The Republicans still speak the language of opportunity, which appeals to a great many voters who might once have been Democrats, including a growing number of Hispanics. The GOP still espouses the more popular and self-confident elements of liberalism. At the same time, it welcomes voters who are thoroughly disenchanted with liberalism as well: those who have returned to religion, often of a very traditional kind; those who disdain liberal institutionalism because they identify it with a thoroughly corrupt elitism; and those who reject the universalist implications (and aspirations) of liberal theories and ideals. Free trade, open borders and the “liberal international order” can no longer count on support among Republicans.
As elite liberals repudiate America’s past, liberal institutions lose their broad base of support. And as institutional liberalism decays, liberal intellectuals become all the more histrionic in their hype about “fascism” and threats to “our democracy.” They increasingly view a third or more of the American public as “deplorables.” Naturally enough, the voters they deplore then come to take an even dimmer view of the institutions that liberals control. The panicky way Democrats respond to Republicans makes the GOP grow stronger, and the stronger the GOP grows, the more shrill the Democratic response becomes.
Yet Republicans have a problem too. As the institutional order of twentieth-century liberalism rots, the GOP reaps the rewards but also winds up with more responsibility than it can handle. The American right can win amid the collapse, but it faces a harder task in building something new — an institutional establishment that suits a country very different from the one that elected Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in landslides. Republicans can win power, but can they govern a country that is more secular and urban than the GOP’s own heartlands? If they can’t learn to do so, the United States may not be headed toward “national divorce,” but it will be directionless and shambling in a century when stability and cohesion are the world’s most precious commodities.