Trump Can Happen Again

The conditions within the GOP that created him not only remain but have been reinforced.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Donald Trump is a dud of a politician who squandered his advantages in a winnable election. More than just a bad candidate, he has been a catastrophe for the GOP itself. He has destroyed careers, compromised institutions, revealed deep contradictions within the Republican Party, and heightened tensions between its voters and its lawmakers, its activists and its intellectuals. On Nov. 8, nearly 18 months after he announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the saga of Trump will come to a close. If polls are accurate, he will lose. He may even face a landslide, as Hillary Clinton capitalizes on a superior campaign to score victories in states like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas. There’s a slim but real chance that, when the smoke clears, Trump will have led the GOP to a historic defeat, handing the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives to the Democratic Party.

Parties are protean things that respond to big losses by adapting and reconfiguring themselves around the new national median. Outwardly, at least, it would appear as if Trump, by running on a platform of explicit, racialized nationalism and revealing a key split in the GOP, has forced just such a reckoning. But to watch the stretch run of the election is to be struck by the fact that nothing about the Republicans seems to have changed. All the intraparty conditions that created Trump in the first place not only remain but have been reinforced. He may lose the election, but he will have recorded, through sheer bumbling opportunism, an incredible triumph: Like some kind of malignant artificial intelligence, he has installed within the Republican Party all the necessary machinery for replicating himself.

The Trump campaign is best seen as a kind of arbitrage play. The ideological coloring it took on had less to do with the candidate’s beliefs than with those of the voters who’d grown alienated from their party’s leadership. That was the biggest fissure identified by Trump. Coming into the 2016 election, elite Republicans were lining up behind candidates like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, who offered a familiar package of policies, with reforms on the margin, aimed at building the party’s standing with Hispanic voters and working Americans writ large. Rubio, for instance, was a onetime champion for comprehensive immigration reform, shepherding a White House–friendly bill through the Senate before it was killed by a hostile House of Representatives. Likewise, Bush—the other Floridian in the race—had entered as one of the few Republicans with long and durable ties to Hispanic communities. They were following the pattern of parties past, working to adjust after losing a winnable election.

But there was a problem. Republican primary voters wanted something different, but they didn’t want this. Two months before Trump announced his campaign, in April 2015, the Washington Post and ABC News released one of their regular looks at the views and sentiments of American voters. In this survey, voters gave their priorities. What did they want the next president to support or oppose? On immigration, 46 percent of Americans wanted a president who would reject a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. When split by party, a whopping 70 percent of Republicans—and 78 percent of conservative Republicans—said the next president should be someone who opposes legalization. On the larger question of bipartisan cooperation, 44 percent of Republicans—and 48 percent of conservative Republicans—wanted the next president to “mainly stand up for their side.” None of this should come as a surprise. The Republican base of 2016 was formed by successive waves of new voters, many of them working-class, all of them white. “George Wallace Southerners, Ronald Reagan Democrats, Pat Buchanan pitchfork populists and tea-party foot soldiers,” noted the Wall Street Journal.

For as much as Bush and Rubio and others had positioned themselves as sensible reformers, the mood of the actual Republican base was confrontational toward Democrats and hostile to elite conservative attempts to broaden the party’s appeal. There was an inefficiency in the market, and Donald Trump made the most of it. He indulged the anger and fear of the Republican base, spinning a narrative in which its members were the victims of Mexican criminals, Chinese industrialists, Muslim terrorists, and incompetent and perhaps treasonous leadership in the form of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

As the election comes to an end, that divide is still here, and it’s wider than previously realized. The bulk of Republican voters are in Trump’s hands more than anyone else’s. Following the release of a 2005 tape in which Trump described his method for sexually assaulting women, a cascade of GOP officials and politicians called for the Republican nominee to resign his position on the ticket. “While I continue to respect those who still support Donald Trump, I can no longer support him,” said Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, adding that he will be “voting Mike Pence for president.” Dozens of Republican lawmakers left the Trump camp. In the moment, it felt as if the party was finally rejecting him. But the reality was different. Even after the tape, anti-Trump elected officials represented a distinct minority of the party. And they were far out of step with the GOP base.

