I’ve been thinking about the existential crisis Trump poses for the GOP — and how it could rise from the ashes of a Trump defeat. For decades, the party won national elections with more-or-less subtle appeals to racists, based on Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, and with less than subtle appeals to cultural reactionaries who wanted to turn the clock back on the hard-won progress of women, minorities, and all the other groups who would have looked out of place in the TV show “Father Knows Best.”
The point of such strategies, however, was only to win elections so that the Republican elites could pursue the policies that really mattered to them: ever-lower taxes on the wealthy and minimal government intervention in the economy, including interventions that actually help the non-wealthy base of the party, Social Security being the most obvious.
These strategies, however, came with a built-in time bomb: the more successful they were, the worse the racist, reactionary base’s economic situation was going to get. The results now are obvious: income inequality has grown markedly over the last 30 years; tax cuts have led to disinvestment by states and the nation in infrastructure repair and construction, funding for public schools and colleges, and funding for that basket of “social goods” that are of no interest or benefit to the non-wealthy, i.e., the Republican base.
The 2008 recession made obvious the disjunction between the benefits accruing to elites and the benefits being stripped from the base. The response of Republican elites, however, was not to throw an economic bone or two at the base to actually improve its economic situation, but to refocus the base’s anger on imaginary enemies (Obama the “Kenyan anti-colonialist”) and magical “solutions” (repealing Obamacare, expanding Second Amendment rights) that had nothing to do with improving the base’s economic condition.
The motto of the GOP for years has been a variation on the old advertising slogan, “Promise them anything, but give them Arpege.” Promise the base the repeal of Obamacare, but give it tax cuts for the wealthy. Promise to defund Planned Parenthood, but give cutbacks in social services. Promise…whatever, but give benefits to the wealthy.
Trump has rejected all that. Not only does he appeal overtly to those reactionary impulses that the GOP was able to use for so long, thus making the party repellent to large numbers of voters, but he has rejected the glossy veil hiding its discredited policy ideas. Paul Ryan’s beloved supply side economics? Trump couldn’t care less. International adventurism? Forget it. Obeisance to the wealthy? Nope, just obeisance to Trump.
These days, Republican elites have begun to accept that Trump has completed the destruction of the party as they knew it and to believe that Trump is likely to be badly defeated in November. They are beginning to grapple with what they can do to help the party rise, like the phoenix, from Trump’s ashes.
But here’s the problem: demographic trends are moving younger generations and growing minority populations toward the Democratic Party. For all of its flaws, the Democratic Party actually welcomes them — and offers solutions for the problems of inequality, wage stagnation, and a slow economy, solutions that might actually work, based as they are in science and data.
If younger generations and minorities reject the GOP for the Democrats, as they are doing, and if Trump’s supporters have rejected the Democrats and the GOP, as they have, who’s left?
This is the Republican Party’s existential question: if it is to continue to exist, to whom can it appeal — and how? The people who support Trump will still be around; the Democratic Party has nothing to offer them. But the policies that the GOP has stood for — ever lower taxes on the wealthy, minimal government, and gutted social programs — have little appeal to Trump’s supporters.
So does the party cave to Trumpism and become merely a reactionary, right-wing party in the mode of certain European parties? Or does the party become something else entirely, rejecting the racism, sexism, and bigotry of Trumpism and once again try to build its appeal by offering policies that benefit groups other than just the wealthy? Is there a third route?
The GOP faces a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching before there’s an answer to the fundamental question: quo vadis, Republican? Whither goest thou?