Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party’s steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.
While that descent has been underway for a long time, it has accelerated its pace in recent years. We noted four years ago the dysfunction of the Republican Party, arguing that its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.
Consider, as a sign of the party’s decadence, how quickly Bob Corker, a card-carrying member of the Republican Party elite — the center-right chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — caved in to this horribly miscast party standard-bearer. Trump’s campaign has been filled with statements whose ignorance and bombast have appalled the establishment. Then a ballyhooed foreign policy speech in late April was widely panned by experts across the foreign policy spectrum. ("A very odd mishmash"; "strident rhetoric [that] masked a lack of depth.") Corker’s response? He praised "the broadness, the vision" of the speech.
When Corker subsequently praised Trump's disastrous press conference in Scotland as "one of his better events" — this was the press conference that mainly showcased Trump's golf resort, and in which Trump praised the UK's vote in favor of Brexit in strongly pro-Europe Scotland, after earlier demonstrating he did not even know what Brexit was — the cave-in was complete.
Corker, of course, was not alone. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fell in line quickly, and while House Speaker Paul Ryan hedged his support for a while, he also joined the Trump team. The Republican Party was about to nominate the most inexperienced, unpopular, and temperamentally unsuited major party presidential candidate in the history of American politics, and there was nothing the establishment could do about it beyond trying to contain the political damage.
It gives us little pleasure to say we foresaw that the Republican Party was on a destructive course that could lead to such a situation.
In April 2012, we created a major stir in the political world with a long piece in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section called, "Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem." It was adapted from our book published days later, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, and this was our money quote:
The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.
As scholars who had worked for more than four decades with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, we faced a ton of scorn from sitting Republican lawmakers and outside observers for making this argument — and denial from most of the mainstream media. For reporters, professional norms and concerns about accusations of partisan bias dictated that the parties be treated equally, whatever the underlying reality. The safe haven of false equivalence led the press to ignore one of the most consequential developments in contemporary American politics: the radicalization of the Republican Party.
The Republicans abandoned compromise, which is essential in a democracy
The Outlook piece went viral and became the talk of political Washington even before the Sunday paper was delivered. So we were bemused that the major Sunday talk shows on the three networks and cable news — whose panels focus each week on buzzy topics in politics — all maintained radio silence about the essay. The denial surrounding this issue has barely changed since 2012.
We came to our blunt conclusions from perches inside the belly of the beast, observing, analyzing, and interacting with the top political figures in Congress and the executive branch since 1969. Other scholars and journalists, including Jonathan Chait, James Fallows, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson had paved the way with observations and analyses similar to ours.
We did not advance our argument about asymmetric polarization lightly. We had worked closely with members of both parties and are not unaware of the issues and divisions inside the Democratic Party. But we had seen the GOP go from a problem-solving center-right party to a problem-solving very conservative party — and then evolve into an obstructionist party intent on appeasing extreme forces inside and outside Congress.
This new version of the party eschewed any serious effort to bargain and compromise with the opposition party, an essential activity within the American constitutional system.
The reasons for the changes in the GOP were many, and the Democrats were affected by some of the same forces. Both parties were reshaped by political developments in the 1960s — the counterculture, the Vietnam War, Barry Goldwater’s candidacy, the Voting Rights Act, and the racial realignment of the South.
The two parties became more internally homogeneous and distinct from each other. Partisan identities adjusted to reflect these changes. People became more comfortable living and socializing with those sharing similar values and group identities. Parties in government became more unified and strategic in the legislative arena.
As political scientist Frances Lee has demonstrated, the trend toward polarization was driven not just by sharper policy differences but also by a much more competitive struggle for control of the levers of power. Unlike the situation through most of the past century, both parties now had a reasonable shot in most elections at winning the White House and Congress. There were fewer presidential landslides and fewer extended periods of one-party control of the House or Senate. Pressure built for more party loyalty in Congress; legislating became more than ever driven by the permanent campaign.
These polarized parties could and did act decisively when one of them controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the more frequent periods of divided party government inspired willful obstruction and policy avoidance.
Newt Gingrich and the politics of destruction
Why then single out the Republican Party as an insurgent outlier? Newt Gingrich, first among other Republican leaders, took this polarization to a new level. He was key in the transformation of the party into a destructive and delegitimizing force in American politics (which makes his recent bonding with Trump very fitting).
From the time he came to Congress in 1979, Gingrich deployed a strategy to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in the House by moving to polarize the parties, to use the ethics process to taint both the majority and the entire political process, and to get Americans so disgusted with politics and politicians that at the right moment, they would rise up and throw out the incumbent party.
A decade into his tenure, Gingrich was able to seize on and exploit a wave of populism triggered by a proposed 25 percent pay raise for members of Congress, judges, and top executive officials — a raise, ironically, Gingrich himself supported. The move ignited a broad national anger, empowering such diverse figures as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and, later, H. Ross Perot, and solidifying talk radio under Rush Limbaugh as a political phenomenon.
When populism exploded again with the 2008 financial collapse and TARP bailout, the next generation of Republican leaders — led by Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, the self-named Young Guns — took the Gingrich playbook and ran with it, exploiting and fueling populist anger at the political establishment and the new black president to take back power.
