, but it may well be influenced by the fact that I would like it to happen. The bottom line is that we will not know if I am right or wrong until February, no matter what anyone says in the meantime. There is no reason to rush to judgment, no reason (yet) to declare that everyone’s (current) favorite political science book The Party Decides got it wrong.
With that said, we are now less than a week away from the Iowa caucuses, with no hard evidence of a collapse in sight. So it is a worthwhile exercise to work through the prospect that I am wrong, and that Trump does become the nominee.
Below, I offer a list of assumptions that, if true, could result in a Trump nomination. None of these are predictions, per se. It’s just that some combination of them needs to be true for Trump to be the nominee. In other words, if Trump were to make an acceptance speech in Cleveland in July, what would we have learned about American politics?
1. Movement conservatism was never nearly as popular – or as vital within the Republican Party – as we thought.
What if the three-legged stool of conservatism – the combination of fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and a strong national defense – was never all that popular to begin with?
Call this the Samuel Francis hypothesis. Michael Brendan Dougherty from The Week uncovered a long-forgotten piece by Francis on the 1996 Pat Buchanan campaign. The essential hypothesis is that the ideas of movement conservatism – free trade, lower marginal tax rates, the free market, a small safety net – have never been all that popular among voters, and that a Republican candidate would be better off attacking neoliberalism in all its forms – including the version accepted by many elected Republicans – and embracing a more nationalist perspective.
Put it another way: Is it really that likely that the average voter from Kentucky is animated by a low marginal tax rate on the wealthy for philosophical reasons? Or is it more likely that Republican voter support for this agenda came from cultural affinities and delegated trust?
Let’s create a stylized example. John Smith from Kentucky is a coal miner who only supported Mitch McConnell on economics because he trusted that McConnell had his interests in mind. Sure, the idea of free trade and unlimited campaign donations might not seem like great ideas on the surface, but to Smith, McConnell is a Christian and a man who cares about coal country. There was a cultural affinity that dominated: at his core, McConnell is a patriot and portrays himself as such. McConnell wins election after election, but Smith’s life is not improved; indeed, coal jobs continue to disappear. McConnell hasn’t come through. Meanwhile, McConnell is now the Majority Leader of the Republicans in the Senate, and Ted Cruz is screaming about his treachery.
Once Mr. Smith loses trust in McConnell, he might look elsewhere. He looks at the Democratic nominee, who is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage, and who was spoken highly of by Hollywood (!) actor Ashley Judd, and Smith wants no part of that. So normally, Smith votes for McConnell, reluctantly, and the band plays on.
But what if there is a candidate who genuinely appeals to Smith’s frustrations? He criticizes the globalized elite in Washington, DC, where everyone is in on the game and benefits from the largesse of multinational corporations. He proclaims that the job losses from the last twenty years are only because the elite was “stupid” and didn’t have Smith’s interests in mind.
So, all of a sudden, Smith has a third option: it’s not merely the cultural liberalism of the godless Democrats and the economic indifference of the well-fed Republicans. Someone, finally, has his interests in mind. The intellectual case for limited powers seems much less persuasive after decades of stagnation.
Smith is a stylized example that treads in some serious stereotyping. But as an analytical exercise: is it that implausible that 40 percent of Republican voters are closer to Smith than to a form of movement conservatism?
A Trump victory would likely signify, to an extent, that movement conservatism was never very popular,
2. There was a deep undercurrent of disaffected potential voters who were waiting for their champion for a long time.
Perhaps the answer is not that John Smith has been voting for candidates he didn’t agree with on most issues. Perhaps Smith, instead of being a loyal McConnell voter, is a non-voter who has always tuned out McConnell and the Democratic alternatives, and Trump has found this untapped vein in the mine of American politics.
Let’s quickly break this out; below are some Iowa caucus numbers in the last few cycles where there was no sitting Republican president.
|Year||Total Votes||Estimated IA Pop.||Share of Pop.|
Basically, under normal circumstances, there’s something in the neighborhood of three to four percent of the population of Iowa that caucuses. If this holds, we should expect maybe 125,000 caucusers this time around. If Trump has truly tapped into something significant that was dormant in American politics, we might see a substantially higher share, maybe closer to six or seven percent of Iowans, as well as a smashing Trump victory.
