In the 1950s, a more sedate time in American party politics, a piece of folk wisdom held that Republicans washed their laundry indoors while Democrats hung it all out on the line. No longer. Donald Trump’s Republican opponents deem him, nearly in the same breath, an avatar of dark forces—as if a party playing on racial fears for fifty years were some kind of innocent—and an apostate against true conservatism. As Trump gathers together the malcontents against the Republican party that its elites have molded, he offers a conservatism radically different from anything on offer in the last generation, whether the inclusive plutocracy favored by the party’s donors and supposed thought leaders, or the doctrinaire movement conservatism of its cadres.
Trump weaves a viscerally effective politics of us and them. Trump champions us (“we” know who “we” are). And he names his villains: Mexico and China, which steal jobs from us; the immigrants who commit crimes and take our jobs, and the Muslims who terrorize us. When Trump stands for American greatness, it means winning, however brutally, on our terms—and if we can’t win, then we make deals, as we should have with Saddam and Qaddafi.
In bread-and-butter domestic politics, Trump has positioned himself as a relative moderate, with his rhetoric often less extreme than his plans, taken right off the GOP shelf. The American welfare state, so stingy to the young and to the working-age poor, has a soft spot for the elderly and Trump pledges to protect their prized Social Security and Medicare. In unguarded moments—as if he has any other kind—he briefly stuck up for the individual mandate, the reviled keystone of the Affordable Care Act. His recent opposition to abortion gives, even by Trumpian standards, a whiff of expediency—especially as he continues to defend Planned Parenthood and its federal funding. His plan to slash income taxes down to a top rate of 25 percent, although hideously regressive and orders of magnitude less responsible than anything George W. Bush ever proposed, looks prudent compared with Ted Cruz’s flat tax.
Trump faces a dwindling and flawed field, None of Trump’s opponents appears to have found a viable path to the nomination. “Little Marco” Rubio, promise unfulfilled, seems next to exit. John Kasich of Ohio, who has yet to win a state, hangs on, hoping somehow that the convention will pick him to “Uberize the federal government”—although he accepted the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, rendering him persona non grata on the right. Ted Cruz of Texas holds up the hard-right flank. He wants to dismantle and defund as much of the federal government, outside national security, as he possibly can. Trump may summon up scary specters, but with Cruz, the fear comes here and now. Cruz has seven wins in his column—but only in caucuses, which tend to reward ideologues and disciplined organizing, and in deep red states. Nearly everyone who has ever worked with Cruz loathes him. He offers little in the way of new electoral appeal. Yet Cruz, unlike Trump, offers no sharp challenge to the networks, tying together officeholders, donors, advocacy groups, think tanks, and consultancies, through which right-leaning operatives build their Rolodexes and their careers. He has spent his career in that network. Far be it from Ted Cruz to disown it.
Trump’s opponents have conspicuously failed to coordinate, even tacitly, in any strategy. Republican leaders hardly seem to know their own party. On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, John Sununu, the state’s former governor, and his wife were asked if they knew any Trump supporters. They could name only a neighbor down the street. Mitt Romney suggests voting tactically to stop Trump—but voters have little besides a hunch to guide them in choosing a candidate. The calculus is harder still in states that apportion delegates by congressional district—units for which we have no polling or even, despite a surfeit of election analytics, publicly available simulations. A search for “Stop Trump” leads to an ad from the tax-cutting Club for Growth and a story about how Karl Rove, at a secret conclave on a private island in Georgia, peddled his book about William McKinley as a guide to stopping Trump in 2016—McKinley who won in 1896 with a stitch-up of immigrants’ votes and rich men’s money. The dust has yet to settle on why Trump faced so little early sustained attack, still less whether it could actually have somehow “burst the bubble.” Real answers may only come from the archives, decades from now.
