The scapegoat for defeat in 2012 was opposition to immigration reform. Sounds like the scapegoat for defeat this year will be conservative media and advocacy groups. Isn’t it interesting how Beltway Republicans’ least favorite elements of the party are perpetually to blame for its failures instead of, say, the persistent lack of a compelling GOP middle-class agenda.
What they really want to overhaul here is their own base. The problem for the party this year in the primaries, glaringly exposed by Trump, is that the business-class Republicanism favored by the GOP leadership has only a small constituency among the rank and file. The base is a mishmash of nationalists/reactionaries, movement conservatives, and the great mass of less ideological married whites who lean Republican for more bottom-line reasons. The problem for the party leadership is that they want to reduce their base to the last group but can’t win without the support of the first two. There are simply too many ideologues. The math isn’t there. So they need to somehow re-engineer the ideologues to become less ideological. How do you do that? They … don’t really know, apart from some throat-clearing about populist conservative outlets behaving more responsibly.
They regard Trump as the symptom of a disease that afflicts the GOP and fear that emergency restructuring is needed to prevent massive losses among racial minorities that are a growing share of the electorate and have generally accelerated every presidential election cycle since 1992…
“You have to have a culture change as a party. You have to be very comfortable being disliked by loud, disruptive, negative voices that have only one goal and that goal is to tear down the brand of the Republican Party,” Josh Holmes said this week during an interview with the Washington Examiner’s “Examining Politics” podcast…
“It’s time for the conservative commentariat industry to be more responsible and focus on winning elections,” said GOP strategist Brad Todd, who advises House and Senate candidates…
“So long as some of the most powerful voices in conservative media spend more time attacking Republicans than Democrats, the Democrats will hold the White House,” a Republican strategist who has advised multiple GOP presidential candidates said.
One idea mentioned in the piece for “overhauling” the party is more intervention by the leadership in primaries. Next time, the theory goes, they’ll take a firmer hand in marginalizing a Trump figure before he starts rolling. But … that that wouldn’t do anything to make ideologues less ideological. If anything, it might do the opposite. Remember, the donor class considered moving aggressively against Trump this year but held off for the understandable reason that it might have increased populist support for him. They bet on him failing on his own and feared that trying to give him a nudge towards the exit would anger populists — the system is rigged! — and backfire by reinvigorating Trump’s candidacy. Besides which, Ramesh Ponnuru is right that it’s odd for party insiders to conclude that more meddling in primaries is the answer given that they’ve done that before, in 2014, and it didn’t prevent the Trump crisis that’s upon them now. “[T]here’s not a word here from any of the insiders about the fact that large numbers of Republican voters are indifferent at best to the party’s economic agenda,” says Ponnuru of the piece quoted above. “The storyline here is that what happened in 2016 is just a repetition of what happened in 2010 and 2012.” The Trump phenomenon is purportedly no different from the Christine O’Donnell phenomenon in the Delaware primary six years ago. They’ve learned nothing.
The only thing that will make ideologues less ideological, I think, is continued defeat. That’s what led Sean Hannity to flip, however briefly, on comprehensive immigration reform a few days after the 2012 election. Eventually you get tired of losing and become more willing to convince yourself that some core beliefs aren’t really all that “core” and can honorably be dropped. Some movement conservatives might reach that point after this election, if Trump gets walloped. Normally they’d spin that as proof that nationalism is a sure loser, not conservatism — and many will spin it that way publicly — but the hard fact is that a boorish amateur like Trump defeated true conservative Ted Cruz handily in a Republican primary despite Cruz’s brilliance, populist cred, and vastly superior organization. Any conservative who walks away from this election thinking that Reaganites are still a majority of the party and just need “the right candidate” to remind everyone of that is as self-deluding as the establishmentarians discussed above. You can see some anti-Trump movement conservatives starting to bend already, in fact, when they say that they won’t support Trump but would have backed anyone else as nominee, including the very squishy Kasich. By 2020, with four more years of Democrats in charge under their belts (and at least one Supreme Court appointment), some of them might end up voting in the primaries in terms of pure electability. Good news for Kasich, not as good for Cruz.
I’m not sure nationalists have the same incentives, though. They’re getting their first taste of power within the GOP right now. Trump’s success in the primaries is proof that a nationalist (or at least a celebrity nationalist) can win even against a deep conservative field. If they vote for electability in the 2020 primaries, they’ll be squandering the momentum they’ve built this year. And they’ll be showing the rest of the GOP, if the 2020 nominee goes on to become president, that nationalists can once again be safely taken for granted in terms of setting the party’s priorities since they’ll line up and be good soldiers for a more mainstream candidate if need be. Nationalists need to organize and establish themselves as a discrete bloc within the party with particular demands, arguably to the point where they’re willing to wreck the GOP’s chances of winning in 2020 by staying home to make their strength felt if the ticket doesn’t reflect their interests. Watching a moderate conservative like Kasich lose to Clinton because nationalists refused to turn out would show other Republicans that the movement must be accommodated. It might also have the effect of convincing some mainstream GOPers that even a moderate conservative can’t win anymore and that the party should take a chance by embracing nationalism more fully, this time with a more disciplined nominee than Trump. Remember, the longer Democrats hold power and the further left they drift, the more radicalized some Republicans will get and the more willing they’ll be to look closely at “white identity politics” or other strains of reactionary right-wing thought. It’s hard to see how conservatism would benefit from a Hillary Clinton presidency but it’s less hard to see how nationalism, which is striving for mainstream acceptance, would. Just look at the majority-left/far-right dynamic in Europe right now.
All of this assumes that voters will behave strategically, though. Maybe they won’t. An alternate theory of what’s happening with Trump this year is that the American right and/or white voters more generally are having some sort of nervous breakdown at the prospect of the country shifting decisively left due to demographics. “Decisively left” doesn’t mean that Democrats win every election, but it might mean that the GOP can’t win nationally anymore without becoming a more centrist, Tory-ish party. Nominating Trump may be the political equivalent of a middle finger to that reality, if it is in fact a reality, with an even more radical, rejectionist nominee to follow next time as the party slides further from viability. Putting it in Kubler-Ross terms, Trump may be an expression of denial and anger all at once. Depression will follow if he loses. When acceptance will finally arrive, well, that’s the question.