(But we should be clear. Historically, an incredibly small share of Iowans actually caucus, and Trump is doing something almost unprecedented in American politics: he is attempting a hostile takeover of a party. The challenge of polling this race should not be understated.)
3. Style affinities are now enough to override seemingly intractable policy differences.
When Trump is forced to answer questions of substance, he is at his cringe-inducing worst:
Panelist Hugh Hewitt: “Mr. Trump, Dr. Carson just referenced the single most important job of the president, the command, the control, and the care of our nuclear forces. And he mentioned the triad. The B-52s are older than I am. The missiles are old. The submarines are aging out. It’s an executive order. It’s a commander-in-chief decision.
“What’s your priority among our nuclear triad?”
Trump: “Well, first of all, I think we need somebody absolutely that we can trust, who is totally responsible; who really knows what he or she is doing. That is so powerful and so important. And one of the things that I’m frankly most proud of is that in 2003, 2004, I was totally against going into Iraq because you’re going to destabilize the Middle East. I called it. I called it very strongly. And it was very important.
“But we have to be extremely vigilant and extremely careful when it comes to nuclear. Nuclear changes the whole ball game. Frankly, I would have said get out of Syria; get out — if we didn’t have the power of weaponry today. The power is so massive that we can’t just leave areas that 50 years ago or 75 years ago we wouldn’t care. It was hand-to-hand combat.
“The biggest problem this world has today is not President Obama with global warming, which is inconceivable, this is what he’s saying. The biggest problem we have is nuclear — nuclear proliferation and having some maniac, having some madman go out and get a nuclear weapon. That’s in my opinion, that is the single biggest problem that our country faces right now.
Hewitt: “Of the three legs of the triad, though, do you have a priority? I want to go to Senator Rubio after that and ask him.”
Trump: “I think — I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me.”
One almost feels embarrassed for the man as he stumbles around this answer, but Trump’s utterly abysmal answer on this question had no effect on his polling. At this stage, it appears that his supporters simply do not care that Trump does not have the understanding of the issues that one expects a presidential candidate to have. Indeed, Trump’s resilience in the face of his utter lack of substance might be because there just has not been much substance in this campaign at all. No one has given a memorable speech comparable to Mitt Romney’s speech on religion in 2007, or Barack Obama’s speech at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in the same year. Accordingly, there have not been particularly robust debates on policy; so far, most everything has been focused on broad attitudes. The wide-open Republican field seems to have foreclosed much in the way of sincere policy debates.
This lack of substance has played right into Donald Trump’s hands. Trump was queried on the following topics at the most recent Republican debate:
- Banning refugees
- Questions on the birther attack.
- “Anger” in politics
- Limits on gun sales
- “New York values”
- Banning Muslims
- A massive tariff on Chinese goods
- Disentangling from business investments
The only question of actual substance was on the 45 percent tariff; the others were all about vague impressions that required no policy expertise or fluency at all. On the whole, Trump’s campaign has been remarkably devoid of actual policy substance. His campaign is largely based on himself – his personality, his being, his essence – as the apotheosis of governance: that only through Trump can we achieve national greatness; that Trump, personally, is a “winner”; that his opponents and the established status quo are “stupid”; that Trump is the answer to the problems of American democracy and society, and it has nothing to do with structures of power or reasonable limits and everything to do with individuals – Trump and all of the others.
Trump “gladly accept[s] the mantle of anger” and rails against the status quo. That his stated policy affinities, such as they exist, are all over the political spectrum is irrelevant, in this reading.
If he wins, Trump will have leveraged years of personal and professional fame into a presidential nomination. Republicans accused Obama’s 2008 campaign of vapidity and celebrity, and I (still) believe they (or we) had a point: Obama deliberately portrayed himself as something of a blank canvas that many types of voters could support. But Trump’s campaign has taken a tendency and has converted it into an exclusive method.
4. Christianity is less of a factor on the Right than advertised.
Although the share of Christians in both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party has declined, as of 2015, 82 percent of Republicans are self-described Christians. Much of the party remains suspicious of non-religious people; specifically, 70 percent of Republicans say they would be less likely to support a candidate who does not believe in God. (And that sort of thing might be more than Republicans merely rejecting atheism; for these voters, belief in “God” might necessitate belief in the Christian conception of God.)
