With yet another primary victory under his belt, Donald Trump is a step closer to becoming the Republican nominee for president.
This has the party’s elected officials and apparatchiks either conceding the obvious (House leader Kevin McCarthy is in the “we can work with him” camp) or panicking (see: conservative blogger Erick Erickson and the assembled Voltron-like power of National Review’s contributors).
Political observer Ezra Klein says the GOP is broken, having failed to fulfill its institutional mandate to stop a personally and doctrinally erratic candidate who will destroy its political coalition.
But it’s a mistake to conflate the Republican party with its ability to promote conservative ideas, as they are broadly defined. In recent decades, the conservative movement has filled the party’s personnel needs quite nicely. But the conservative movement isn’t exactly the same as the Republican party.
Even as establishment Republicans wring their hands, the GOP still controls 30 of 50 state legislatures, has 32 out of 50 governors, and a solid lock on the US House of Representatives, along with a slightly less firm hold on the Senate.
Sure, the party has lost the last two presidential elections, and could well lose 2016, but its obstructionist strategy has stymied many Democratic legislative goals. Even its grip on the judiciary looks to remain intact for at least a while longer, as Senate Republicans stonewall president Barack Obama’s replacement of the late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia.
Big among the pro-slavery crowd
The GOP coalition attracts multiple voices, including religious conservatives and business-minded and libertarian voters—as well as less savory voting blocs.
Many are rightfully aghast at recent poll results showing that 10% of Republican primary voters in South Carolina believe that whites are a superior race (31% of Trump’s supporters agreed with the idea), or that Trump won one-fifth of the 12% of national voters who disagree with the decision to free the slaves after the Civil War.
Yes, Trump gained support from voters holding those views—but that he didn’t even gain a majority of of the pro-slavery crowd. And those offensively retrograde opinions were surely present in the 2012 or 2008 primaries, if anyone had asked.
Indeed, political scientists have found (pdf) that “racial conservatism seems to continue to be central to the realignment of Southern whites’ partisanship since the Civil Rights era,” along with religious and class-based issues. You could cite Republican strategist Lee Atwater’s infamous comments on replacing outright racist appeals with economic arguments designed to evoke them, or the party’s inflammatory rhetoric on immigrants and voting rights.
The Republican party has a long been place for the voters this talk attracts, even as more pragmatic operators saw the need to broaden their coalition with liberty-minded appeals to young people, minorities, and women. Yet the election of black president in 2008 who drew strength from minority voters and prompted a surge of racially charged opposition, and the anger that was co-opted by Republicans since 2010 (Sarah Palin was a bellwether) has now been co-opted by outspoken Trump.
Trump’s triumvirate of voters
Trump has had to do well with two key identity blocs: whites and Christians. And it was a big question whether his libertine past would hurt him with evangelicals. Despite a loss in Iowa that can be attributed to religious voters (which did not derail Trump the way I expected), conservative Christians have proven glad to throw their lot behind Trump. As one Republican sees it, Trump is rallying evangelicals because they prioritize a fervent desire to criticize unbelievers over electing a true believer.
But there’s a third stripe of voter he has courted as well: populists who don’t adhere to Republican free-market doctrine.
When discussing whether or not the party is broken, Republican partisans will often point to the party’s recent emergence as whip-hand in most state governments. In states that where conservative voters don’t dominate, however, this has given rise to violations of conservative orthodoxy that get pushed under the rug at a national level.
Most of these rebels have been disavowed by the Republican Party establishment: Nevada’s tax-increasing governor Brian Sandoval disappeared from his own party’s caucus, Ohio Governor John Kasich has been dogged by his Medicaid expansion, and Iowa’s Terry Branstad has been criticized for his ethanol heresies. (Sandoval was even floated as a possible Supreme Court nominee by the White House this week, in a choice bit of trolling.)
Trump, on the other hand, has embraced it all, promising national health care and ethanol subsidies and other very great deals as well, much to the chagrin of economic conservatives. In this, he is enacting the economic nationalism of Pat Buchanan, shorn of “this leftover 19th-century piety about the free market.”
Republicans winning as conservatives fail
In Trump’s success, the Republican party isn’t failing as an institution, so much as conservatives are. But will a Trump-led Republican party fail in the general election?
It’s honestly hard to say: He has yet to lead in the polling averages comparing him to either potential Democratic nominee, though Bernie Sanders may prove even more vulnerable to attacks on his economic plans, and Clinton could succumb to the weight of the inquiries hanging above her. Voting against Trump would no doubt be a big motivator for Democrats—especially Hispanic voters who have turned on Trump with a passion. On the other hand, Republicans have seen much greater turnout from their voters this primary season eager to put the Obama years behind them.
But even a Trump loss may prove a victory for his brand of nationalist identity politics. Barry Goldwater’s debacle of a campaign ushered in twelve years of Republican presidents, led by Ronald Reagan. The Republican party may be shifting its tone as conservatism takes a step back before outright identity politics and economic nationalism, but the seeds for this blossom were planted long ago.