Trump exploits tensions in the Republican coalition long in the making, rendered more acute as Trump’s supporters see their wages stagnate and feel themselves the losers in what the sociologist Joseph Gusfield, in a study of temperance, once called “a concrete and very real struggle over the distribution of prestige in American society.” The Republican Party that emerged in the Reagan years drew on the 1970s-era backlash to liberalism but never fully embraced it, especially outside the South. Look no further than Reagan’s famous “Morning in America” ad from 1984, a nearly all-white tableau of the successful and the strivers: a station wagon headed off to work, a white-picket fence in the suburbs, and a church wedding. That was the party’s vision—for the middle-class to become aspirational toward the wealth concentrating at the very top. Gore Vidal’s line—“there’s a lot to be said for being nouveau riche, and the Reagans mean to say it all”—now seems quaint in the age of serious One Percent money. Since the 1980s, the Republicans have moved steadily rightwards, especially in Congress. As relative moderates in the party feared primary challenges from enforcers in the Ted Cruz vein, they became ever less willing to compromise. Yet even as compromise grew rarer, the core elements in the party remained: it is elite-led and growth-oriented, and its racism has largely stayed coded. Trump disrupts each element, reimagining ’70s-era backlash politics for a meme-friendly, Islamophobic age.
The best guide to Trump, not as a rich demagogue but as an avatar of a new politics, comes from Sam Francis, a paleoconservative writer and Capitol Hill staffer who ended up on the white nationalist fringe. For an essay in a 1982 collection called The New Right Papers, Francis built on sociologist Donald Warren’s notion, itself recently revived as a guide to Trump’s appeal, of the MARs—angry, middle-class Middle American Radicals—to outline a hard-charging, anti-elitist, and illiberal worldview that perfectly presages Trumpism in its appeal. “What the New Right has to say is not premeditated in the inner sanctums of tax-exempt foundations or debated in the stately prose of quarterly or fortnightly journals,” he wrote. “The contents of its message are perceived injustices, unrelieved exploitation by anonymous powers that be, a threatened future, and an insulted past. It is therefore understandable that the New Right has less use for the rhetorical trope and the extended syllogism than for the mass rally and the truth squad, and that some of its adherents sometimes fantasize that the cartridge box is a not unsatisfactory substitute for the ballot box.”
Such a politics, Francis explained would be oriented around “a new nationalism” and “a more favorable attitude toward protectionism.” Because “the classical liberal idea of a night-watchman state is an illusion,” the New Right “would make use of the state as willingly as the present managerial elite does as they “dictate a social order quite different from, and probably better than, that designed, manipulated, and and misruled by the managerial class and its cohorts.” For Thomas Fleming, the longtime editor of the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan and a Francis chum, writing in the same 1982 volume, the New Right stirred “the first hope since 1865 that we can turn back the clock and renew the conservative struggle in the North and South.” By the summer of 2015, Fleming concluded that “the elixir itself is phony—a mere placebo—but if the effect of the placebo is to wake a few of us out of our complacent despair, then I am all for it and all for Trump.”
Figures on the right, variously close to the Republican Party proper, have toiled in these vineyards for decades. In a 1975 book Pat Buchanan, fresh from the Nixon White House, warned Republicans against any attempts to guarantee representation at conventions for “blacks, Chicanos, Indians, and feminists. It would be difficult to imagine four voting blocs less receptive to the Republican Party philosophy.” Better to focus on “Northern Irish and Italians and Southern Protestants.” There we have the Trump voters in a nutshell.
The rise in Republican presidential voting among whites without college degrees has been largely confined to the South. Trump will only win if he brings backlash to the North in a big way, adding even hefty margins among the college-educated. He aims not just to dislodge—that process has been happening for fifty years—but to decimate blocs that have voted Democratic for the longest time: white lunchpail Democrats whose ancestors, literal or metaphoric, answered the calls of William Jennings Bryan and Franklin Roosevelt. Some still remain loyal, others, among the so-called “missing white voters,” have dropped out from the ballot box altogether. In this sense, Trump looks not only to his fellow Republicans, or even to Southern Democrats like George Wallace and Lester Maddox, but also to tough-talking right-wing northern Democrats of the ‘60s and ‘70s: Frank Rizzo of Philadelphia (“I’m going to make Attila the Hun look like a faggot”), Ed King of Massachusetts (“Dump the Duke”), and Mario Procaccino of New York City (“My heart is as black as yours”). The old urban villagers have largely packed up stakes now, but from the trailer park even to the McMansion, Trump resurrects the tough talkers’ appeal.
