The Republican Party
Past and future Trumps
Insurgent candidates who win the nomination tend to transform their party, even if they never become president
IN EVERY continent he seems familiar. Italians see another Silvio Berlusconi, South Africans a Jacob Zuma and Thais a Thaksin Shinawatra. Latin America practically invented the type: to Argentines he is Juan Perón’s echo. Those who find Donald Trump scary sometimes compare him to jackbooted fascists in 1930s Europe. The search for the right precursor to Mr Trump is born of an understandable urge to work out what happens next.
Here is a prediction: Mr Trump, who will stand onstage at the Republican Convention in Cleveland and accept the party’s nomination as its presidential candidate, will have a more lasting effect on the Republican Party than its elected members currently realise, even if he goes on to lose the election in November.
For the moment, most Republicans either resist this notion or are relaxed about it. “I don’t think the Trump nomination is going to redefine in any real way what America’s right-of-centre party stands for,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, told National Public Radio after the primaries were over. “You know what, I think something different and something new is probably good for our party,” Reince Priebus, head of the Republican National Committee, told CNN, hopefully. Paul Ryan, who has criticised Mr Trump during the campaign and since, wrote in his hometown newspaper: “On the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement.”
For those watching the convention, which begins on July 18th, what is happening may not appear unusual. The party has rallied, as it usually does, behind the nominee. Before the first caucus met in Iowa, Gallup reported that Mr Trump was already familiar to 91% of Americans. Familiarity has bred content among most right-leaning voters (see chart 1). Yet what is happening in the Republican Party right now is far from normal.
The party is nominating someone who is not a Republican in any recognisable form. Instead, Mr Trump combines traditions that Republicans and Democrats have at times flirted with, only to reject them when in government. One of these is populism, which in America usually means making promises to improve the livelihoods of blue-collar workers by protecting them from foreign competition, whether that comes in the form of immigration or trade.
Pat Buchanan, who made bids for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996, declared during his first attempt: “If I were president I would have the Corps of Engineers build a double-barrier fence that would keep out 95% of the illegal traffic. I think it can be done.” Four years later Mr Buchanan, who studied at Georgetown and Columbia, said that the peasants were coming with pitchforks, and that he was their champion. Ross Perot, who ran for the presidency as an independent in 1992, made a different part of the Trump pitch—the successful businessman who would stop the “giant sucking sound” of American jobs being hoovered up by Mexico, the billionaire promising to make competition go away.
A lone voice
The third thread is nativism. For Mr Trump, not all citizens are equally American. Hence his claims that Gonzalo Curiel, a federal judge born in Indiana, was biased against him because of the judge’s Hispanic background. Mr Trump’s plan to deport the 11m undocumented migrants from America is a nativist fantasy. It recalls the enthusiasm for deportation of Art Smith, another fringe politician from the 1930s. Smith, who really was a fascist, advocated the removal of radicals from the country. America’s appetite for fascism proper was tested in 1933, after a protester was killed at a rally. Smith proposed a march on Washington later that year which, he boasted, would number 1.5m people. Only 44 showed up.
Populism, isolationism and nativism are distinct from racism. But they can often be found on the same shelf. Towards the end of the 19th century, as Chinese labourers were brought to California to work on the railways, Denis Kearney, a labour-movement leader, made a career out of attacking the “Chinaman”, laying the groundwork for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first of several laws to interrupt migration from Asia. Kearney did not just object to Chinese workers undercutting American wages. He found their food, habits and living arrangements revolting. “Whipped curs, abject in docility, mean, contemptible and obedient in all things…they seem to have no sex. Boys work, girls work; it is all alike to them.”
Mr Trump’s assertions that Mexico is not just destroying American workers’ livelihoods (because of NAFTA), but sending drug-dealers and rapists across the border too, is Kearney for the 21st century. When accused of racism, Mr Trump responds that he loves Hispanics and insists they love him back. His supporters hear what they want to hear.
From light to night
Mr Trump’s most popular proposal, more loved even than the Great Wall of Texas, is to ban Muslims from entering the country. Exit polls from the Republican primaries recorded that voters were more worried about terrorism than immigration. That, combined with anxieties about the changing racial make-up of America, explains why around two-thirds of primary voters supported the Muslim ban.
Though much of it may be old, there is nothing old-fashioned about how Mr Trump delivers his message. His skill on broadcast media recalls Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest whose radio show reached around 30m listeners at its peak in the 1930s. Coughlin founded the Union Party in 1936 and supported Huey Long, a populist of the left who wanted a corporatist state to save workers from the cruelty of capitalism. But it is impossible to disentangle Mr Trump from the world of reality television, where he honed his narrow-eyed stare and finger-jabbing persona.
Or from social media, which Mr Trump uses sometimes to broadcast his views and sometimes to insinuate them.
He has an ability to say things that are not true but which seem, to his supporters, to be right anyway.
Shared with like-minded people on social networks, this has been a boon for what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics”, an apparently sincere belief in implausible conspiracies. Mr Trump’s insinuation, after the shooting in Orlando, that the president might secretly sympathise with Islamic State was a model of the paranoid style.
The most novel thing about Mr Trump, though, when compared with the fringe figures who preceded him, is that he is the nominee of one of America’s two main parties. This puts him in a different category and will give him a greater opportunity to shape the country. This is obviously the case if he wins in November. But it will probably happen even if he loses, currently the more likely result.
A handful of insurgent candidates have seized the nomination, lost the election and transformed their parties anyway. From the late 19th century William Jennings Bryan failed three times as a Democratic candidate while campaigning for a federal income tax, popular election of senators, votes for women and other causes that had become laws by the time of his death. Two more recent examples of nominees who have done the same are worth looking at more closely.
