Republicans already knew 20 years ago that they had an ideological problem. But even then they couldn’t figure it out: at the presidential level — and also the level of the conservative intelligentsia — the response to the populist challenges of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s was to run away from populism and embrace what George W. Bush in 2000 called ‘compassionate conservatism’. That formula produced the 2000 map, which saw Bush prevail only with a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court. Bush redoubled his efforts to win religious voters in 2004, but more often the Republican establishment and conservative elite have responded to failure by moving even further away from right-wing populism. The ‘autopsy’ that followed the GOP’s drubbing in 2012 is a case in point: it prescribed that Republicans should talk and act more like Democrats on issues like immigration.
Yet the truth is that the country’s demographic and cultural shifts have destroyed not right-wing populism but orthodox conservatism and Bush-style Republican politics. There is no market on the right or the identity-politics left for what anti-populist Republicans are advertising. The center ground that the Republican establishment of 15 years ago was built upon has disappeared, in large part because of the establishment’s own policies. The Rust Belt wasn’t going to vote Republican to get another war in the Middle East, but it might vote Republican if it meant keeping more jobs in the United States — and it did vote for Trump in that hope, among other reasons.
The Republican party will not return to normal after Trump because the norms of 2004 are long gone, along with the map that just barely made the last Republican president’s re-election possible.