Sometimes it’s difficult to conjure a clear memory of U.S. political life before Donald Trump. But one of its most salient oddities was that the establishment elite considered it crass (if not outright slanderous) to suggest, in ideologically mixed company, that only one of the two major parties drew upon the support of bigots for political power.
In quarters where racism wasn’t denied or diminished, it was regarded as a diffuse problem, delinked in most ways from the biggest political flash points of the day. Homophobia, while more identifiably political, was frequently characterized as misunderstood religiosity, or as an eroding anachronism of well-meaning but old-fashioned geriatrics. Vitriol toward Mexican immigrants was interpreted as a response to labor competition from unskilled, undocumented workers—an outgrowth of zero-sum economics rather than of xenophobia.
This was true until about a year ago. That’s when Trump, who makes a habit of repurposing neo-Nazi propaganda for messaging on social media, began his march to the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and Occam’s razor finally sliced through the more strained explanations.
Surely, to concede the obvious, some of our big political debates were driven by more than racism, or were de-raced altogether. Surely some individuals and families opposed to same-sex marriage warmly welcomed gays and lesbians into all other aspects of social and civic life. Surely deepening economic insecurity, totally uncolored by nativism, explained some amount of anti-immigrant sentiment.
But Trump has made it permissible–even in elite circles, and even among many conservatives who once denied it–to observe that hatred or bias, uncomplicated by any virtue or affliction, lay under all of those phenomena, too. He’s demonstrated that millions of white people believe it’s important to rally behind politicians who support policies that directly or indirectly penalize minorities—and that those politicians happen to be members of one party.
The problem is that, even faced with the degree of discomfort Trump has created for them, GOP leaders have been unable to unleash themselves from his politics. When Trump attacked Hillary Clinton on Independence Day weekend with an anti-Semitic smear, Republicans completely ignored it. That Republicans feel trapped, even under such baleful circumstances, is a bad omen for the next chapter in American politics. Especially if, as now seems likely, the third straight term of Democratic rule will be led by an unpopular politician who has been a target of offensive conservative vitriol for 20 years. Trump could lose the election badly and the incentives in Republican politics would still point to race-baiting, conspiracy peddling, and appeals to white-male grievance as useful tools of political battle.
For all the uncomfortable truths that Trump has clarified, his success in Republican politics tells us little about how the country is supposed to deal more productively with its constituency of white, mostly male supremacists, confined as they are largely in one of the two parties. They’re entitled to political representation just as much as any other citizens, and, within constitutional bounds, to promote policy ends that advance whatever they perceive to be their interests. As long as that’s the case, a significant segment of the political class will be able to thrive on a platform of gutting welfare spending, persecuting immigrants, and stigmatizing religious minorities.
It has been widely postulated that three consecutive losses at the presidential level will force even the most recalcitrant party into a realignment. The GOP’s method of dealing with Trump suggests that axiom is about to be disproved.
If anyone has a solution to the unwieldy collective-action problem bedeviling Republicanism, that person probably isn’t writing it into an opinion column at a wifi cafe on the Fourth of July. But we do know that in the slipstream of Trumpism where Republicans find themselves, there is no countervailing current against a more open embrace of white-male grievance politics. Shifting direction would likely require the party to take at least these three steps:
1. Strengthen the post-Trump Republican Party so its agenda isn’t determined entirely by external institutions, like Fox News or the Club for Growth.
One reason the Republican Party couldn’t stop Trump was that political parties, and the GOP in particular, have been badly weakened. The rise of super PACS (and super-campaigns) in the post-Citizens United era, along with the rise of the conservative counter-establishment, have rendered parties relatively helpless to stop forces like Trump. To change that would involve passing legislation that frees parties from certain weakening restrictions—the Brennan Center for Justice suggests reducing limits on contributions to candidates by the parties themselves, and creating a federal matching program for small-dollar contributions to party organs—while discouraging the growth of party-like outside groups with disclosure laws or other regulations the Supreme Court would uphold. (This is to say nothing about Fox News and other propaganda sources in the right’s closed information ecosystem–more on which below–that have no interest in losing power relative to the GOP.)
2. End movement-conservative dominance over the Republican policy agenda.
Ironically, the power of the conservative movement may be the one thing preventing Donald Trump from cobbling together a majority coalition this year, despite his appeals to bigotry. Its influence can be detected in Trump’s tax-reform plan, which is tilted overwhelmingly to benefit wealthy individuals and corporations; in his pledge to repeal the Affordable Care Act; and in his disinterest in advancing labor interests through higher wage and income requirements (or union-building, or anything beyond vague promises to renegotiate trade deals). Unless a strengthened Republican Party can embrace policies that empower workers without appealing to their racial biases, the party’s post-Trump future will look a lot like its pre-Trump past.
3. Penalize both undisguised racist pandering like Trump’s, and the subtler appeals to white resentment that Republicans have long used.
Before Trump was calling unauthorized Mexican immigrants rapists, everyone in Republican politics was calling them “illegals,” or worse. Republicans framed the last election as a battle between “makers” in their overwhelmingly white party, and “takers” in the ethnically diverse Democratic party. Trump has merely taken it a step farther by consistently using the word “we” to distinguish his white male support base from women and ethnic minorities.
Rather than dismissing those who claim to be offended by GOP vernacular as agents of political correctness, Republicans would have to adopt new ways of talking and thinking about issues, stick to them, and then marginalize members of the party who refused to adapt.
The problem is, party leaders like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Reince Priebus can’t constantly police the right for evidence of race and gender pandering, and related scams. The existing paradigm isn’t shaped by talking points that can be easily edited and put back “on message.” It’s shaped by conservative news and entertainment figures who make money affirming white suspicions about minorities and urban enclaves, and by the self-flattering ideology of the Republican donor class.
These strong moves toward reorienting the Republican Party away from Trumpism seem highly unlikely, in part because they cut against some of the objectives conservatives have been fighting to advance for decades. Which is too bad.
Were they achievable, they would still leave in place a large gulf between the country’s left-of-center and right-of-center political factions. Conservatism would remain religious and pastoral. The right’s libertarian-inflected, just-deserts moralism would give way to a more empathetic one—after all, you can’t brighten the horizons of the working class if your primary objective is drowning the government in a bathtub—but one that would still leave wide latitude for advocating welfare-state and tax reforms that depart from liberal notions of distributive fairness. Republicans could advocate for broader-based but less progressive taxation, and for more streamlined social spending (or for spending that better promoted employment or family formation).
But this would still constitute an abrupt and marked shift to the left—one far more abrupt and marked than the response to Trump suggests the party is capable of.
Trump is probably sui generis in some ways. The next Republican standard-bearer is unlikely to be as erratic and shameless as he is. But the biggest medium-term question in politics is whether Republicans are going to undertake a radical shift in priorities voluntarily, or whether they’ll gamble instead that headwinds of unpopularity and distrust will stop Clinton from becoming a successful, two-term president on their own. If their big idea for avoiding the stench of Trump is to completely acquiesce to him, why would they shift course after his candidacy is over, and their path to power begins to look easy again?