Last few days saw some pretty interesting events turning up with the Trump campaign: his campaign manager being charged with battery, Trump claiming that women who get abortion ought to be punished and reversing it, and so forth, all the while Trump may get thumped in Wisconsin by a sizable margin. This may finally be the beginning of the end for Trump, but also may well be the same for the Republican Party and possibly, a good chunk of political science.
This is rather astonishing to me since I thought, if played properly, Trump candidacy might be the best thing that ever happened to the Republicans. There is no coherent “ideology” that defines the Republican Party today, other than hostility to the Democrats. President Obama is reasonably popular today, but only among the Democrats. Quite frankly, most Republicans would be happy to back Karl Marx if he called himself a Republican and Republican insiders were willing to underwrite his label. While Trump’s many eccentricities, especially early on in his campaign, may have bothered many, they were merely eccentricities that could even play to his advantage in the general election. Heck, this was a guy who openly defended Planned Parenthood and questioned the official narrative on Iraq and the US policy on the Middle East in general in the middle of the Republican Debate, making him stand out seemingly as the only sane person in tune with the Middle America amidst all the Republican mouthpieces. If Trump kept his mouth shut, more or less, without veering to too extreme territory and if the Republican establishment were willing to accept the opportunity he presented, he would have given them a chance to gain a significant chunk of the “missing white voters” while retaining the remaining Republicans. This would not have produced a major victory, but something closer to 2000–a narrow win dependent on capturing half a dozen midwestern states, with or without a popular majority.
After everything that has taken place in the past few days, and the chain of events preceding it, it is difficult to imagine that Trump will be able to recover. It is worth recalling that, in 1992, Ross Perot was leading all the polls until well into Spring, until he temporarily dropped out of the race ranting conspiratorial tales about how he and his family are being targeted by government agents or something. His support tanked and never recovered. I can’t help but compare the peculiar developments in Trump’s candidacy to Perot’s. One huge difference, though, is that unlike Perot, whose reputation was entirely tied only to himself, Trump is running for Republican nomination. Whatever credibility hit Trump takes will not reflect will on the rest of the Republican Party, especially if that hit is perceived to come from the Republicans themselves, directly or indirectly.
Working class whites, to the degree that they turn out at all (at a very low rate, incidentally) are almost 2/3 Republican in their vote choice. It is unlikely that they will choose Hillary Clinton. They may choose Bernie Sanders, if he somehow prevails. I suspect that many will still opt for Trump if he survives, but will they choose the rest of the Republicans, now or in the future? The Republican Party has been an uneasy electoral coalition, made up of three factions that openly loathe one another–the Republicans, the conservatives (the faux Tea Party–the organized one), and the unpredictable working class whites (the original Tea Party–the unorganized one). The last two factions have often gotten confused for each other–if only because no one came out to lead the third faction until now. In their attempt to fend off the peasants from rising, the Republican leaders are busily burning the bridges, while, at the same time, the peasant bandit leader, Trump, seems to be eagerly burning bridges to all but the peasants. (oddly reminiscent of the crazy Ukrainian nationalist peasant rebel leader Nestor Makhno, who took on basically everyone–the Germans, the Bolsheviks, and the Whitists, in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.) This is not quite a sudden train crash–this has been going on for decades, as witness the relative downturn in participation among the working class whites since 1990s, even as they were turning Republican. But the open nature of this round of the fighting will not be without long term repercussions.
This may not be the end of the Republican Party as an actual party, but almost certainly spells their end as a competitive national political force. Their existing electoral coalition, built up from the Nixon days and completed between 1980s and 1990s, already under intense internal pressure since the ouster of Gingrich in late 1990s, is now in tatters. They’ll have to find themselves a new coalition and that will take a long time and significant slip ups by the Democrats to produce. Exactly what will be left in the rump of the Republican Party after Trump, however, is not obvious. If Trump is the nominee regardless of all that has taken place, many professional class Republicans, especially women, are certain to leave their ranks–if there were serious doubts just a few months ago, there isn’t much now. If he is to be matched up against Clinton, Republicans will have gained significant additional support from the working class whites that will further transform them to a blue collar party rather than a country club party–and ensure future exodus of remaining professionals and chamber of commerce types. If Trump is denied nomination, Republicans will be left only with the evangelicals and chambers of commerce, too small to be competitive electorally. However, Clinton will not be able to capture the working class voters expelled from the Republicans and that will endanger the stability of the entire American politics–possibly setting up the stage for a more virulent, Chavez like movement in the future. If Clinton does somehow lose the nomination to Sanders, the original New Deal coalition may reemerge, as the Democrats would be able to absorb many of these voters.