Thursday, April 28, 2016

What Does Trump Tell Us About the Republican Party?

Donald Trump has confounded so many expectations, breaking so many supposed "iron laws" of American politics along the way, that it is tempting for those of us who initially and incorrectly dismissed his chances as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination to compensate for our error by proclaiming that the United States has unexpectedly entered a very different political age in which none of the old rules apply and a brave new Trumpian future awaits us all. In this vein, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, a conservative who shared many other normally-perceptive observers' previous skepticism of the Trump candidacy—as late as March 8, Douthat was predicting a Trump defeat—has written a new column trying to make sense of what the Trump phenomenon reveals about the state of American politics in general and the Republican Party in particular.

Douthat cites several previous characterizations of the political world that have been challenged by Trump's rise, including my research with Matt Grossmann concluding that the American party system is asymmetrically split between a party defined by a common ideological identity (the Republicans) and a party organized around a coalition of social groups (the Democrats). He writes:

But there was also a fair amount of political-science evidence that the Republicans really were a more ideological party than the Democrats, less inclined to view compromise in favorable terms, more inclined to regard politics through a philosophical rather than an interest-group service lens. 
Until Donald Trump blew this model up. Yes, Trump has adopted conservative positions on various issues, but he’s done so in a transparently cynical fashion, constantly signaling that he doesn’t really believe in or understand the stance that he’s taking, constantly suggesting a willingness to bargain any principle away. Except for immigration hawks, practically every ideological faction in the party regards Trump with mistrust, disgust, suspicion, fear. Pro-lifers, foreign-policy hawks, the Club for Growth, libertarians — nobody thinks Trump is really on their side. And yet he’s winning anyway. 
Or at least he’s winning a plurality. So perhaps Trumpism can be understood as a coup by the G.O.P.’s ideologically flexible minority against the conservative movement’s litmus tests; indeed to some extent that’s clearly what’s been happening.

It is true that Trump, almost uniquely for a Republican candidate, does not portray his political goals as derived from an abstract commitment to small-government principles or constitutional values. His is a much more colloquial style anchored less in hostility to federal power than in two other strains of conservatism—nationalism and racial resentment—that also have a long pedigree on the American right but have historically been less central to the intellectual foundations of the modern conservative movement or the practice of Republican Party politics. He has demonstrated that many Republican voters are not sufficiently alienated by such heterodoxies as support for current levels of entitlement spending, skepticism about free-trade agreements, and criticism of the Iraq War to turn away from a candidate whom they find otherwise appealing.

Yet it's difficult to conclude that Trump single-handedly disproves the existence of fundamental asymmetries between the parties. If Trump is not a doctrinaire conservative, neither is he a conciliatory moderate, and he is not running on a laundry list of detailed policy initiatives directed toward individual social groups, as is common practice among Democrats. (Indeed, Trump could hardly constitute better evidence in favor of our conclusion that many Republican supporters are motivated by broad rhetorical themes, not policy specifics.)

When Douthat writes that "nobody thinks Trump is really on their side," he's referring to a set of organizations and activists that have traditionally served as the leadership of the American conservative movement. It appears, however, that Republican voters look more and more to the most popular personalities in the conservative media universe (whose increasing and unparalleled influence is a major theme of our forthcoming book) for political guidance. If Trump is really a phony conservative, they reason, wouldn't Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity let us know?

Finally, while one might personally agree with Douthat's characterization of Trump as a "transparently cynical" candidate who "doesn't really believe in or understand" his own purported views, it is clear that Trump has managed to convince many Republican voters of the opposite: that he is a uniquely bold teller of truths who is courageously taking on a timid and corrupt Republican "establishment." It is perhaps appropriate for many conservatives who cheered on the Tea Party movement but are now aghast at Trump's success to consider the extent to which they themselves have contributed to the destruction of the national Republican leadership's popular credibility among the party's own primary electorate. Frequent depictions of figures like John McCain, Mitt Romney, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell as sell-outs and secret liberals have created a power vacuum that both Trump and Ted Cruz have filled, and have removed what would otherwise be a potentially powerful mechanism with which to fight them.

All in all, Trump is indeed an imperfect fit for a Republican Party that has traditionally conceived of itself as dedicated to the cause of limited government. But observers who are now proclaiming the Age of Trump should risk extrapolating too much from a single data point (some of us are old enough to recall when Ross Perot supposedly represented the future of American politics). If Trump, who lacks a loyal faction within the party's elected officeholders, loses the election, the Republican Party will retreat and regroup to consider its future and the lessons of the campaign—and many of the loudest voices within the party will unite in declaring that Trump was indeed a deeply flawed nominee.

Next time, they'll say, let's nominate someone different—a true conservative.