Is their party over?

July 20, 2016

Donald Trump's circus in Cleveland will reveal a party in conflict, but the Republicans' reactionary agenda has more staying power, write Lance Selfa and Alan Maass.

THE REPUBLICANS gathered in Cleveland to ratify the verdict of primary voters and choose Donald Trump as their presidential nominee for 2016.

A last-minute attempt by the "Never Trump" forces to obstruct his nomination was easily overcome when party officials rushed through a voice vote on convention rules. There were more stories in the media about the Republicans' internal divisions, but the Trump-Pence ticket emerged intact.

Still, whatever show of unity they manage for the cameras, many Republicans seem to wish that their party would have chosen someone else. On the eve of the convention, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 38 percent of Republican voters were satisfied with Trump, though five in six of them say they'll vote for him.

The same survey showed Hillary Clinton in front of Trump by a 46-41 percent margin among registered voters--a lead that has remained unchanged for a month despite the FBI director chastising Clinton for her mishandling and dissembling around emails when she was Secretary of State.

The Republican National Convention site
The Republican National Convention site

Anti-Trump Republicans, the most vocal of which are concentrated in the party "establishment" of officeholders, lobbyists, donors, consultants and commentators, fear a Trump-headed ticket will drag the GOP down in November.

A whole roster of Republican luminaries--from its two living presidents, both named Bush, to senators who are vulnerable in their re-election battles--is trying to avoid the Trump taint by missing the convention altogether. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the establishment favorite who Trump humiliated during the primaries, has even said he won't vote for Trump.

Some Republicans worry that their party will be fatally divided. Katie Packer, a Republican strategist, told the Washington Post's Dan Balz:

You have Republican-on-Republican aggression because people are arguing over politics versus principle. Do we stand by the party that we've all been loyal to, no matter what, or do we stand up and say, "No, this behavior is unacceptable, and I want no part of it under any banner"? It's put people that they're used to being in the bunker with against one another.

DESPITE THE high-profile angst, however, most Republicans, along with their billionaire donors, understand they're stuck with Trump in November--and also that there are down-ballot races to preserve Republican control of Congress, governorships and state legislatures to focus on.

Amid all the talk of chaos and crisis at the top of the Republican Party, it's worth remembering that the Republicans hold their largest majorities in the U.S. House of Representatives and in state legislative seats in almost a century. Even if control of the Senate changes hands after November, the Democrats won't have enough votes to stop a filibuster.

So as bad as things look for the Republicans in the presidential race, their chances of holding onto working control in Congress and state governments across the country look pretty good at the moment.

It's important for the left to understand all the ramifications of this. Even if Trump is beaten badly in November, the Republicans will continue to hold a lot of political power. But even more importantly, they have been able to take the initiative and drag mainstream politics further to the right during eight years of a Democratic president precisely because of their opponents.

The Democrats say one thing at election time to win votes--even the most conventional and conservative among them, Hillary Clinton, has made an effort to talk left, if only to fight off the primary challenge of Bernie Sanders, and now to contrast herself with Trump.

But in office, the Democrats are every bit as committed to upholding the status quo as the Republicans. Their record at every level of government is littered with broken campaign promises. While the Republicans drag the political debate to the right, the Democrats push it in the same direction with every concession and compromise. The presidency of Barack Obama is a prime example of an important lesson of history: If you support the "lesser evil" to stop the "greater evil," you usually end up with both kinds of evil.

All the ugliness that Trump and the Republicans represent will be on display in Cleveland, and anyone who cares about justice or democracy is right to feel repulsed. But confronting the GOP and its reactionary agenda requires challenging the Democrats who enable it.

MOST OF the discontent in the Republican ranks is directed at Trump himself--that is, at the messenger, rather than his message.

The political pros who perceive that the Republicans' increasing reliance on a narrowing base of older, affluent white voters doesn't bode well for future elections may have a point. But for now, Trump won because he advocated positions that are widely supported by the most committed Republicans who vote in party primaries.

A New York Review of Books article makes the point that the opinion polls showed Trump winning overwhelming support from his supporters for his incendiary rhetoric about banning Muslim immigrants from the U.S., building a wall on the Mexican border and deporting the undocumented. But Republicans who voted for other candidates in the primaries supported these same positions by wide majorities, too.

Trump's victory does signify that the chickens have come home to roost in a Republican Party whose operatives and media fellow travelers have used the most reactionary rhetoric to whip up a voting base of committed partisans. As wrote last month:

This is the dirty secret about the Republican base that the Great Recession uncovered. Not only did economic devastation push at least a section of the conservative middle class to embrace more far-right politics, but free-market economics has delivered less and less to them. So to keep them hitched to the GOP coalition, the Republicans amped up their "culture war" and turned it not simply against liberal policies like abortion rights, but into a defense of what the liberal historian Allan Lichtman called a "white Protestant nation."

After years of claiming that a supposed "red-state America" basically agreed with the Republican Right, much of the mainstream media has finally caught on. As the New York Times' Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin put it:

Republicans have wrestled for years with the push and pull of seeking to win over new groups of voters while tending to their overwhelmingly white and conservative base. Now, Mr. Trump's candidacy may force them into making a fateful choice: whether to fully embrace the Trump model and become, effectively, a party of white identity politics, or to pursue a broader political coalition by repudiating Mr. Trump's ideas--and many of the voters he has gathered behind his campaign.

The problem with this analysis, however, is that it could have been written in 2008 or 2012.

In fact, the Republican Party "autopsy" after Obama's 2012 re-election started with that premise: The GOP needed to broaden its appeal to Latinos and a younger generation that isn't obsessed about social issues like same-sex marriage as its Reagan-era elders. That assessment apparently went into the circular file.

