Donald Trump mural. Credit: Thierry Ehrmann
In the year 2000, George W. Bush's signal political achievement was uniting an already fractious Republican Party behind him and coming within 550,000 votes of Gore-Lieberman in the general election. His father's re-election campaign in 1992 was undone by a rebellion in the party led by Newt Gingrich. In 1996 Pat Buchanan with his "pitchfork rebellion" toppled eventual nominee Robert Dole in the New Hampshire primary. Bush won election as a "wartime president" in 2004, the only year since the 1980s the Republicans have won the presidential popular vote. In 2008 John McCain was toppled in the Iowa caucuses by evangelical preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Rick Santorum reprised Huckabee's role in 2012 as the last of several right-wing challengers standing, having won in Iowa and staying in the race against eventual nominee Mitt Romney until the April primaries.
The pattern is clear: for a quarter century a disgruntled and largely populist right wing has challenged the establishment Republican party for the party's presidential nomination. And the grievances of that right wing toward the party establishment have grown deeper and more acrimonious over the years. After 2008, when the election of Barack Obama coincided with a devastating financial and housing crisis, the right, stronger and angrier than ever, formed itself into an organized force, the Tea Party. The Tea Party regularly defeated established Republicans in state and local primaries, and forced the national party toward more and more radical positions by their increased representation in Congress and their willingness to obstruct the legislative process.
Increasingly, the right's sense of betrayal by the party's establishment—we give them our votes and they go to Washington, forget what we voted for, and make deals beltway with the Democrats instead—seems to have grown beyond the establishment's capacity to contain it. As Garry Wills recently observed:
"The sense of betrayal by one’s own is a continuing theme in the Republican Party (a Fox News poll in September 2015 found that 62 percent of Republicans feel “betrayed” by their own party’s officeholders)."
This year's campaign has turned upside down the recurrent Republican presidential nominating spectacle of a series of populist far-right challengers rising in the polls and falling before the might of the establishment. Now, two populist, anti-establishment candidates, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, are being chased by three establishment candidates (Rubio, Kasich and Jeb Bush) who are jockeying for position to take down the populist. The Republican pattern of the past quarter century has turned topsy turvy: now the establishment figures are underdogs and radicals the leaders. What happened?
The catalyst for turning the Republicans topsy turvy was the arrival, last June, of Donald Trump as a candidate. Commentators across the political spectrum have agreed—often reluctantly—that Trump fundamentally changed the game for the Republicans. What is less recognized is how this year's version of the Republican civil war created the optimum condition for Trump's immediate, astounding and durable rise to the top of the field as soon as he entered the contest.
This year the Republican establishment and its populists hit an impasse more unbridgeable than anything come before. The issue was immigration and for each side the question was non-negotiable. For the populists, "illegal immigrants" explained the immediate dysfunctions in their environment, like unemployment and fading life chances. But something more profound was going on, a global sense that the country was getting away from them, that their taken-for-granted privileged white identity—they were the "real Americans, as Sarah Palin had dubbed them in her 2008 vice presidential run—was getting swamped by minorities from below and minorities arriving in positions of power both culturally and—Obama!—politically.
In practical terms the Tea Party and the populist Republican right rejected any path toward legalization for America’s estimated 11 million “illegals.” In April 2015 Judson Phillips, head of the Tea Party Nation put the question succinctly:
"For conservatives in 2016, Amnesty is the defining issue. There is no middle ground. There cannot be any form of Amnesty. We need a President who will put the interests of Americans first." (emphasis added)
In contrast, the Republican establishment saw immigration reform as the only viable route for the party to remain capable of mounting national campaigns. The party had to find a way to open itself up to America's largest minority population, Latinos, or else become demographically doomed except as a regional party. The Republicans’ problem with America’s changing demography—the population’s increasingly higher percentage of minorities—had become an existential crisis for the Republican establishment. South Carolina’s hawkish senator Lindsey Graham, briefly a presidential contender (there were 17 announced candidates at its height) expressed the establishment view last June:
"But if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table and in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party. And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view."
It was the party reaching loggerheads so profoundly over immigration that made Trump's entry into the campaign so explosive. His remarks on Mexico and Mexicans as he announced his campaign became instantly famous: he promised to build a wall on the country's southern border, a wall that Mexico would pay for; and as for Mexicans coming into the United States he said:
"When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
These remarks electrified the Tea Party, the populist right and nativists. Michael Reagan, along with many others, summed up the reaction within these quarters: Trump was just “saying what all of us are thinking.” The terror attacks in San Bernadino permitted Trump to double down on immigration, and to firm up his nativist support accordingly. He famously called for a halt to all Muslim immigration to the U.S. This was something of a reprise of Trump’s 2011 political foray into “birtherism,” the conviction that Obama was not born in the U.S., a trope which has remained widely popular among a Tea Party population, a majority of whom also believes that Obama is a Muslim. Beyond this, Trump supporters have now followed through on Trump’s repeated warnings and have filed suit against his nearest current rival, Ted Cruz, to have Cruz disqualified for the presidency based on his birth in Canada.
Trump’s success among Republican voters has stoked the fears of the Republican establishment for the fate of their party. Trump has maintained his consistent lead—now twenty percent—among Republican “likely voters” in national polls. He won the New Hampshire primary by that margin and came in a close second in the Iowa caucuses. His prospects in the upcoming primaries look excellent. Should Trump accumulate enough delegates in the primaries to win the nomination, the Republican party with him as its leader will come to resemble the anti-immigrant populist third parties that are common in Europe. Parties like the National Front in France, UKIP in Britain, or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. Not only would this mean a collapse of the center-right in the U.S., it would also mean the abandonment of the Republican establishment’s most dearly held tenet, free-market economics. Trump, like the parties of the European populist right, is comfortable with policies like national health coverage that have been anathema—statism!—to the Republican Party since the days of its takeover by Reagan conservatism. Perhaps the Republican grandees are right: they are facing an existential crisis.