No matter what enthusiasm he generates, Trump is massively unpopular. According to a recent Gallup survey, 30 percent of US adults view him favorably and 63 percent view him unfavorably. Under those circumstances Democrats hold advantages beyond what would be expected given a solid but not spectacular economy and a party already in office for eight years. Barack Obama is not on the ballot, but Democrats will count on an unreconstructed birther and xenophobe to turn out African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans. Then add the Republican defectors, the group most uncertain in size and demographics. Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Trump, telegraphs the strategy, however disappointing to old leftists: “For every one of those blue-collar Democrats he picks up, he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that.” Those same suburbanites may well stay home or even blank the presidential vote, giving the “missing white voters” a very different cast than in 2012.
Before November, however, comes nomination. As it has done every four years since 1856, the Republican Party will choose its presidential candidate when delegates from across the land convene at a national convention, to be held in Cleveland in July. This year its 2,472 delegates may actually become the deciders of the party’s fate, rather than participants in a weeklong infomercial. We do not know what will go down in Cleveland, but the possibilities for mischief, for havoc, for speeches booed and proceedings disrupted, for chaotic prime-time debates over points of order, for a walk-out from the losing forces, or in the most lurid scenarios, for violence, are all rife.
To win nomination, a candidate must receive an absolute majority of the delegates: 1,237. In most states, party committees or conventions, rather than candidates, choose the men and women who serve as delegates. The convention begins by accepting delegates’ credentials, setting rules, which govern all subsequent activity on the floor, and adopting a platform. Anti-Trump forces will control all the key committees and, in the person of Paul Ryan, the gavel. Although we cannot know the precise parliamentary legerdemain (smart players keep their cards close to the vest), early test votes on rules may prove crucial to the ultimate outcome—and on procedural fights, delegates may vote as they please, unbound either by candidates or by the rest of their state delegations.
Take the most recent conventions that opened with uncertain outcomes. In 1976, when Ronald Reagan ran from the right to unseat the incumbent Gerald Ford, Republicans defeated a Reagan proposal that would have forced the nominee to reveal his choice for vice president before the vote on presidential nomination. Reagan, who had named the Pennsylvania moderate Richard Schweiker, hoped to trigger internal revolt in Ford’s ranks. In 1980, when Ted Kennedy ran from the left to unseat the incumbent Jimmy Carter, Democrats defeated a proposal from Kennedy to remove Rule F(3)(c), which bound delegates to a given candidate on the first ballot. In both cases, the vote on nomination then proved an anticlimax. Yet Ford and Carter, for all their internal opponents, were sitting presidents. Trump is a scary newcomer.
Finally, the playing field set, comes the roll call of states, in which delegates cast their votes for a nominee. Under Rule 40 of the Republican Party, each candidate for nomination “shall demonstrate the support of a majority of the delegates from each of eight (8) or more states.” (For the record, the District of Columbia and US territories count under Rule 40.) As of this writing, Trump has a majority in seven states, Cruz in four, and Rubio in one. Rule 40 is an obvious candidate for a procedural fight.
Balloting continues until a nominee is chosen. On the first ballot, rules formally bind almost all delegates to a given candidate, based on results from their state or territory. Rule 16 states that if a delegates violates a preference, the “improper vote or nomination shall be null and void.” The convention may vote to change that rule as well. If the gavel comes down on the first ballot and no candidate has received a majority and clinched nomination, then the delegates ballot again. Most states’ rules formally unbind delegates on the second ballot, and even more do so on the third. The Republicans last required a second ballot to pick a nominee in 1948, and the Democrats in 1952.
