Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Careful What You Wish For

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 29, 2016 --  

Donald Trump's destruction of the Republican Party could drive the ascendency of America's right wing.

Just as a promising young politician named Abraham Lincoln started rising in the ranks of the Illinois Whig Party, growing political divisions threatened to tear the party apart. Northerners' growing opposition to slavery threatened the Whig half of America's two party system. By the election of 1856, the Whigs had split apart into the Republican Party and the American Party, dividing the opposition and ensuring the victory of the Democratic Party candidate.

Something similar is happening today, and this time it's the Republican Party that is at risk.

It was the wedge issue of slavery that split apart the Whigs in the 1850s. It is the decline of working class white America that threatens the Republicans. Without a doubt, the success of billionaire Donald Trump is based in this decline. Republican voters in suburban and rural America are tired of the promises of party elites like Jeb Bush and John Kasich. For the past 25 years, establishment Republicans have been tapping into populist support by talking up hot-button social issues like abortion, same sex marriage, and immigration while highlighting their Christian conservative credentials. But once elected, Republicans almost always ignore social issues, instead focussing on economic measures that benefit their friends in the urban elite, while working class Americans fall further and further behind.

While Democrats and other left-leaning Americans are the most outraged by rising inequality in America, it is the Republican Party that is being destroyed by it. When Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the gulf between wealthy Republican businessmen and and working class "Reagan Democrats" who supported the Gipper were manageable. Both groups wanted America to reassert its military overseas and to turn back the tide of big government at home. But today, the divide between Republican elites and the grass roots is simply too wide to bridge. Republican voters worry about American jobs leaving for China, and Mexican immigrants taking the ones that remain. They feel besieged by slights against their conservative Christian culture. And they know that wealthy Republicans that dominate the party's leadership don't really share these concerns.

Billionaire Donald Trump is hardly a poster boy for the working class or Middle America. By many accounts he has treated his workers poorly and his lifestyle is the epitome of elitism. But with his braggadocio, crass language, and politically-incorrect rhetoric, he has successfully tapped into a nativist populism that rallies the rank-and-file in ways that politicians have been dreaming about for years. Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot tried to harness the same populist vein in 1992 and 2000, but were unable to overcome the party elites. George W. Bush's born again Christian credentials, folksy accent, and nationalist terrorism-fighting opportunism allowed him to win two terms despite his blue-blooded upbringing. But this year, the ability of mainstream candidates to rally the troops finally appears to have run out.

However popular with primary voters, Trump's ascendency to the top of the ticket spells disaster for the Republican Party, and not just in November. The candidate's racist rhetoric and ignorant statements threaten to alienate a broad section of Americans from the Republican Party for years to come. Democrats already like to bad-mouth Republicans for being a bunch of racist idiots, but Trump threatens to turn the slander into a suicidal truth. Something similar happened to the short-lived American Party, one of the offshoots of the disintegrating Whigs in the 1850s. That anti-immigrant “know-nothing” party, as detractors called it, won only a single state in the presidential election of 1856. Its electoral failure opened the door to Abraham Lincoln's victory as the first Republican president four years later.

Could a failed Trump candidacy lead to a similar destruction of the Republican Party? Democrats who salivate at the idea of the Republican Party's demise should be careful what they wish for. The collapse of the Whig Party led to the ascendency of a much more successful replacement. The new Republican party's birth ejected know-nothing ideas from the political discourse in favor of more forward-looking policies. It then succeeded in running Democrats out of office for the next 7 presidential elections -- the longest period of single party control of the White House in history. Creating a new center-right party would allow defecting Republicans to eject decades of political baggage and claim outsider status and the banner of change.

Nobody knows what a post-Republican political system would look like. Will Trump-style populism prove sustainable over multiple election cycles? Could today's mainstream Republicans form a new center-right party that is more amenable to the growing Latino electorate thereby eroding Democratic support? Questioning the best way to dissolve the Republican party was once unspeakable. Should Trump succeed in securing the party's nomination, these same questions will be on the lips of today's party leaders.

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