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Behind the Republican implosion

Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director, Center for Right-Wing Studies | February 19, 2016

The profound dysfunction on display in the Republican party’s contest for its 2016 presidential nomination reflects an intra-party civil war that has been simmering for the past 25 years and has now burst out of control.

In the year 2000, George W. Bush’s signal political achievement was uniting an already fractious Republican Party behind him and coming within 550,000 votes of Gore-Lieberman in the general election. His father’s re-election campaign in 1992 was undone by a rebellion in the party led by Newt Gingrich.

In 1996 Pat Buchanan with his “pitchfork rebellion” toppled eventual nominee Robert Dole in the New Hampshire primary. Bush won election as a “wartime president” in 2004, the only year since the 1980s the Republicans have won the presidential popular vote. In 2008 John McCain was toppled in the Iowa caucuses by evangelical preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Rick Santorum reprised Huckabee’s role in 2012 as the last of several right-wing challengers standing, having won in Iowa and staying in the race against eventual nominee Mitt Romney until the April primaries.

Populist challenge 

Source: Fibonacci Blue

Tea Party rally (Fibonacci Blue via Wikimedia Commons)

The pattern is clear: for a quarter century a disgruntled and largely populist right wing has challenged the establishment Republican party for the party’s presidential nomination. And the grievances of that right wing toward the party establishment have grown deeper and more acrimonious over the years.

After 2008, when the election of Barack Obama coincided with a devastating financial and housing crisis, the right — stronger and angrier than ever — formed itself into an organized force, the Tea Party. The Tea Party regularly defeated established Republicans in state and local primaries, and forced the national party toward more and more radical positions by their increased representation in Congress and their willingness to obstruct the legislative process.

Increasingly, the right’s sense of betrayal by the party’s establishment — we give them our votes, they go to Washington, forget what we voted for, and make beltway deals  with the Democrats instead — seems to have grown beyond the establishment’s capacity to contain it.

As Garry Wills recently observed:

The sense of betrayal by one’s own is a continuing theme in the Republican Party (a Fox News poll in September 2015 found that 62 percent of Republicans feel “betrayed” by their own party’s officeholders)

This year’s campaign has turned upside down the recurrent Republican presidential nominating spectacle of a series of populist far-right challengers rising in the polls and falling before the might of the establishment. Now, two populist, anti-establishment candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are being chased by three establishment candidates (Rubio, Kasich and Jeb Bush) who are jockeying for position to take down the populist.

Donald Trump

New Hampshire town hall (Michael Vadon photo via Wikimedia Commons)

The Republican pattern of the past quarter century has turned topsy turvy: now the establishment figures are underdogs and radicals the leaders. What happened?

The catalyst for turning the Republicans topsy turvy was the arrival, last June, of Donald Trump as a candidate. Commentators across the political spectrum have agreed — often reluctantly — that Trump fundamentally changed the game for the Republicans. What is less recognized is how this year’s version of the Republican civil war created the optimum condition for Trump’s immediate, astounding and durable rise to the top of the field as soon as he entered the contest.

Immigration impasse

This year the Republican establishment and its populists hit an impasse more unbridgeable than anything come before. The issue was immigration and for each side the question was non-negotiable. For the populists, “illegal immigrants” explained the immediate dysfunctions in their environment, like unemployment, drug addiction and fading life chances.

But something more profound was going on, a global sense that the country was getting away from them, that they were increasingly dispossessed; their taken-for-granted privileged white identity — they were the “real Americans, as Sarah Palin had dubbed them in her 2008 vice presidential run — was getting swamped by minorities from below and minorities arriving in positions of power both culturally and — Obama! — politically.

In practical terms the Tea Party and the populist Republican right rejected any path toward legalization for America’s estimated 11 million “illegals.” In April 2015 Judson Phillips, head of the Tea Party Nation, put the question succinctly:

For conservatives in 2016, Amnesty is the defining issue.  There is no middle ground.  There cannot be any form of Amnesty.  We need a President who will put the interests of Americans first. (emphasis added)

In contrast, the Republican establishment saw immigration reform as the only viable route for the party to remain capable of mounting national campaigns. The party had to find a way to open itself up to America’s largest minority population, Latinos, or else become demographically doomed except as a regional party. The Republicans’ problem with America’s changing demography — the population’s increasingly higher percentage of minorities — had become an existential crisis for the Republican establishment.

