The Republican Party Is Not Dead

Donald Trump is awful. The convention is a disgrace. But the GOP will come back strong sooner than you think.

Donald Trump on a screen from New York City, on the second day of the Republican National Convention on July 19, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Does this year’s hilariously slipshod Republican National Convention represent the death knell of a party that is too old, too white, and too right-wing to survive in the years to come? Assuming Donald Trump loses in November, as seems more likely than not, one can certainly imagine the GOP descending into a civil war. Pro-Trump Republicans might blame anti-Trump Republicans for a narrow defeat. Republicans of a libertarian bent might blame GOP populists for Trump’s rise, and the populists might start blasting the libertarians as RINOs. With such a divided party, and with a brand so tarnished by Trump’s noxious rhetoric, how could Republicans ever recover?

It’s pretty simple. Republicans will recover because if Hillary Clinton is elected president, something will go wrong on her watch, and voters will blame her whether she is responsible for that failure or not. When this happens, swing voters will turn to the GOP. They won’t do this out of any great enthusiasm for the Republican message, to be sure. But they’ll do it, because they will have only one serious opposition party to choose from.

America’s two major political parties, and the politicians who campaign under their banner, can be awfully flexible. Take Rudy Giuliani, one of the “stars” of Monday night’s underwhelming lineup of GOP speakers. Over the course of a long political career, Giuliani has gone from suing the federal government to shield unauthorized immigrants from deportation to endorsing a presidential candidate who has made mass deportation the centerpiece of his campaign. Has Giuliani ever bothered to explain his change of heart? Of course not, because his rationale is blindingly obvious. When he was running for mayor in a mostly liberal, majority-minority city, Giuliani had to convince voters that he wasn’t a heartless right-wing ogre. By the time he addressed the Republican National Convention in 2004, however, he had left local politics behind. With an eye toward the future, Giuliani offered a stirring defense of George W. Bush’s freedom agenda in Iraq and Afghanistan. A few years later, when he ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, Giuliani tried to energize hawkish conservatives by bashing Ron Paul’s isolationism. Now, in the age of Trump, he’s attacking Hillary Clinton for waging a reckless war in Libya, and for not putting America First. The mind reels—until you realize that Giuliani represents just one of the more brazen examples of a common phenomenon. He is an opportunist. And in politics, as in most endeavors, opportunists usually prosper.

People don’t generally think of themselves as craven opportunists, and I’m pretty sure that Rudy Giuliani believed everything he yelled at the assembled delegates on Monday night. But elections are about winning, and when the playing field changes, politicians either change with it or they die a slow, principled death. One of the reasons Trump is the Republican presidential nominee is that the party’s leading lights—the Paul Ryans, Ted Cruzes, and Marco Rubios—failed to fully grasp the implications of Barack Obama’s rise. To massively oversimplify matters, Obama has made the Democratic Party more attractive to college-educated social liberals who’ve fared well economically in recent years while further entrenching the party’s advantage among minority voters who feel they’re better off than their parents. At the same time, he’s made the Democratic brand far less congenial for working-class whites, particularly those of a more culturally conservative bent. These voters often don’t feel better off than their parents, and they’re pretty pessimistic about America’s Obama-ized future.

White working-class voters have long been the heart of the Democratic primary electorate, but that’s far less true today than it was as recently as eight years ago. In a recent article in National Review, political strategist Luke Thompson details how Hillary Clinton forged a powerful alliance of white working-class men and women and moderate suburbanites to nearly win the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Yet Clinton was bested by Barack Obama, who built a rival coalition that united college-educated whites and minority voters. Had the Democrats not already lost large numbers of white working-class voters in previous years, it is hard to imagine this Obama coalition prevailing. But the Democrats moved to the left during the Bush years, and Obama’s presidency cemented this shift. According to Thompson, the policy agenda pursued by Obama on issues ranging from energy (coal sucks) to immigration (more please) to free trade (for it) delighted the voters that won him the Democratic nomination while alienating many of the white working-class voters who had backed Clinton. The result is that many of these voters found themselves politically homeless, and open to the right pitch from a Republican. Back in December, Nate Cohn of the New York Times found that Obama-hating white ex-Democrats played a big part in Donald Trump’s early success in the polls. Had it not been for these Democratic defectors, perhaps Trump would have been a mere footnote.

These inter-party shifts have happened before. In The Lost Majority, political analyst Sean Trende made the deceptively simple argument that neither of our two major political parties will ever win a permanent victory, and he proves his point by documenting all of the supposedly durable partisan majorities that have faded away in decades past. The most successful political parties are expansive coalitions that include many different groups. Almost inevitably, these different groups have clashing interests. Holding these coalitions together is really hard, not least because the opposing coalition is always trying to woo dissenters. If we look at the Democratic and Republican parties as they stand right now, it’s easy to see why many Republicans are feeling so dour about their party’s prospects. The GOP relies heavily on older non–college-educated white voters, and this is a constituency that will represent a declining share of the electorate over the coming decades. Democrats, meanwhile, do well with groups that are expected to grow, like Latinos and college-educated whites.

Over time, however, tensions and contradictions are likely to emerge within the Democratic coalition. Imagine if young working-class Latinos who back Democrats start backing candidates who want to raise taxes on the rich to finance social services designed to benefit their growing families. At least some aging upper-middle-class whites might object to these calls for higher taxes, and they’ll start thinking very hard about backing anti-tax Republicans. Granted, there will be some older upper-middle-class whites who started voting for Democrats in their youth and who’d never defect, regardless of the implications for their pocketbooks. But there will always be some who’ll be willing to bolt, and political professionals will work hard to pry them loose.

Don’t believe that the post-Trump GOP will ever be able to pick off some of today’s Democratic voters? Don’t forget that George W. Bush led the United States into a quagmire in Iraq that led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Bush then presided over the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression. Those disasters didn’t prevent Republicans from doing really well in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections. And if Republicans had nominated almost anyone other than Trump this year, including creepy Ted Cruz, they’d have a better-than-even chance of recapturing the White House.

Did Republicans bounce back from the low ebb they reached at the end of the Bush presidency by devising bold, innovative policies for America’s future? Not really. Throughout the Obama years, congressional Republicans have barely kept it together, divided between those who want to shrink popular government programs and those who are so serious about wanting to shrink popular government programs that they are willing to force the United States government to default on its debt obligations to get their way. Nevertheless, Republicans have won elections by appealing to white working-class voters, and they’ll keep working that angle for as long as they can.

Sooner or later, the GOP will have to retool itself to reach other constituencies, too. But that will likely be easier than you think to pull off. For one thing, native-born working-class Latinos are not totally unlike their white counterparts, and they might be open to some of the same political appeals. If Trump drives America’s college-educated upper-middle class to the Democrats, Republicans just might start calling for hiking taxes on the college-educated upper-middle class to finance child credits for growing Latino families. And have you noticed that Republicans don’t talk about Obamacare nearly as much as they used to? Here’s a sneak peek at the 2024 Republican convention: Rudy Giuliani will be there, and he’ll be screaming about protecting Obamacare in a speech peppered with Spanglish phrases.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.