This election has been a not so proud moment for people who confidently predict things (when you can add a clause like "except Ann Coulter" you know we're really off the edge), so I know it may seem weird to say that this election continues to confirm a theory I have about the death of the Republican Party... but bear with me.
Donald Trump's victory has no doubt been a setback for liberals, coastal confidence, and bolstered the GOP, which sits now is the long desired position of controlling both houses of Congress and the Executive Branch. Still, as saddened and angry as I've been lately - feelings that are widely shared - I think Republicans would (and likely will) be foolish to think that this election was anything more than the frustrated, desperate cry of scared and fearful people urged to vote their rage and resentments.
The winning coalition in this election was, basically, built on one cornerstone: heavy turnout by white rural votes, mainly men. They are the most lopsided portion of the electorate in this election, according to exit polling, whose downbeat views of immigrants, the economy and safety and security drove the narrative, but run counter to voters who chose Hillary Clinton.
It is, no doubt, important for everyone, left and right, to take this seriously and try better to assess the underpinnings of this rage and resentment. And many liberals, even in the immediate aftermath of the election, are reluctant to even try. But in these election results, one key factor to contemplate is that while this angry voter picked Donald Trump (possibly, I and others would argue, for a host of wrong reasons), trying to divine a consistent statement in the results is really very difficult.
That's because , while many talk about the appeal of an "economic populist" message and a "throw the bums out" mentality... almost no bums were thrown out. Republicans retain control of both houses, in essence, because incumbents won, strongly, pretty much everywhere. What small changes there were happened on the margins, and those changes, at the national level, favored Democrats, however slightly. Some have argued - I'd say persuasively - that Donald Trump represented a third party candidate whose race was against both parties. And that, I think, does go a long way towards defining his success. But beyond that, little really changed. And that, ultimately, is worse news for the GOP than it is for Democrats... even if Democrats, just now, don't fully realize it.
Consider these milestones of the election:
- Democratic turnout operations appear to have been fairly successful, giving Clinton the majority of the popular vote, and an overall vote total likely to be the third highest ever, behind both elections of Barack Obama. That means, to put a point on it, there is no actual Republican supermajority
- Republicans failed to save Pat McCrory, the Governor of North Carolina, or Kelly Ayotte, Senator from New Hampshire, despite Trump's wins in both states
- Republicans couldn't turn any race in a blue state - allowing Catherine Cortes Mastro to succeed Harry Reid and displacing Mark Kirk in Illinois with Tammy Duckworth
- More pointedly, Republicans couldn't even field a statewide candidate in California, where the Senate race was a choice between two Democrats
- With losses in both houses, both are likely to continue to struggle to unite their internal factions to achieve long sought conservative goals... and in the Senate especially, little can be accomplished without finding a substantial number of Democrats to go along - and one big recipient of Trump's largesse over the years will now lead them: Chuck Schumer
My long held - and still holding - theory about the GOP is that the party reached a major turning point when George W Bush's team ran a scorched earth approach to achieve reelection in 2004. Despite the fact that many Americans were not happy with the country's direction, the Bush team ran roughshod over objections to get victory, and in particular stopped listening to their own base and constituents. More than a "revolt against Obamacare," the rise of the Tea Party turned out to be a wildly uncontrollable internal revolt of the GOP base (which had already caused enormous congressional losses in 2006 and 2008), which in turn caused a breakdown in the party's national leadership. In 2012, internal divisions all but derailed Mitt Romney's run to the nomination, and contributed to his loss. And in 2016, the party's leaders watched in shock and horror as Donald Trump effectively steamrolled over a lackluster field of 17, including Senators and Governors seen as rising stars, as well as the scion of a right wing dynasty (Jeb Bush, in case you forgot) considered the Establishment's best hope.
Sure, in the wake of this stunning result, Republicans now claim to have planned this all along... but this is a party that barely managed to muster a coherent unified approach to a campaign, many of whose success stories - most obviously Marco Rubio and Rob Portman in Ohio - were campaigns directly aimed at standing apart from the party's nominee. Trump's closing campaign slogan - "Drain The Swamp" - is already being subjected to ridicule in the wake of returning leadership n both Houses that will not have changed one bit. And that will only grow as Trump, a neophyte who is poorly prepared to be President, relies on a cast of familiar, establishment conservative names to fill out what will likely be more Rogue's Gallery than Cabinet.
Much of the failure dressed as success here comes from the lack of a central organizing principle for the GOP - other than ginning up white rage and playing to long held resentments, there's basically no positive agenda from the right that really has popular support. Majorities of Americans oppose punitive immigration crackdowns, heavy restrictions on women's right to choose, and economic policies that reward the wealthy and punish the poor. It's no doubt true that we have an enormous economic disaster that's hit rural America especially hard, however the macroeconomic forces involved in that painful turn are forces way beyond the power of Trump, never mind the right more generally, to stop. And it's far from clear that in any coherent sense, conservatives really have any interesting fresh ideas to apply, in any case.
Perversely, as many of the most radical, often third parties lefties suspected, a Trump election may well have the consequence of hastening the death of the GOP more than a decisive Clinton win ever could. The rage that developed and was stoked under Obama would surely have remained the organizing principle of an more embittered right, and who knows how that might have expressed itself (given the protests and other developments in the days since this election, anything, really is possible). Perhaps Republicans needed this setback disguised as a victory to really try their unpopular policies and see them go up in flames...
Perhaps. As many of us chided those lefty rabble rousers at the time, wishing for failure, overlooking the very real pain and suffering of others, is not one of the radical left's best qualities. If Republicans pursue a series of Draconian initiatives, reward wealth and power, consolidate the control of the 1%... not only will they reap the whirlwind, they will do a better job of showing those angry rural white men something we've been saying all along than we ever did. Personally, I have every expectation that all of this is exactly where we're headed. I take no joy in it, I barely feel safe knowing what's to come. Republicans have been denying the realities of their own internal collapse, I believe, for ten years. And in some sense, how else could they finally collapse except in a spectacular fall from amazing heights? Who else could snatch total disaster from the illusions of victory? Apres Trump, Le Deluge.