To put it lightly, Trump does not present himself as a Christian in the way that most Republican political leaders do. He has been divorced twice, and is unrepentant about it. He claims to have never asked God for forgiveness. And he barely even tries to pander to religious voters. Much of Trump’s expression of religion seems to come from a sort of American religious chauvinism, where it all boils down to tropes like “We’ll be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ in this country again.” A lot of Christians sympathize with that position – or that positioning – but it would be surprising to me if the genuine Christians of the Right thought that this was good enough to earn their support over a true believer.
If Trump were to win Iowa, it might signify that the religiosity of Republican voters was overstated.
5. Some Republicans overestimated their ability to beat Trump in a head-to-head race.
In the last week, we’ve seen a plethora of former and current elected officials in the Republican Party offer kind words for Trump. Among other Republicans, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, Newt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani have also had kind words to say.
Gingrich is unpredictable and really always has been. It seems, though, that these Republicans – two senior Senators, a former House Speaker, and the former “Mayor of the World” – might be running interference for their establishment allies. If Trump defeats Cruz in Iowa, Cruz is substantially weakened. Once Cruz is cut down, then the officeholders can turn their attention to Trump.
This is clever but also risky. A Trump victory in Iowa would bolster his “winner” narrative and likely carry him through New Hampshire. Trump is still unacceptable to a substantial share of the party, so an Iowa/New Hampshire double shot for Trump might not carry him through to the nomination. Still, Trump victories in the first two states would certainly put Trump’s odds into the area of “plausible” at minimum, and more likely “substantial.” Certainly, unthinking media coverage would pronounce him the presumptive nominee, presenting the risk of a fait accompli. And if the only candidate who has the resources and network to survive a Trump blitzkrieg is Jeb Bush, there is no guarantee that Bushworld can defeat Trump. Jeb Bush’s unfavorable ratings are just staggering, and his performance in debates has been abysmal. Surely, anti-Trump Republicans should fear the prospect of a head-to-head debate between those two candidates.
If Trump wins, it is likely to be, in part, because the Republican Party failed to stop him, in a massive failure of collective judgment.
6. A substantial share of Republican voters are actually full-fledged bigots, and Trump’s comments made the political process safe for racism.
This is, of course, the elephant in the room with Mr. Trump. Trump does not publicly use racial slurs, but he has said some utterly beyond-the-pale things on issues of race. In his announcement speech, Trump said that Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In an interview, he noted that African-American youth have “no spirit.” Later, he mocked a stereotyped speech pattern of Asians.
It’s even worse on social media. Trump’s Twitter account enthusiastically retweets content from explicit white nationalists. His spokeswoman previously lamented that President Obama was not a “pure-breed.” And the Trump campaign seems to have corresponded to a massive surge in the presence of the so-called “Alt-Right” online. (Criticize Trump on Twitter, and the “cuckservative” mentions will follow.)
It is hard to say how much of this sentiment has genuine support on the traditional Right, and how much of this is just some sort of broad backlash against political correctness, which goes something like, “The elite censors hate this stuff, after all, so I will offer them the rhetorical middle finger and practice saying what I want, regardless of who it hurts.” It is likely a combination of both. But what is clear is that Trump is at least attempting to exploit an ugliness that he suspects was underneath the surface in American politics. Personal racism has been delegitimized in American political discourse for decades. In many ways, Trump is challenging that consensus.
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One reason that I don’t think it is that implausible that Trump will be the nominee is that you really only need one or two of these things to be true for the chips to fall in his favor. That’s in contrast to, say, John Kasich or Ben Carson, who need a lot more things to break right for them to have any chance of winning.
Currently, my position remains that there are enough Republicans who genuinely believe in limited government; that there is not a huge untapped reservoir of bigoted non-voters; that most Republican voters are sincerely Christian; and that substance means something. While I am perfectly willing to believe that many Republican elected officials are incompetent enough to risk Trump, I don’t believe that their incompetence alone could tip the balance in his direction. But if Trump becomes the nominee, some part of my position must be wrong.
Image by Gage Skidmore