Many aspects of the Donald Trump phenomenon are grating—the crypto-fascism and assault on civility, for starters—but spare a thought for a lesser annoyance: the opportunism of every commentator peddling a pet criticism of the Republican Party. The list of explanations for Trump’s popularity is as long as it is tedious: it’s the party’s insistence on riling up the base over illegal immigration but also its refusal to take a tough stance on the issue; it’s the party’s willingness to compromise with Washington liberals but also its constant obstructionism; it’s the party’s refusal to repudiate various voter groups but also its refusal to acknowledge those voters’ grievances; it’s insufficient policy specificity on health-care reform and too much on entitlement reform; and on and on.
Every objection anyone has ever had about the Republicans has become an explanation for Donald Trump’s rise, even though the theories are often in direct conflict and always conveniently aligned with the analysts’ own preferences. Never mind that while Trump was rising, almost no one currently heaping scorn on Republicans believed that he was likely to become a serious threat. And never mind that for years, the thinking man’s unthinking critique of the GOP was that it relied on divisive “social issues” such as gay marriage and abortion to build a base of evangelical support inclined toward theocracy. What happened to that assessment, now that the actual rupture has come from a movement entirely uninterested such goals?
With religion out of play, the Republican Party’s problem is instead too many white people. Jonathan Chait: “Conservatism, and the modern Republican party, is the lineal heir of a historically continuous defense of white racial hierarchy that has been written out of the American civic tradition.” Except, as the New York Times reported, Trump’s strongest backing comes from “traditionally Democratic voters.” And he polls best in Massachusetts. Which theory of the GOP’s flaws manifests itself most strongly in the Land of Elizabeth Warren?
These critiques also seem unmoored from recent political history. What do the nominations of Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney say about the Republican Party’s message? That it’s too mainstream, perhaps? That there’s too reasonable a balance among the party’s factions? Which other national politicians offered a better direction? That the party’s trajectory is criticized as both too beholden to the base and too divorced from the base suggests that perhaps it was neither.
If Trump hadn’t run, were all these purportedly catastrophic missteps of the recent past poised to doom the party anyway? The GOP likely would be on the brink of nominating a conventional candidate like Marco Rubio or John Kasich, who would be favored to win against a Democratic Party that could not muster an option beyond a socialist punchline and a Clinton under federal investigation. Combine that with unprecedented congressional strength and dominance at the state level, and the Republican “collapse” would be hard to discern. Remember the epic House “meltdown” that produced Speaker Paul Ryan? Looking back, it was a less-than-obvious harbinger of the Trumpocalypse to come.
None of which is to say that before Trump all was grand in the Grand Old Party. I have no shortage of my own complaints about its leadership, message, politics, and policy. In recent years, I, too, have argued that conservatives need to rethink their approach to issues from climate change and environmental regulation to poverty, inequality, and international trade. But I don’t think Trump’s success proves that I was right, or that if only someone had listened, we would be in a different spot today.
Clearly, this campaign cycle has revealed deeper-than-appreciated dissatisfaction with America’s political system and appetite for a stark alternative. But it also represents a bizarre confluence of long-term trends and one-time phenomena. Let’s not pretend that it was predictable, attributable to a particular set of decisions by a particular group of actors, or that it convincingly proves anyone’s preexisting hypotheses. Let’s not even pretend that such a movement was predestined to emerge from the Right—when the real enthusiasm on the left is for a candidate who is not even a member of the Democratic Party.
Regardless of where he lands, Donald Trump has already ruptured the GOP and posed a major challenge to American conservatism. But with postmortems for both party and movement already underway, we shouldn’t make the mistake of developing “solutions” that fight the last war. Conservatives should be developing good policy and a compelling message, not something-that-would-have-stopped-Trump. No one knows what would have stopped Trump, and arguments from that premise are both disingenuous and a poor approach to planning for the future. Those who hate conservatism can indulge their schadenfreude while it lasts. Conservatives will just have to get back to work.
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