GOPocalypse, Part 1: On Contingency
The below post is the first in a five part series on the 2016 GOP campaign.
In the grand scheme of things, 5,000 years from now, the world will little note the presidency of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. 1 The broad sweep of history will likely be unaltered by any actions they undertake. If humans still exist in 5,000 years, one suspects that this particular era will be deemed part of a broader “information age,” a phase of a continuous revolution in economics and technology that began to change the world in the 18th century. Trump and Clinton will be ciphers, discussed only, perhaps, in the context of the growing fusion of mass media, entertainment, and politics, and how those factors interacted in a geographically-expansive, diverse democracy.
Human history is lived in human lifetimes, though, and this presidential election is particularly significant because, for the first time in American history, a party with a chance at unified control of the government dramatically reduced their odds by selecting a ridiculous nominee. If you think, as I do, that Trump is likely to lose–and John Kasich or Marco Rubio were likely to win–then the Republican decision was deeply significant. Clinton being able to put a locked-in majority on the Court in favor of abortion rights and a pro-federal government view of the separate of powers will have consequences for decades. Not, perhaps, at a world historical level, but certainly consequences echoing decades into the future.
This, then, is our frame: history can be very contingent. If over the long-term humans are governed by forces beyond our control and understanding, over the short- and medium-terms, human actions–and the actions of specific, powerful humans–can have an enormous impact on lived experience. That is the contention of this piece: a few small changes here or there, a decision or two made in the interests of the public, and Trump would’ve lost. He would have an interesting curio from the silly season, and a bunch of chapters in the Mark Halperin book, and, for more perceptive analysts, a warning about the future of the Republican Party. (To wit, I would’ve ignored those people, chalking his support up to his celebrity, and low-information voters. There’s still something to that, but it’s undeniable that he has stirred up a hornet’s nest of resentment and hatred.)
Indeed, the contention of this series is that, while the final responsibility for Trump lies with the voters, the four major Republican contenders in the end–John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz–all could have stopped Donald Trump from being the nominee with actions at multiple points in this process. True, all would have required a degree of selflessness, of noblesse oblige, or some other ethos of service that seems lacking in contemporary politics. Whether you blame these candidates for complicity is up to you. This is merely a narrative, an interpretation and organization of events that tell a particular story: that Trump’s success was contingent and very fragile.
One question deserves a response prior to this exercise: why not Chris Christie? After all, he was Trump’s highest-profile early endorser.
The idea of this exercise is essentially counterfactual. In other words, imagine that the candidate did something different, and try to figure out what would have happened. Christie could have endorsed someone else, or simply sat out, but it doesn’t seem likely that a mere endorsement from an unpopular governor and rounding-error candidate moved a ton of votes. It saved Trump from a bad news cycle, but Trump always seemed to find a way to do that on his own.
In other words, even his betrayal of himself and his party wasn’t all that relevant. Take a bow, Governor!
In addition, prior to beginning, I think it is necessary to offer an argument against a compelling critique. The GOP’s voters obviously want this: look how strongly they are backing Trump to the general. #NeverTrump is a cipher.
This is frankly accurate. It does not, however, account for how a large chunk of votes are cast.
Many voters are best described as “low-information voters.” To be a low-information voter is not a moral deficiency, it is essentially a rational choice. Individual votes don’t have an impact, and people have busy lives. There are costs to spending time focused intently on politics. Most of us get our basic political orientations from our personalities, our families, our friends, and the lived experiences in our late teenage years, rather than as the product of a rational calculation. (I am no different!)
These “lazy heuristics” work because by-and-large, our political system has produced acceptable candidates, where “acceptable” defines as “fully capable of executing the constitutional and administrative responsibilities of the office of the president.” Even unpopular presidents like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush cleared this threshold without any challenge. Neither was overwhelmed by the office and its weighty responsibilities; they merely made decisions that didn’t work out.
Trump, of course, is the first candidate in modern history who is completely unacceptable, ideologically and temperamentally. It is not clear that he could handle the day-to-day tasks of the office: to pay the country’s bills, to run the executive branch, to be a steward of the military and global stability. An examination of his record suggests that there are no guarantees that he would execute these responsibilities.
But our popular politics does not account for this. Voters continue to use their heuristics because they’re not paying attention to the specifics. As Salena Zito aptly puts it, Trump’s voters “take him seriously, not literally.” That these voters are not receptive to what should be an incontrovertible message–that Trump cannot do the job–is a testament to the weaknesses of direct democracy. Evidence of racism, sexism, incompetence, erratic behavior, etc. is irrelevant. He’s the guy, so we should vote for him. The concept that “the guy” could be unacceptable is unimaginable.
All of this is to say that a substantial share of Trump’s voters–ones who are real people, not the real-life caricatures on social media–would vote for anyone using the lazy heuristics. This Patrick Ruffini piece from March nailed the dynamic:
We often understand primary elections on a one-dimensional ideological scale. But in reality, there’s (at least) a second dimension: the voter’s level of political engagement. “Low-information” voters often masquerade as moderate or somewhat conservative voters in polls, and as a result, we assume they have a substantive preference for more moderate, or electable candidates. But in reality, it’s a preference for the strongest horse, one that doesn’t demand that they first embrace a specific set of ideological precepts.
The untold story of this primary is how Donald Trump has incapacitated the Republican Party’s establishment wing by shearing off the kinds of rank-and-file, non-ideological voters they have always relied upon to muscle through conservative primary challenges. Trump’s apostasies don’t matter just as Romney and McCain’s (relatively tamer) apostasies didn’t matter. As a result, the “establishment” has been an army with officers but no enlisted men, unable to command more than 20% for support for its preferred candidate at any time in the process.
Trump had name recognition, visibility, and affect. That’s all it took to sway this type of voter and push Trump beyond his base of “deplorables.” But that could have changed. I aim to demonstrate how.