clock menu more-arrow no yes

Donald Trump's victory proves Republican voters want resentful nationalism, not principled conservatism

1) On Tuesday night, the Republican Party confirmed the worst suspicions liberals had of it. Five years ago, it would have sounded like a partisan slur to say the GOP harbored enough racial resentment, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, anti-elitism, and latent authoritarianism to nominate someone like Donald Trump. But it was true.

2) Credit where it's due. The Republican Party is what congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein said it is: "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition." In case you are skeptical of that final charge, recall that Trump began his rise in the Republican Party as a champion of the birther movement.

3) Donald Trump tends to trail Hillary Clinton by about 10 points in general election polls — a landslide in contemporary American politics. "There have been 10-point shifts over the general election season before, even if it's uncommon," writes Nate Cohn, the New York Times's resident polling wonk. "But there isn't much of a precedent for huge swings in races with candidates as well known as Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. A majority of Americans may not like her, but they say they're scared of him."

4) The result is Hillary Clinton is a weak candidate in a commanding position. Her favorability numbers trail far behind what Barack Obama enjoyed at the outset of the 2008 election — he hovered around 55 percent, while she barely clears 40 percent — but her potential vote share far exceeds anything he could plausibly have hoped for. It is possible Trump could lose in a Goldwater-like landslide in a way that was not possible for John McCain.

5) But making that landslide real requires Clinton to strike a difficult balance. Like Trump, she is a polarizing, unpopular figure (though less so than he is). She needs to use Trump to unite her coalition without letting that effort unite the Republican coalition against her. That points toward a campaign focused on Trump's basic fitness for office rather than the policy differences between the two candidates. More Republicans and independents might fear Trump's judgment than disagree with his policies.

6) One thing Clinton need not worry about is Democratic turnout. To see why, read Tuesday's Facebook post from Sen. Elizabeth Warren. "Trump has built his campaign on racism, sexism, and xenophobia. There's more enthusiasm for him among leaders of the KKK than leaders of the political party he now controls. … I’m going to fight my heart out to make sure Donald Trump's toxic stew of hatred and insecurity never reaches the White House."

7) Could Trump win? Sure. Anything can happen in American politics. But those pointing to Trump's victory in the GOP primary as evidence of his potency in the general election are misguided. The electorates are very different, as are the underlying dynamics of the races. Behaviors that have been successful for Trump in recent months will turn off a general electorate — a reality you already see reflected in Trump's poll numbers. The behavior that attracts the most hardcore of Republican votes turns off the median voter.

8) In theory, Trump could run to the center. In practice, he cannot. His comments cannot be stricken from the record, and the impressions Americans have formed of him in recent months will not be easily unwound. But more troublesome for Trump is that he, like all of us, is fundamentally limited by his own personality. His brashness, his offensiveness, his immaturity — none of this is an act.

A politician with more superego couldn't retweet white supremacists or accuse their challenger's father of being linked to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The reason Trump could run the campaign he's run is that he's all id. The reason he will not suddenly be able to reinvent himself as a sober, comforting statesman is that he's all id. What was adaptive for Trump in the primary will prove maladaptive in the general, but there's little he'll be able to do about it.

9) Even if Trump loses, he has exposed a Republican Party many in the GOP will wish had stayed hidden. The core truth he has laid bare is that Republican voters are powered by a resentful nationalism more than a principled conservatism. "Republican politics boils down to ethno-nationalistic passions ungoverned by reason," writes Jonathan Chait. "Once a figure has been accepted as a friendly member of their tribe, there is no level of absurdity to which he can stoop that would discredit him."

10) Many Republicans see this, and they are ashamed by it. But #NeverTrump will fail, and for a simple reason: There is no alternative vehicle for conservatism besides the Republican Party. Ultimately, Donald Trump professes allegiance to conservative policies, while Hillary Clinton is clearly and indisputably a liberal. The question isn't so much whether conservatives support Trump in this election, but how — with more time, more reflection, and more planning — they attempt to recapture their party for future elections.

11) Meanwhile, Trump offers an opportunity to Democrats: If they can manage to hold their left flank while attracting a few percentage points' worth of disgusted independents and moderate Republicans, they can consign the GOP to minority status for the foreseeable future — much as happened to the California Republican Party after Pete Wilson. The difficulty for Democrats is that such a strategy requires ideological and tonal moderation — even as the weakness of Republicans emboldens liberal groups to demand more ambitious policy and the extremism of the Trumpism calls forth an angry, fearful response from the Democratic base.