In a poll conducted just after the revelations, 74 percent of Republican voters said party officials should continue to support Trump. Far from abandoning their nominee, GOP voters turned on lawmakers, like Paul Ryan, who were critical and reticent in their support. In a Bloomberg Politics poll taken before the final presidential debate, 51 percent of Republicans said that Trump best represents what the GOP should stand for, compared with 33 percent who said the same for Ryan, the speaker of the House and former vice presidential nominee. Seventy-six percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters said they had a favorable view of Trump, and 38 percent said they would stay loyal to the real estate mogul and follow his future endeavors if he doesn’t win.

If more traditional Republicans are to beat back Trump’s influence, they are going to have to break his hold on GOP voters. So far, that’s not in the cards.

Indeed, it’s made more difficult by the most important shift in the politics of much of the Republican base: an appetite for explicit racism. Remember, Trump didn’t come onto the national stage as an advocate for better trade deals. He came onto the national stage as the chief advocate for the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not an American citizen. And even after the president released his birth certificate, Trump continued. For five years afterward, he worked to delegitimize the president as a foreign outsider. When Trump re-emerged in 2015, it was to push another set of racist ideas. As a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination—and now as nominee—Trump has been an advocate against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim migrants, a vocal voice pushing racist ideas into the mainstream, like the idea that all black communities are defined by profound dysfunction and failure.

This isn’t a lark. It is the core of Trump’s political identity. And it’s been embraced by millions of Republican voters, who believe that Muslims and immigrants constitute an existential threat to the United States just as much as they think the country has been harmed by free trade and deindustrialization.

This mobilization of racial extremism—of a politics centered explicitly on the nationalist grievances of white Americans—has two components. The first is the voters themselves. In the event of a Trump loss, Republican Party elites can’t just ignore this group. It’s clear, from the outcome of the GOP presidential primary, that they can effectively choose a nominee. At the same time, the fact that voters hold these attitudes doesn’t guarantee another Trump event. For that, you need two ingredients: continued tolerance for explicit racism and a set of party actors who will organize and mobilize around Trump’s brand of white nationalism.

We already have the former. Trump’s campaign has made open appeals to white nationalists and white supremacists. Trump’s Twitter feed is notorious for broadcasting white nationalist accounts, and key surrogates—like Donald Trump Jr.—have given interviews to figures associated with racist movements. And we know the latter ingredient, party actors, exists. There’s the CEO of the Trump campaign, for instance. Stephen Bannon holds known ties to white nationalists. The website he used to preside over, Breitbart News, is both a gathering place for the most racist elements of the right wing and a media outlet for the same, pushing inflammatory stories of black crime, immigrant “invasion,” and “white genocide” (the idea that liberal elites are perpetrating a cultural “genocide” of white Americans).

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, on Thursday.

Jay LaPrete/AFP/Getty Images

In turn, white nationalists have coalesced around Trump, backing him as an advocate for their interests. During the GOP primary, figures such as Jared Taylor of the “race realist” American Renaissance website—a pioneer in the white nationalist movement—recorded robocalls for the Trump campaign. Likewise, a younger generation of activist racists turned to Twitter and forums like Reddit, 4chan, and 8chan to spread the gospel that Trump was the one, a leader who would bring mainstream legitimacy and acceptance to their cause.

American political parties are large, porous, and unwieldy. It’s rare that they move with any single purpose, and even at their strongest, they are rife with conflict and antagonism. But when they do move, it’s toward those groups with the most energy. The Trump campaign has revealed the Breitbart contingent of the GOP to be its most vibrant wing, with substantial support among Republican primary voters. Team Trump understands this, and it plans to use the infrastructure of the campaign to energize (and monetize) this group for future endeavors.

Bannon, in particular, sees Trump as a way of destroying the Republican establishment as it exists. He has been a vocal critic of figures like Paul Ryan, using his perch at Breitbart News to denounce the House speaker as a liberal “globalist.” “We don’t really believe there is a functional conservative party in this country, and we certainly don’t think the Republican Party is that,” said Bannon at a National Press Club conference in 2013. To that point, Trump’s recent attacks on Republican figures smack of Bannon’s influence. “Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary,” the Republican nominee said on Twitter. “They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win—I will teach them!”

