In 2013, the Republican National Committee produced a now-famous autopsy of the 2012 election. In the report, party officials recognized that if Republicans wanted to win national elections, they would have to push policies and politicians that would attract non-white voters. Comprehensive immigration reform, the report concluded, was the Republican Party’s ticket out of the mess it was stuck in. “If we do not [embrace immigration reform], our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only,” the report warned.
And here we are. Republicans nominated a candidate who has flouted a whole host of conservative orthodoxies, but retains the undying support of a hard core of Republican voters because of one stance: his overt hostility to non-whites, including Latinos, blacks, and Muslims with origins in the Middle East. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, is favored to win, riding what appears to be a surge of Latino voters flocking to the polls. They are #WithHer, sure, but the Latino vote is primarily a backlash to Donald Trump, his party, and what they represent.
The idea that the RNC would issue a similar autopsy report in 2017 is laughable. Trump’s victory in the primary—against a field stacked with governors and senators—proves that a plurality of Republican voters are not prepared to budge on the issue of immigration. Furthermore, Trump’s candidacy has pulled the entire party further to the right on this issue. Comprehensive immigration reform is now surely a dead letter in the Republican Party. Any person with aspirations to become president knows that the only road to the GOP nomination is the one paved by Trump. The unifying message going forward is one of resentment and reaction, often on racial lines.
That means we are likely to see a Trump-like figure—if not Trump himself—winning the nomination in the 2020 cycle. And it will be 2016 all over again.
There has been much talk this election about what will happen to the Republican Party in the event that Trump loses. Some conservatives have left the GOP. Others have planted their #NeverTrump flag, vowing to win back their party. But there are few signs that a real reckoning is in order. The Republican Party as a whole has overwhelmingly backed its nominee, in large part because it has no choice: Voters have flocked to Trump, and party stalwarts, even those with misgivings like Speaker Paul Ryan, have been forced to fall in line.
Furthermore, Trump will not cease to exist on November 9. America’s most self-obsessed grandstander will not retreat, tail between his legs, to live out the rest of his days in Howard Hughes-ish solitude. Trump, who has significantly higher favorable ratings within the GOP than Ryan, will continue to be a force in the party. And all signs point to the fact that he will not go quietly, should he lose. Trump has signaled repeatedly that he will contest the results of the election if they do not fall in his favor. This suggests that the Trump-fueled erasure of civic norms will continue—who would have predicted that we would look back fondly on John McCain’s 2008 concession speech?—and that the Republican Party has every incentive to go along with it.
Republicans in elected office have telegraphed that, should Hillary Clinton win, they will spend the next four years doing everything in their power to subvert her presidency, with some even suggesting that she could be impeached immediately after taking office. The hounding of the Clintons is one of the Republican Party’s proudest traditions, and Trump will be a more prominent and important tool in this respect than anything in the Republican woodshed in the 1990s.
Going after Clinton will unify the party’s shrinking base, giving it no reason to go through the kind of soul-searching necessary to re-establish itself as a viable national party. Instead, we’ll continue talking about Clinton’s emails and Benghazi forever, until a new scandal emerges. Far from recalibrating itself for future national elections, the Republican Party can keep playing Trump’s tune of “lock her up.” As my colleague Brian Beutler has written, the Republicans in Congress will extend, not retract, Trump’s claims of illegitimacy, and use them to prevent the government from functioning: judicial vacancies will lie unfilled, legislation will not be passed—nothing will get done. The refusal to even consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court is the new normal.
Any policy seen as benefitting non-white voters is even deader than it was before. When it comes to immigration, anything short of The Wall is off the table. Ethno-nationalism has become the defining characteristic of the GOP, and from now on Republicans, from statehouse races to the presidency, will be competing for the white nationalist vote, which could accelerate the Republican Party’s makeover as an unapologetic white nationalist party.
Finally, the right-wing echo chamber—particularly talk radio and Fox News—has been instrumental in determining the nature of the modern Republican Party. But Trump’s campaign has shown that there is a willingness to embrace new levels of misinformation. He has both further eroded the public’s trust in the national news media and actively promoted stories that have no basis whatsoever in reality. One of the Trump’s campaign’s most important lasting legacies will be its embrace of blatant falsehood as political strategy and its championing of outlets like Breitbart that would have been considered untouchable even a few years ago.
Donald Trump is the product of forces that have been unleashed and amplified by one party. Division and obstructionism, the obliteration of political norms, the politicization of previously apolitical parts of our government and civic life, the contempt for government, the rise of ethno-nationalism—all were prevalent before Trump. And all these traits will become only more ingrained in the coming years, thanks to Trump and his Republican enablers, as the GOP works to undermine the legitimacy of the government, the media, and other national institutions.
There are other forces that have contributed to Trump’s rise, forces that have also roiled the Democratic Party: the failures of technocratic liberalism, the disruptive tendencies of globalization, the manifest inequalities that permeate America in the 21st century. Whether the Democrats are up to these challenges is an open question. But if 2016 is any indication, they will be the only acceptable option come 2020.