South Carolina’s hawkish senator Lindsey Graham, briefly a presidential contender (there were 17 announced candidates at its height) expressed the establishment view last June:

But if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table and in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party. And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view. (emphasis added)

It was the party reaching loggerheads so profoundly over immigration that made Trump’s entry into the campaign so explosive. His remarks on Mexico and Mexicans as he announced his campaign became instantly famous: he promised to build a wall on the country’s southern border, a wall that Mexico would pay for; and as for Mexicans coming into the United States he said:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

These remarks electrified the Tea Party, the populist right and nativists. Michael Reagan, along with many others, summed up the reaction within these quarters: Trump was just “saying what all of us are thinking.”

The terror attacks in Paris and San Bernadino permitted Trump to double down on immigration, and to firm up his nativist support accordingly. He famously called for a halt to all Muslim immigration to the U.S. This was something of a reprise of Trump’s 2011 political foray into “birtherism,” the conviction that Obama was not born in the U.S., a trope which has remained widely popular among the Tea Party population, a majority of whom also believes that Obama is a Muslim. Beyond this, Trump supporters have now followed through on Trump’s repeated warnings and have filed suit against his nearest current rival, Ted Cruz, to have Cruz disqualified for the presidency based on his birth in Canada.

Should Trump prevail …

Trump’s success among Republican voters has stoked the fears of the Republican establishment for the fate of their party. Trump has maintained his consistent lead — now 20 percent — among Republican “likely voters” in national polls. He won the New Hampshire primary by that margin and came in a close second in the Iowa caucuses. His prospects in the upcoming primaries look excellent.

Should Trump accumulate enough delegates in the primaries to win the nomination, the Republican party with him as its leader will come to resemble the anti-immigrant populist third parties that are common in Europe — parties like the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Not only would this mean a collapse of the center-right in the U.S., it would also mean the abandonment of the Republican establishment’s most dearly held tenet, free-market economics.

Trump, like the parties of the European populist right, is comfortable with policies like national health coverage that have been anathema — statism! — to the Republican Party since the days of its takeover by Reagan conservatism. Perhaps the Republican grandees are right: they are facing an existential crisis.

Comments to “Behind the Republican implosion

  1. Fear-hatred of outsiders is the oldest political and media strategy of all – likely for good biological reasons, thousands of years ago when outsiders mainly were carriers of infectious diseases!

    In this post we have the basic social science and humanities problem with behavior – what is symptom and what is cause?

    Biology, by definition, always trumps ideology. The medical facts about what cause behavior are first-order explanations. What people say-write, using everyday language are second and third level explanations at best and likely epiphenomenal. Biology defines medical, physiological causes of individual behavior – which can be framed as group behavior. Subjective self-reports and intuitive pop culture ideas is usually just solipsism. “Without data, you are just selling your personal opinions.”

    The “pathogen theory of culture” offers some initial ideas about what causes political behaviors and fear-hostility behaviors. Behavior is call caused by individual brains – after all.

  2. It’s hard to believe that a leader of a Center for Right Wing Studies could refer to Republican populists as seeing that “…their taken-for-granted privileged white identity…” was getting away from them, as if they are racists. Can this be even a balanced assessment of a political movement, let alone a new look into a heretofore misunderstood set of principles (never mind that they were articulated by our Founders in the first place).

    Take the illegal aliens question, for example. The idea that immigrants are welcome as long as they embrace U.S. values and identity, at least to some degree, has long been held by populists. Latinos, for example, who have striven to establish businesses or in some way have worked to provide for themselves, have been encouraged. Asians, who often starting with nothing, have been hailed as they learned the language, built successful businesses and assimilated themselves into the U.S. way of life.

    What Republican populists have opposed is the flood of entrants who care nothing for the U.S. way of life and who are encouraged by liberals/progressives/Democrats to carry out practices that not only take advantage of the U.S. magnanimity, but are predictably intended to tear it apart. This is compounded by efforts to justify that they vote, knowing that they will vote themselves benefits, laws and values that will finish the job.

    Is it the Center’s position that rejection of any immigration values, even those expressly intended to destroy the U.S., is untenable? Rosenthal’s diatribe is less a fair analysis of a renewed political force and more an attack upon it. In this light, the Center casts itself as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And, the 2016 elections will be the equivalent of the showdown at the OK Corral for our nation.

  3. I’m a soon to be ex-Republican unless something dramatic happens to stop Trump. Years ago I was actually considered to the Right within the GOP and accepted some but not all Paleo Con ideas (mainly concerning Free Trade – I’ve long been an Anti Free Trade GOPer). But in areas such as geopolitics I differ greatly from the Paleos. In the Social arena I am live and let live. I also believe the US needs to robust industrial policy. So, why don’t I believe in Trump? Firstly I refuse to cast my lot with a crypto-Fascist demagogue who seems to equivocate regarding certain so called “White Nationalist” notions. Secondly, I would never vote for a Putin boot licker like Trump. And thirdly, I care about our system too much to allow such a destructive man anywhere near the levers of power. For disaffected middle income whites there are other strategies to be pursued versus this current infatuation with the 21st Century version of a 1930s “strong man.” History does not repeat but it rhymes. #NeverTrump!

