Sam’s post about Donald Trump from last week made me think about the nature of the Republican Party, and honestly, I’m perplexed. It’s amazing how today’s Republican Party is so radically different from the Republican Party of old. Even since 2008, the party has undergone a shift. The rise of the Tea Party and the unorthodox and aggressive campaign style of Donald Trump have completely thrown the Republican establishment into a tizzy. It seems like the party is facing a realignment of sorts that could shift it even further to the right and risk losing moderate voters to the Democrats.
First, what’s important to recognize is that the Republican Party is comprised of numerous factions with overlapping but, at times, conflicting views. While all political parties have intraparty disagreements on policies and approaches to achieving particular goals, most unify around a specific ideology. The Republicans have tried to unite their diverse set of factions under the umbrella of conservatism, but it’s apparent that the growing divide within the party is making that more and more difficult.
The establishment reflects the political positions of the party elites. Technically, these positions change as party elites come and go, but for now we’ll assume that the establishment favors vanilla social and fiscal conservatism and an active foreign policy, although it’s split on how to deal with immigration. While it has set stances on certain issues, the establishment is willing to compromise with the other side of the aisle to get things done. The Tea Party, which arose after the 2008 election of Barack Obama and out of frustration with the ever-expanding federal government, can be treated as the “establishment on steroids,” favoring limited government, maximum economic freedom, and increased border security with a heavy dose of uncompromising dogmatism. However, the Tea Party is split on foreign policy, with Palinites – named after Sarah Palin, obviously – supporting a strong national defense and Paulites – named after Rand Paul, somewhat less obviously – supporting a more isolationist stance.
Along with the Tea Party movement, evangelicals have considerable clout within the Republican Party. For evangelicals, candidates’ positions on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as their faith, top the list of priorities. There is some overlap between evangelicals and the Tea Party, as both support shrinking the size of government and beefing up border security. Candidates like Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz all fit into this category.
Unfortunately, true moderates (i.e. Rockefeller Republicans) and libertarians – who are essentially just socially liberal Paulites – increasingly have less influence on Republican politics as the party continues to shift to the right. The establishment is also losing ground, proven by its inability to rally behind a single candidate to beat Trump thus far despite its numerous structural advantages. The Tea Party made waves in the 2012 Republican primary process with the early successes of Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann, but the establishment, with its superior political expertise and a large amount of PAC money, ultimately won out. Now, however, the Republican establishment is having a lot more trouble garnering support within the party as more and more of its base shifts rightward.
This trend will continue, especially if Trump wins the Republican nomination. Trump’s candidacy has unleashed a new force in Republican politics: right-wing populism. His position as a “political outsider” willing to shed the handcuffs of the PC police and eschew every understood rule in campaign politics resonates with voters, namely those who identify with the Tea Party, who are disaffected with the corrupt “Washington elite” that only seems to make problems worse. His controversial stances on immigration have rallied the support of lower-middle class whites who are looking for someone to blame for their economic hardships. He’s even managed to build up support for protectionism and isolationism, stances that were abandoned by the Republican Party when the New Right took control of it in the 1980’s; blue-collar Americans don’t care about free trade if it means losing domestic jobs to foreigners, or democracy promotion if it means spending more money and adding to the ballooning national debt for another Iraq. His stances on gun control and abortion are just icing on the cake, never mind that Trump has done a complete 180 on both in the last decade.
Can Trump win the Republican nomination? With each passing day that he stays in the race, his chances increase. I’m still confident the establishment will prevail and eventually rally behind Marco Rubio, especially after Jeb Bush suspended his campaign, but Trump is technically still the frontrunner. It also doesn’t work in Rubio’s favor that many of the moderate-leaning states where he would likely see more support in a three way race with Cruz and Trump don’t hold their primaries until later on, which only gives Trump more time to build up his lead in the delegate race. Nonetheless, the mere fact that Trump has lasted this long, and is still the frontrunner, is both scary and indicative of the rise of the alt-right movement within the Republican Party.