Everyone’s fixating on Donald Trump. As is to be expected! But the fixation can be misleading and counterproductive if people think that he is some aberration that’s taken over the Republican Party, or that Republicans will somehow restrain his worst excesses.
Nope. The problem isn’t Trump, it’s the Republican Party. They won’t save us from Trump; they are Trump now.
But first, some reminders about US party politics.
What’s that? It’s the winners of presidential elections from 1860 on, when our current party system emerged. I’ve purposely kept it small and unlabeled so you can see the overall picture, which is: the parties alternate in power. If you look at just the last hundred years (1916-2016), it’s quite even: 13 wins each. (If you look at the whole chart, it’s skewed Republican 24-16; the Gilded Age was the golden age for the GOP.)
The bottom half of the chart shows popular vote wins. There are four mismatches, in all of which the Democrats won the popular vote and the Republicans the electoral vote. Corollary: Republicans will never touch the electoral college.
I emphasize the basics here because I’ve seen too many reactions that seemed to expect that the GOP would never win again. Democrats have the demographic advantage, the better candidates, the moral high ground, and surely no one would go back to the party of Bush. Nope. The other party always wins eventually, and if it wasn’t Trump it would be someone else.
Does this mean you shouldn’t freak out, or that things will be fine? Of course not; freak out all you want. But I think a lot of people on the left have just assumed that the right doesn’t really matter; the real struggle was against moderate liberals. Uh, nope. Despite all those demographics, the Republicans are very, very powerful. More people vote for Democrats than Republicans for the House, but their grip on the House is secure, and they control the vast majority of state governments. And your problem in the next four years isn’t going to be moderate liberals; it’s going to be Republicans all down the line.
I’d also suggest that Democrats shouldn’t over-do the soul-searching. The overall picture of US politics is that the parties alternate in power; also that they stay close to appealing to 50% of the electorate each. It’s not an accident; it’s how winner-take-all election systems work. There are occasional long runs (the Gilded Age GOP; the New Deal Democrats), but in general, if a party keeps losing elections, it adapts its policies and candidates till it reaches 50% again. If anything, voters’ patience is wearing thinner all the time: they’ve only granted a third term to a party once since 1952.
There’s no huge lesson in why Trump won. He squeaked out a win in two key states, Pennsylvania and Florida, and blew out Ohio, and that was enough to win the electoral college. Hillary was not unpopular; she won the popular vote by more than 2 million votes.
The surprise was that all the infighting in the GOP this year turned out not to matter. It solidified behind Trump. And that’s why I say that Trumpism is the GOP. The anti-Trump movement disappeared without a trace on November 8.
If you think Trump is still somehow opposed by Republicans, consider:
- The Never Trump movement and the high-profile defections had no effect. The cold feet of rivals, the worries that Trump was not conservative enough, the preference of Evangelicals for a candidate more like Cruz— no effect. None of that had any impact where it matters, in votes.
- Republican voters went for Trump. Maybe they didn’t love him, but they preferred him to Clinton. All of his obvious lies and flaws and outrages did not matter, and there is no reason to hope that they will suddenly start to matter.
- Paul Ryan is eager to work with Trump— and no wonder! It’s like Christmas for him. He’s going to get to do what he’s alway wanted to do: give the rich more money, take programs away from the poor, shred 20 million people’s insurance coverage, deregulate the banks, and maybe even destroy Medicare. All things that would have been done, mind you, if Romney had been elected in 2012.
- Have you seen the outrage from Republicans as Trump appoints white nationalists to his inner circle, uses the presidency to advance his business interests, or makes grandiose lies about “illegal voting”? No, neither have I.
- Is there any more pathetic sight in 2016 than Mitt Romney meeting with Trump, hat in hand, to be considered for a cabinet post?
- If you have trouble understanding how Republicans can stomach Trump… consider most Democrats’ reactions to 20 years of GOP excoriation of Hillary Clinton. From our point of view, it’s a nothingburger; it’s just noise and absurdity. Dialing up the outrage will not make Republican voters rethink their acceptance of Trump.
About the only positive to set against all this is that the Republican Senate seems like it won’t eliminate the filibuster. That won’t matter for a lot of Paul Ryan’s program— he will be happy to gut Obamacare with a reconciliation bill; he doesn’t actually intend to pass a replacement bill. But it might mean that (say) Medicare privatization won’t pass. Unless McConnell changes his mind next session.
There are undoubtedly ways in which a Trump presidency will be worse than (say) a Cruz presidency. (Name three!) But basically anything that Trump does, that is what Republicans knowingly voted for, and will eagerly help him do. And honestly, is Trump’s outrageousness really worse than Rush Limbaugh, the id of the Republican Party for the last few decades?
When people worry about “normalizing” the idea of President Trump— folks, that ship has sailed. I’ll grant you that people probably wouldn’t be freaking out quite so much over a President Jeb! Bush… but, folks, here’s the number of states Jeb! won in the primaries: zero. Here’s the number of delegates he won: four. Republicans were hellbent on electing either a monster or an idiot this year. And they’ll keep doing it until they start losing elections.
All this isn’t to say that Trump couldn’t get into huge trouble later with Republicans. Nixon managed it, after all, though it took 6 years. But this is the thing with authoritarians: they have enormous tolerance for whatever their leader does. 90% of what he does will be things they either happily support now, or can be talked into. (Repudiating trade deals, for instance. Free trade is generally orthogonal to ordinary party politics in the US anyway.) I haven’t heard a good story yet on what things Trump is likely to do which Paul Ryan or other Republicans will resolutely oppose. It’s easier, in fact, to imagine things on Ryan’s wish list which Trump will nix– and even that will probably go fine so long as Ryan gets his huge tax cut.