  4. It’s sad that the Democratic party has also shifted to the right. Obama has been a huge disappointment for liberals. Everything he has done had been what Republicans and centrists have always wanted. No changes in Wall Street fat cat regulations. No jail for water-boarding torturers. Republican insurance company-based health care. Rich get richer (fact) and the middle class shrinks. And it’s crazy that this basically moderate Republican president is hated by the right wing because he is Black.

    Bernie Sanders is voicing true liberal ideas (and generating huge excitement in liberals), but his chances of getting nominated by the supposedly liberal Democratic party are zero. Funny how no one is talking about the right shift of the Democratic party.

    • Hi Dave. You do realize that we only water tortured 3 (three) terrorists during the Bush years, right? And no one disputes they were terrorists. And no one criticizing the technique can say with any certainty that it did not work and prevent further terrorist attacks (CIA says it did — and they should know).

      And don’t forget The Daily Show with Jon Stewart episode when Bush’s lawyer, John Yoo, wiped the floor with the Stewart’s criticisms? So much so that Stewart, the following night, profusely apologized to his fans for being waterboarded himself by Yoo’s effective arguments.

      It was after that segment that Stewart took to filming all interviews with conservatives hours earlier than usual (Jonah Goldberg comes to mind) so he could re-edit them to excise their most effective points and make it appear he had the upper hand in all of them. Stewart, when confronted years later about this deception (what else to call it?), claimed he was an “entertainer,” it was his show, and implied that his name on the show allowed him to do so.

    • I agree that the Democrat Party is also dealing with some discomfort that it has, in general, shifted far enough to the right that liberals are no longer represented well. Perhaps we have progressed beyond the idea that a two-party system is the best approach.

      Maybe in the not-too-distant future there will be a realignment resulting in three parties, representing a) liberals, b) moderates, and c) conservatives? The situation is so dynamic, it is difficult to prognosticate.

  5. Ours is a civil society based upon the expression of a multiplicity of ideas. Diversity of thought is the key to understanding and finding a better way. It is no longer shocking to me that a college professor sees implosion, destruction, doom, and the end when a political party has a group of candidates engaged in vigorous debate over the fundamental principles of our government and society.

    Without debate only one idea becomes ascendant and our society is dead. Only the left wing desires the absence of debate for it is the least inclusive, most controlling political view.

  6. The Republican Party’s structural problems go back further than 25 years. I’m a former Republican and my perspective the problem is that the GOP periodically sells its soul for votes.

    In the 1960s Republicans realized they could pick up Southern conservatives who historically voted Democrat by opposing voting and civil rights legislation. LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the voting Rights Act in 1965 pushed Southern conservatives into the welcoming arms of the Republican party.

    The GOP did loose a lot of people with this strategy; blacks and progressive Republicans changed allegiance to the Democratic party but for every voter it lost it picked up several Southern conservative voters. Fundamentalist Christians were not very political; they saw politics as distasteful and were more concerned about their personal faith. When the reactionary religious right rose to power and encouraged fundamentalists to enter politics, the GOP again welcomed them.

    Note that the Bush family was historically pro-choice, but when Reagan tapped George H. Bush for Vice President, a condition was that Bush become 100% pro-life. Then after the election of President Barack Obama, the Tea Party formed from working-class white resentment over the advances of minorities and women and again the GOP adopted Tea Party rhetoric and welcomed the new voters.

    The Republican party indeed does face an existential crisis. The writing on the wall was the election of Barack Obama. The GOP strategy of alienating minority voters to win over a large majority of white voters no longer worked. Obama was the first president to win the presidency while loosing the white vote. We now have 4 “majority minority” states. In Hawaii, New Mexico, California and Texas, whites are no longer the majority; they may be the largest minority but the GOP can no longer ignore or even alienate minority voters and expect to win elections.

    The GOP won a lot of elections by scapegoating unpopular groups but now that it has become the party of angry Southern and Mid-West Christians, its demographic is dying out and becoming outnumbered.

  7. Of course, our current Hope & Change president and the current Democratic Socialist presidential candidate have represented extremism at the left end of the political spectrum too. Funny how none of the liberal academics talk about the left shift of the Democratic party.

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