More than any other one factor, that’s what changed this year. The GOP’s problem was not that the voters wanted harsh condemnation of Hillary and Obama — indeed, you could have gotten more of that from listening to Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Bobby Jindal than by watching a typical Trump speech, interview, or debate answer. Its problem, rather, was an overdose of mistrust of Republicans, fed both by the fecklessness of a Beltway GOP that had trouble showing results and by a talk-radio-led environment in which no charge against Republican leaders was too extreme or hyperbolic. It is a shame that so many in conservative media refused to recognize the strong slate of Republican governors standing right in front of their noses, offering living proof that the party is perfectly capable of playing to win, govern, and get results through the political system. Thirty-one states have a GOP governor today. Four others have elected one at some point during the Obama presidency. Most of them have had enough support in their state legislatures to pass a governing agenda, even if it’s often been stymied by the federal courts and the White House.
Trump fed into the anti-establishment mood through his ceaseless bashing of the party and its elected officials. He used his “we never win anymore” rhetoric to tap into a sense among the party’s own base that something radical was needed to change a dynamic in which elections never seem to have consequences except when Democrats win them. If you thought Obama was terrible and we needed to replace him, you voted for one of the elected-official candidates. If you thought Obama was terrible and it didn’t matter if we replaced him with a “normal” Republican, you voted for Trump. Ted Cruz, the least “normal” of the elected Republicans, finished second to Trump for similar reasons, despite their enormous ideological and experiential differences. The evidence of the anti-GOP establishment sentiment driving the primary was all over the exit polling and the anecdotal accounts gleaned from talking to Trump voters.
We didn’t get Trump because of too much bashing of Democrats, but because of too much bashing of Republicans. If the GOP wants to recover, it needs to rebuild its voters’ trust in its own leadership and efficacy, rather than laying off criticism of its opponents.