The first is George McGovern, the Democratic nominee in 1972, beaten by Richard Nixon in 49 states. One reason for this rout was that McGovern’s Democratic Party seemed to hold different values to those of most voters. In his history of the era, Rick Perlstein recounts how television cameras at the 1972 convention lingered on two men in the hall who were wearing purple shirts with “gay power” written on them, and kissing. The same convention was the first to be addressed by an openly gay man, Jim Foster. McGovern proposed a “Demogrant”, a basic income for all, guaranteed by government. Many Democrats looked at lonely Massachusetts in the blue column the day after the election and concluded that they could never win the presidency with a candidate like McGovern.
Viewed today, the 1972 Democratic campaign looks premature rather than wrong. That is the view of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, authors of “The Emerging Democratic Majority”, published in 2002. One chapter of their book is called “George McGovern’s revenge”.
McGovern appealed strongly to non-whites: according to Gallup he won 87% of them in 1972, a higher proportion than Barack Obama managed in 2012.
The rapidly increasing racial diversity of the electorate between then and now has turned this from a losing strategy into a winning one. McGovern did better with working women than men and better with professionals than with blue-collar workers. This, too, made him a loser in 1972 but provided the template for Democratic victories in 2008 and 2012. Polls suggest that Hillary Clinton may be the first Democratic presidential candidate for at least 60 years to win a majority of white voters with college degrees (see chart 2).
Before McGovern, Barry Goldwater also got thrashed and transformed his party in the process.
Goldwater lost 44 states on a platform of huge tax cuts, pouring weedkiller on the federal government, opposition to civil rights and confronting communism abroad. “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice,” he told the 1964 convention in Daly City, California.
Voters disagreed, and not even a powerful televised speech made in support of Goldwater by Ronald Reagan, then a TV presenter, could persuade them otherwise. The future for Goldwater’s ideas did not look bright. “The election has finished the Goldwater school of political reaction,” wrote Richard Rovere in the New Yorker, reflecting the consensus of what would now be called the mainstream media but then was simply known as the press. It could hardly have been more wrong.
As with McGovern’s defeat, Republicans initially reacted by picking candidates with more traditional views of government. Goldwater’s success in the Deep South, thanks to his opposition to civil rights, the popularity of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, and rising public alarm about law and order and cultural change, bore fruit in the 1968 election, when Richard Nixon grabbed millions of voters from the Democrats to build a “New Majority” of big-city Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics, and white Protestants from the South, Midwest and rural America, beginning a nationwide realignment of politics that is still playing out today.
Goldwater runs Deep
What might a Trumpist Republican Party look like? In “five, ten years from now,” he told Bloomberg, “you’re going to have a workers’ party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry.” Speaking at a recycling plant in Pennsylvania in June, he said that American workers had been betrayed by politicians and financiers, who “took away from the people their means of making a living and supporting their families”.
This is a complete reversal of Republican orthodoxy of the past 30 years, which has mixed openness to trade and an impulse to cut entitlement spending with conservative stances on social issues.
Anyone who thinks that the party will revert to that orthodoxy if Mr Trump loses wasn’t paying enough attention during the primaries, which suggested that registered Republicans are, on the whole, less interested in government-shrinking and values-voting than their elected representatives are.
Those who lean Republican, according to polling by the Pew Research Centre, are more likely to say that free-trade deals are bad for America than those who lean Democratic (see chart 3).
The same polling shows that Republican voters are just as reluctant to cut Social Security benefits as Democratic ones. This helps to explain why Republican primary voters liked the sound of what Mr Trump is selling more than they liked the tax-cuts-and-Old-Testament tunes of the party’s late-Goldwater period. And elected Republicans are acutely sensitive to the preferences of their primary voters, who have a veto on whether they will end up running for office.
As well as a reversal of party orthodoxy, Mr Trump’s campaign has also ditched the party’s electoral strategy. From Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012 until Mr Trump won in South Carolina, it seemed obvious that to win the presidency the Republican Party needed a candidate with some appeal to Hispanic voters: hence the excitement about Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican, and then Marco Rubio, whose parents were born in Cuba. Instead, the party has picked a candidate of whom 87% of Hispanics disapprove.
This would appear to be a recipe for Republicans to lose a lot of presidential elections, and it might indeed prove to be so. Even with low levels of immigration by past standards, demographers expect America to have a non-white majority by the middle of the century.
Getting caught out by a demographic wave of this size would, eventually, lead to the Republican Party being dragged to the ocean floor and held underwater until it blacked out.
Yet the electorate is not the same as the population, because not all voters are equally likely to turn out. Even in 2012, an election that saw minorities turn out in record numbers, voters were as white as America was 20 years before. Three demographers—Mr Teixeira and Rob Griffin of the Centre for American Progress, and Bill Frey of Brookings—have run a simulation to see what would happen if the Republican Party managed to boost white turnout by 5% across the board, while all other voter groups remained constant. This would be hard to achieve, but not impossible: turnout among whites in 2012 was 64%, which leaves some headroom. The result of the voting model is a Republican advantage in the electoral college up until 2024, after which point the strategy no longer works.
A Trumpist Republican Party might not win many presidential elections. But it could be competitive enough to resist demands for reform and would probably have enough bodies to block legislation in Congress. With less outright hostility to Hispanics and a softer tone towards women, it might even attract some of those currently on the left who are hostile to trade and globalisation, or who worry about threats from immigration and automation, to create an updated populism.
The coalitions that have underpinned both main parties now look fragile. On some cultural issues, notably guns, white Democrats without a college education are more closely aligned with the Republicans than with the party they currently vote for. Mr Trump’s coronation in Cleveland will be the burial of an old dynasty. It may also be the foundation of a new one.