The vehicle for this lesson, report Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg for Bloomberg News, is a massive list of names and information gathered over the course of campaign that the Trump effort has used to “cultivate a universe of millions of fervent Trump supporters, many of them reached through Facebook.” “By Election Day, the campaign expects to have captured 12 million to 14 million e-mail addresses and contact information (including credit card numbers) for 2.5 million small-dollar donors, who together will have ponied up almost $275 million,” they write. More importantly, Trump will own this infrastructure. He can use it as he pleases. (The Republican National Committee feels otherwise.) Maybe, Green and Issenberg suggests, it becomes the basis for the rumored Trump TV network. But it could just as easily become the base for a sustained insurgency within the Republican Party, with Trump as its figurehead and people like Bannon as its strategists.

This isn’t an exaggeration. There is a massive gap between the Republican Party’s leaders and its base. And a large portion of that base has tied its fortunes to Trump, marching behind his anti-trade, anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. They’re his most passionate supporters, the voters who agree that the election is “rigged” and believe that Hillary Clinton is inherently illegitimate. They trust Trump above and beyond traditional Republican politicians. Indeed, they rejected those politicians in favor of Trump.

There’s a chance that this effort is an elaborate grift—a way for the real estate mogul to profit from his presidential run. But Trump has tarnished the Republican establishment. Through his outrageous rhetoric and behavior, he’s shown the extent to which GOP leaders are hidebound and risk-averse, unwilling to challenge their nominee, even as he violates and tramples over the stated principles of their party. And he’s shown Republican voters that there’s another way, that they can satisfy their anger by rejecting that establishment in favor of figures like Trump, Bannon, and their allies. Once again, there is an opportunity for arbitrage, and Team Trump has all the tools it needs to exploit it and shape its campaign into a long-term voice for an explicitly prejudiced and ethno-nationalist version of the Republican Party.

In this, Team Trump has an assist from the same Republicans he has diminished and marginalized. Unwilling to reform their agenda or their methods, traditional Republicans are preparing for a Hillary Clinton presidency by repurposing their strategy for the Obama presidency: constant, recalcitrant opposition and the same apocalyptic rhetoric that created an appetite for Trump’s caustic approach. U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz is promising “years” of investigations for Clinton’s prospective administration, and Sens. John McCain and Ted Cruz have preemptively rejected any Supreme Court nominations from a President Clinton. Embattled Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson preemptively suggested impeachment for Clinton, and it’s clear—watching organs of Republican thought and opinion—that conservatives are gearing themselves up for a new nullification strategy. Once again, massive resistance will define the GOP’s approach to a Democratic president, as mainstream Republicans all but treat a potential President Clinton as inherently illegitimate. Which is to say that Republicans are feeding the same anger that gave Trump the space to thrive, opening the door to either a recurrence of 2016, or a world in which a savvier operator can pick up where Trump left off.

Again, it’s important to understand that parties move toward their most energetic and organized voters. These are the people who elect the lawmakers and choose the officials who shape and direct policy. And in turn, those voters are influenced by forces outside of themselves, like media. In the Obama era, we saw Republicans respond to a hard-right movement of angry conservative voters—the Tea Party—which was influenced and inflamed by aggressive voices in right-wing media. Because of Trump, we may get that dynamic again, turned to 11. His campaign—and the swirl of outlets from Reddit to Breitbart to the potential Trump TV—is a new kind of perpetual rage machine that will keep the Trumpified base energized, aroused, and ready to force the GOP to cater to its whims.

There are already politicians skating toward this puck. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton recently took a four-day tour of Iowa, speaking to GOP groups and supporting local politicians. His message? A blend of traditional Republican rhetoric and Trumpism. “Iowa, there’s nothing normal about Bible-believing Christians being tarred as bigots because they simply want to live their faith in their day-to-day life,” Cotton said. “There’s nothing normal about a country that won’t secure its borders, but will admit a million immigrants a year—the population of Iowa added every three years, at a time when our country and too many of our fellow citizens are out of work or haven’t had a pay raise in years.”

By knocking down the taboo of explicit racism, Trump has brought a kind of white nationalism into the mainstream of American politics. Its mere presence makes it something to be appealed to and pandered to. The future of the Republican Party is still unwritten. But one thing is clear. Trump’s ideological progeny—as well as his allies and prospective imitators—are the ones organizing. They have the energy. And while they may not win a battle to define the GOP, they have a head start.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.