In fact, the platform adopted by delegates at the start of the Republican convention this year is even more right wing that the one passed in 2012--it endorses Trump's border "wall" and calls for a reversal of the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

WHY IS this? Certainly the influence of the Trump campaign is partly responsible. But it might also be that Republicans feel there is no reason to change course from a strategy that has generally produced success for them.

The Republicans may not be able to muster majorities of Americans to vote for them in the quadrennial presidential sweepstakes. But they have generally succeeded in mobilizing their committed base during midterm elections. After the last two, in 2010 and 2014, the GOP ended up with commanding majorities at the state and congressional level--from which they were able to implement a counterrevolution fully in line with the highly conservative views that dominate the party.

Since 2010, for example Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed nearly 300 restrictions on abortion, heavily restricted voting rights in 19 states and added a shocking four to the list of anti-union right-to-work states.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress has shut down the government and threatened to send the U.S. government into default to force the Obama administration to accept even more extreme plans for austerity than it was already contemplating.

With few exceptions, these measures found the vast majority of the Republican "establishment" cheering for them--not worrying that they were "too extreme" to sell on the national stage.

So even though there were signs of internal crisis and conflict long before Trump, the Republican Party has remained united enough to do considerable damage to workers, poor people and the oppressed.

A section of the party and its most ideologically conservative activists and donors still aren't satisfied. They found their voice in the House Freedom Caucus that makes up about one-fourth of House Republicans, and among associated cranks like right-wing Sen. Ted Cruz.

Last fall, the Freedom Caucus succeeded in pushing House Speaker John Boehner out of office. Apparently, Boehner decided that playing golf and making millions as a lobbyist was preferable to trying to keep his unruly House majority in line.

Conservatives should have celebrated that one of their heroes, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, took over for Boehner. Ryan is an acolyte of Ayn Rand and architect of plans to privatize Social Security and Medicare. His fundamentalist free-market ideology was once considered beyond the pale, yet Ryan is today one of the two most powerful Republicans in government, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Yet among a whole host of right-wingers like Cruz, Ryan is considered a sellout, like Boehner before him.

It's a strange spectacle. But there's no denying that the Republicans, supposedly a party "in crisis," has had a run of success in pushing through a conservative agenda at all levels of government.

IN OCTOBER 2015, Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, announced that the biggest business lobby would spend as much as $100 million to keep the U.S. Senate in Republican hands--and but also counter "the influence of hard-line legislators like members of the Freedom Caucus, who have not supported the Chamber's legislative agenda."

Such signs of dissension and corporate discontent are often taken as the beginning of the end for the Republicans. But don't bet on the GOP's demise--or even fracturing.

Trump faces an uphill battle against Hillary Clinton, to say the least. With significant sections of the capitalist class abandoning their loyalty to the Republicans and coming out for Clinton, he could indeed suffer a historic defeat, and that would certainly have some effect on elections for other offices this November and after.

But there are other factors at work. One is the fact that the Democrats are nominating a presidential candidate who champions a status quo that is stirring discontent among millions of people. If Donald Trump is the most unpopular candidate of a mainstream party in memory, Hillary Clinton is a not-so-distant second, including among Democratic base voters.

That doesn't bode well for the kind of enthusiastic Democratic turnout that would be necessary to shift the balance even in the Senate, much less in the U.S. House and state legislatures where Republicans are currently dominant.

On the contrary, Clinton's "I'm not Trump" campaign strategy, while it may be effective in whipping up lesser evilism around the presidential race, will have the effect of squelching hopes and expectations among Democratic voters, which makes it all the more difficult to envision an election sweep that topples GOP control of Congress.

Trump and the Republicans have stirred up so much opposition that a landslide election could happen anyway. But again, don't bet on it.

And consider the situation after November. A status quo-oriented Clinton administration will almost certainly face a Congress where Republicans retain enough leverage to obstruct any Clinton initiatives outside of military spending. And Democratic prospects in the Senate are as unfavorable in 2018 as they are favorable in 2016, setting up the possibility of another GOP victory at midterm time.

Meanwhile, if Trump loses, his opponents among the Republican leadership will get a chance to put another face on their party. In the vein of George W. Bush, whose "compassionate conservatism"--remember that line from 2000?--helped him wrap a conservative agenda in a moderate-sounding message, someone like Paul Ryan could try the same. "Our job is not to preach to a shrinking choir; it's to win converts," Ryan told the New York Times recently.

Then again, the Republicans could find someone who has the same brazenly right-wing populist politics as Trump, but who won't be so easily pigeonholed as a reality TV clown.

Someone like the younger Harvard-educated Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, perhaps? "Sometimes being tough-minded is the compassionate approach," Cotton told the Times. "I don't see much compassion in continuing to bring a million legal immigrants to this country a year when our workforce participation rate is at historic lows, when we have record high numbers of people on food stamps and disability."

America's two corporate political parties have shape-shifted many times during their existences. It's hard to believe today that African Americans, who have registered 0 percent support for Trump in several reputable polls--voted for Republicans for decades before the mid-20th century.

So it's conceivable, and in fact likely, that some sort of regenerated conservatism--probably exploiting the appeal of Trump's right-wing populism, but without his baggage--will emerge after the 2016 election, whatever the outcome.

That puts a challenge on our side to build a credible left that can offer an alternative. We will need to take on the right wing's bigotry, nationalism and anti-working class agenda. But part of challenging the right will be confronting and protesting the Democratic Party establishment that has aided and abetted the Republicans in dragging national politics to the right.

Further Reading

From the archives