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How the Republican Party Eats Itself, But Stays Alive

The U.S. Senate race in West Virginia is a window into the GOP's future under Trump—and perhaps beyond.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In his bid for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia, Don Blankenship has started selling himself by claiming to be “Trumpier than Trump.” It’s hard to dispute his boast. President Donald Trump has merely bankrupted six companies, while Blankenship’s negligence as the CEO of Massey Energy led to the death of 29 miners in a 2010 accident, which also resulted in Blankenship serving a one-year prison term for willfully violating safety standards. 

Trump’s demagogic and xenophobic rhetoric, as well as his willingness to thumb his nose at the Republican establishment, are more than matched by Blankenship. In an ad last week, Blankenship referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “cocaine Mitch” and made a racist dig at McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people,” Blankenship said in the ad. “While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”

Blankenship has taken the Trumpian ethos to such an extreme that even Trump is blanching. On Monday morning, he tweeted:

Trump’s tweet was motivated by the anxiety of the Republican establishment, led by McConnell, that Blankenship might actually win the party’s nomination in Tuesday’s primary. Polls over the weekend show a tight race, with Blankenship enjoying a narrow edge over Jenkins and Morrisey. 

The race fits a familiar pattern of the Trump era, in which incendiary insurgents who are opposed by the Republican establishment do unexpectedly well. That describes Trump himself, as well as Roy Moore, who won the Republican nomination for Senate in Alabama last year despite a history of dabbling with white supremacism and his belief that homosexuality should be illegal. Moore, of course, proved too extreme for voters, hobbled not just by his far-right politics but by credible allegations that he was a child molester.

In warning against Blankenship, Trump is trying to use Moore’s loss as an example of the dangers of nominating an unfit candidate. Yet Trump’s own success in winning the presidency serves as an effective counterargument that in today’s political climate, practically no one is unelectable. In fact, Trump has created a model for other insurgents to emulate—and the Republican establishment, through its failures of governing in the majority, has paved the way for them.

Congressman Thomas Massie has a theory about GOP primaries. Like Senator Rand Paul, Massie is a libertarian-leaning Republican from Kentucky, and in 2016 he noticed “that the people that voted for me in Kentucky, and the people who had voted for Rand Paul in Iowa several years before, were now voting for Trump,” he told the Washington Examiner last year. 

“All this time,” he added, “I thought they were voting for libertarian Republicans. But after some soul searching I realized ... they weren’t voting for libertarian ideas—they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race. And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along.”

Allahpundit, a pseudonymous conservative columnist, offered a similar analysis on Monday. “Increasingly I think the future of the GOP is to elect ever weirder populists, with each successive populist winner enlisted to warn voters that the next populist is a sure loser before again being proved wrong,” Allahpundit wrote. “Come 2025, President Don Blankenship will be tweeting at the California GOP not to nominate the Golden State Killer for governor to own the libs because he can’t possibly win a statewide election.”

Why is the GOP nominating “ever weirder populists”? While Trump is unpopular with the country at large, he remains beloved by Republican voters. So naturally Republican candidates, needing to win primaries, have taken to mimicking him. As Greg Sargent observed in The Washington Post:

In multiple GOP races across the country...candidates are employing phrases such as “drain the swamp,” “build the wall,” “rigged system” and even “fake news.” The GOP Senate candidate in Tennessee ran an ad that promises to stand with Trump “every step of the way to build that wall,” and even echoes Trump’s attacks on African American football players protesting systemic racism and police brutality:  “I stand when the president walks in the room. And yes, I stand when I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” 

But Trump’s own rise was fueled by the same factors that are now empowering a generation of mini-Trumps: the disillusionment of Republican voters with their party’s establishment, even in a period of electoral success.

On paper, the GOP looks stronger than ever: They have complete control of the federal government and 26 states. Yet the political success of the party hasn’t yielded comparable policy achievements. Trump’s legislative agenda is stalled, having only accomplished tax cuts. His border wall isn’t under construction, despite his claims to the contrary. The promised repeal of Obamacare has failed a comical number of times (yet remains undead). His infrastructure spending plan was dead on arrival. And his plans to fight the opioid epidemic are making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

But if Republican voters sense that they’ve been sold a bill of goods, they’re not taking it out on Trump. As the primary success of Moore and now Blankenship suggest, they’re blaming McConnell and other members of the Republican establishment.

One of Trump’s real successes as president has been keeping his voters loyal by cleverly using McConnell and other GOP leaders as whipping boys. When Obamacare repeal fell short in the Senate last August, Trump told reporters he was “very disappointed in Mitch” and called the failed vote “a disgrace.” In the minds of GOP voters (and the public at large), Trump’s bullying of McConnell has diminished the Kentucky senator. A Harvard-Harris poll conducted in October showed that 56 percent of Republicans wanted McConnell to resign. Among the general public, McConnell had a dismal 16 percent job approval rating.

Moore, and now Blankenship, have followed Trump’s example in using McConnell and the Republican establishment as a foil. The establishment politicians are getting desperate and more hostile,” Blankenship said in a radio ad. “They are calling me a bigot, a moron, a despicable character and mentally ill. But even if all this is true I will do a better job than they have done.”

As long as Republicans remain politically powerful, they will be susceptible to cranks like Blankenship, who feed off the base’s anger that the party’s promised agenda is not being enacted. But the party may be susceptible to cranks like Blankenship regardless.

The Republican dilemma, and thus America’s dilemma, is that there’s no obvious path back to normality. The GOP lurched to the right under President Barack Obama, but the fever never broke. Rather than moderating itself to regain power—as the Democrats did with Bill Clinton in the early 1990s—the party moved even further right, first with the rise of the Tea Party and now with Trump. And then, defying the conventional wisdom, they won control of both the White House and Congress. 

The voters rewarded Republicans’ extremism, so why would the party feel compelled to change direction now? The popularity of Moore and Blankenship suggests the GOP is moving further right. There will be Trumpier candidates yet—even crazier SOBs, as Massie put it. Some, like Moore, will lose. But others will surely win. If the Trump era has taught Washington anything, it’s never to underestimate how much worse things can get.