The convention, in short, has ample parliamentary tools at its disposal if it chooses to use them. (The night before Thanksgiving, I had drinks with a well-connected Republican friend. “If worse comes to worst,” he smiled, “they’ll just stop him in Cleveland.”) The RNC and its allies will have to decide whether the most incendiary convention since the Democrats’ nightmarish gathering in Chicago in 1968, and the costs in November all the way down-ballot, are worth it to stop Donald Trump.
In decades long past, the public, and the candidates, accepted that the delegates should and would choose the nominee. The political professionals who controlled state delegations searched for the best of their number to nominate, exercising judgment that the political scientist Nelson Polsby likened to peer review. The bosses and the “smoke-filled rooms” (Warren Harding’s campaign manager coined the phrase at the 1920 convention) are gone now, and public trust in elites has plummeted. We live, for better or worse, in a time when perceived democratic norms militate against party elites picking a candidate without facing immense blowback, both individually against perceived coup-plotters and collectively against the party and its damaged brand. If Trump wins a plurality, let alone a majority, of delegates and loses the nomination, whatever the precise machinations, he may well claim he was robbed and run as a third-party candidate. Even if filing dates deprive him of a ballot line in some states, he can run as a write-in—and voters know how to spell his name.
The presidency is the big shiny object in American politics. That’s why Trump wants it. Air Force One puts his 757 to shame. But Republican power rests in Congress and in the states, where Republicans since 2010 have succeeded fantastically. So far they have been almost hermetically sealed from the wild presidential ride. Political waves, however, eventually breach institutional barriers. A nomination—or even a near-nomination—so divisive as that of Trump, against the wishes, however vehement, of nearly every panjandrum in his party, inevitably reshapes both coalitions and ideologies.
In the short run, Republicans will circle the wagons to protect their majorities in Congress against a weak nominee, whether Trump or Cruz. With the Republicans’ slender majority in the Senate comes control over the most critical appointment to the Supreme Court in a generation. For Republican politicians and the powerful Koch network, which has stayed on the sidelines through the primaries, that battle informs all other strategy. Led by the Freedom Caucus, without whose members House Republicans cannot control the floor, recurrent crises over tax and spending bills and the federal debt ceiling have become opportunities for hostage-taking. Democrats need to win 30 seats to seize control. Perversely, the landslide required for that to happen would be much more likely as a midterm revolt against a Republican president than in a presidential election year, even with a highly unpopular nominee.
Predictions here do not come easily. For decades Republicans in and around high office have talked family-friendly talk, and emphasized corporate- and superrich-friendly policy. They have spoken in racial code but denied its implications. They have stood by as social ties have unraveled and life spans fallen for their own core constituents. Trump has busted up all these logrolls among competing factions and priorities.
Yet Trump is a wrecker not a builder. If Trump somehow ushers in a new era of deal-making, he would be the unlikely medicine to reduce the fever of polarization. If the hard-right elements in Trumpism triumph, presumably in close concert with the Freedom Caucus in the House and other pieces of movement conservatism currently more comfortable with Ted Cruz, then a constitutional system dependent on norms and not just rules faces real peril. The Koch network has links to Trump; his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, formerly directed the New Hampshire operation for its quasi-party, Americans for Prosperity. Yet a libertarian-inflected drive to roll back the frontiers of the state sits uneasily with appeals to Make America Great Again. Trump is a determined culture warrior, but he has moved beyond the old wars of the Seventies just as access to abortion grows dire in so many states where Republicans govern. When he talks trade, Trump sounds more like a Republican of old (in fact like Karl Rove’s hero McKinley) than most members of his party’s Senate caucus. And on and on.
For 2016, the partisan chasm remains vast: Republicans all treat the opposing party as a world-historical menace. According to a recent survey from old Clinton hands Stan Greenberg and James Carville nearly 90 percent of Republicans deem the Democrats’ policies “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” That, in the short run, stops defection to the other party. All the same, conflict will come. Trumpism will not end with Trump. Nor will movement conservatism or organized wealth simply give way. The convulsions on the right have only just begun.
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