Bride of Losing to the White Minstrel Show

Monday’s posting, which suggested that at some point, skeptics and critics of Pres. Trump will have to start critiquing him and his supporters less and working more on becoming a better alternative, drew a lot of traffic (for this out-of-the way blog).

They may be clicking less today, as I briefly want to address anyone who is firmly in the camp of believing that the GOP is the Party of Trump (whether one does so with joy or in despair).  I suppose this will sound far-fetched to some on the day after Sen. Jeff Flake decides to retire instead of facing Arizona’s GOP primary voters (not to mention its genelex voters).  That makes it more important to review some basics today.

It is almost certainly true in important senses that the GOP is now the Party of Trump.  He’s the President of the United States and historically this means he is also the leader of his party.  For now, people who echo him may benefit, while those who oppose him suffer.  What’s more, as the incumbent, he is currently the overwhelming favorite to be renominated in 2020.  And if I were forced to bet today, I might well favor him to win re-election, as incumbents often do.

But let’s not erase our memories or blind ourselves to other political realities.  Let’s not forget that Trump was the internally-weakest nominee in modern history.  Let’s not forget that if 77,744 votes had been less efficiently distributed in three states, we would be having the same debates about the GOP, but with the factions in very different positions of strength.  Let’s not blind ourselves to Trump’s manifest failure to date to expand his appeal beyond that very narrow coalition.

Whether the GOP becomes not only the Party of Trump but also a nationalist/populist party ultimately will depend very much on whether Trump’s presidency is considered successful.  It’s not too much more difficult than that.

If Trump is seen as Making America Great Again, he could win re-election in a landslide a la Reagan in ’84.  If he does that, nationalism and populism will likely become Republican lodestars for years to come.

OTOH, it does not take much imagination to hypothesize, for example, a scenario in which the economy goes sour in late 2019 or early 2020, the GOP is consumed with internal strife, and Trump loses.  In that scenario, Trump’s heterodox administration might become regarded by Republicans the way they thought of the George H. W. Bush administration, or how Democrats thought of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.

[Note: I am not rooting for a recession.  I am merely noting how much the subject of the GOP’s future remains tied to known unknowns and unknown unknowns.]

Even if Trump wins re-election, there’s no guarantee his presidency ends with the sort of success needed to change the basic lean of the GOP.  Consider that by 2015, few viewed the GOP as the Party of George W. Bush because of that administration’s failures and events outside its control (which helped create the space for a Trump candidacy).

We also don’t know what will happen to the GOP down-ballot during a Trump administration (ironically, Flake’s retirement may save that seat).  If recent presidencies are any indication, it’s entirely possible that the party will lose seats, perhaps a significant number of seats.  Trump would take lumps for that as well, fairly or not (though he may not take them until he is out of office, in the manner the Democratic apparat has been quietly downgrading their assessment of Pres. Obama over the past year).

Further, we don’t really know what key parts of Trump’s current coalition will think of him by 2020 or 2024.  Even if you have a negative view or stereotype of core Trump supporters as people to whom Trump successfully pandered, consider that one likely scenario is that Trump does not solve their problems.  On Monday, I reminded Trump skeptics to think about policy for a post-industrial economy precisely because a wall and tariffs are unlikely to solve the problems of the white underclass, let alone the underclass as a whole.   Perhaps Trump can successfully blame others for that failure in 2020, maybe not, given his narrow coalition.

OTOH, if the disaffected Obama-Trump demographic doesn’t think they’re better off in 2020 or 2024, enough of them could defect or stay home to affect an election.  And then the GOP will enter a period of nursing second thoughts about the Trump presidency, similar to what the GOP and Democrats have done after every other presidential loss.

Lastly (for today), it seems as though many people believe Trump’s win must mark a sea change in the direction of the party because nationalism is a rising force in Europe.  And yet — for now, anyway — a number of more establishment European parties have held the nationalists at bay by moving a few degrees in that direction.  It’s certainly possible, particularly after a Trump administration, to imagine the GOP making a course correction on that issue that is more nationalist than the establishment might like, but less establishment than the nationalists like (particularly given where GOP opinion really is on many immigration issues).  It’s possible to do that without having it define the GOP.

As I’ve noted before, the more nationalist faction of the GOP does not have a commanding majority even of Trump’s coalition.  And a new Pew study also suggests that more traditional conservatives outnumber “country first conservatives” and “market skeptics” within the GOP.  The nominee that follows Trump — even if that’s VP Mike Pence — would likely have to assemble his or her own winning coalition (a lesson about coalitions Hillary Clinton failed to learn).

Despite what some of the recent headlines and columns might suggest, the GOP is not fated to become a Trumpish caricature of itself in the medium-term.  But it well might if skeptics and critics of nationalism and populism don’t show up in the arena.

Bonus:  After jotting this all down, I found a generally similar take from Patrick Ruffini.  So I feel less crazy.

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