The theory was that a deliberate strategy to make all government action in Washington look disastrous, whether by stopping legislation or delegitimizing the process and its products, would work against the party in power: the Democrats. Scandal politics, which vaulted Gingrich to prominence in the first place, could be hyped and exploited; see Benghazi. The "birther" movement was not explicitly embraced by party leaders, but it was encouraged; it was an indirect way to criticize the "African" president while also, incidentally, vaulting Donald Trump to prominence in the political realm.
Republicans attacked science and egged on conspiracy theories
These leaders also thought that an attack on climate change and, more broadly, evidence-based policy analysis would fuel suspicion and demonization of not just liberal politicians but the broader liberal establishment. The conspiracy theories and over-the-top attacks on Obama and Democrats repeated regularly on cable TV news shows, talk radio, blogs, and social media were not created or directly condoned by GOP establishment leaders — although they were repeated by rank-and-file lawmakers.
But when leaders neither criticized nor condemned the assertions, it gave them more legitimacy with voters. We do not believe that party leaders themselves believed Obama was a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton's aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist, or that a Black Panther uprising was ever imminent. But those claims were cynically exploited to foster anger among base voters.
The Young Guns and their allies, including McConnell, also blew up a series of governing norms. While the debt ceiling had been a political football for both parties for decades, leaders were always careful not to push too far, to flirt with default. Republicans in both the House and the Senate, starting in 2010 and continuing through 2014, explicitly held the debt ceiling and US credibility hostage to a series of ideological demands, coming dangerously close to going over the edge.
Then, faced with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans declined to offer alternatives or technical "corrections" — as an older generation of Republicans would have — and instead voted dozens of times simply to repeal the law. And in the Senate, the threat of filibuster, once reserved for a handful of highly charged large issues, exploded into a regular tool of mass obstruction.
This "new nullification," as we call it, has left President Obama’s nominee to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, Merrick Garland, drifting in limbo.
Stirring up rage they couldn’t control
At first, the assault on government worked, at least electorally. Just as the Gingrich strategy brought, in 1994, the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years, the Young Guns and establishment leaders’ strategy resulted in a huge Republican majority in the House in 2010 and then a Republican majority in the Senate, and gains to solidify the House majority in 2014.
But the risks of the cynical game were becoming apparent. To the populist Tea Party voters whose anger had carried the GOP to those majorities, the promises made to them by these leaders — that Republican majorities in the House and Senate could bring Barack Obama to his knees, repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and blow up government as we knew it — were starting to appear hollow. Whether through weakness or perfidy, the Republican establishment, by stirring up the base and fomenting rage among its voters, did betray the trust given it by those voters.
At the same time, having worked to demonize the president as illegitimate and not loyal to America or American values, every subsequent compromise made by GOP leaders to keep the government open or to pass policy was by definition working with the enemy.
All these forces created a massive backlash against the Republican Party leadership. From the beginning stages of the presidential nomination process for 2016, 60 to 70 percent of Republicans in polls opted for insurgent or outsider candidates, with 20 percent or less for insiders and establishment figures. In the end, the only two viable contenders were Ted Cruz, whose calling card was calling his own leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor — and Donald Trump.
Pundits and scholars had seen the establishment play along with Glenn Beck–style radicalism and conspiracy-mongering before, only to engineer a nomination for a "regular" Republican leader. They assumed history would repeat itself, with a Bush, Rubio, Kasich, or Walker. We did not.
It seemed far more likely to us, with 17 candidates in the race, a new money system that made it easier for more to stay in longer with the help of one or two "sugar daddies" running Super PACs, a delegate selection process that would keep a race going longer, and a more radical populist zeitgeist, that Trump and Cruz would be the last ones standing — and that Trump could indeed prevail.
Criticism of Trump was too little, too late
The buyer’s remorse felt by so many in the party establishment — including the pathetic #NeverTrump movement — went nowhere. Only a handful of significant Republican officeholders, led by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, emphatically rejected Trump. Other conservative figures, including the columnists George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Kathleen Parker, and Michael Gerson, have been deeply and eloquently disdainful, but many of these same people had missed repeated opportunities over the years to identify and condemn the party’s drift to radicalism.
The party’s acceptance of Trump as its standard-bearer exposed further a set of divisions and tensions inside the GOP that will linger. Some of those divisions are among and between leaders and elites; others involve deeper disagreements between party leaders and the broader party voter base.
Consider the ironies: A tribal party ended up nominating a man who has a very loose connection to the party and has had as many party affiliations in the past as he has had wives. A party moving toward more strident right-wing ideology, reflected in the candidacy of Ted Cruz, chose a nominee who is against free trade, has a long history of pro-choice sentiment, boosts Social Security, Medicare, and Planned Parenthood, and can sound like a neo-isolationist.
In the end, the exploitation of anti-government sentiment by Republican leaders, and the active efforts on their part to make all government look corrupt and illegitimate, reached its logical conclusion. The Republican political establishment looked no less corrupt, weak, and illegitimate than the Democratic one, and the appeal of a rank outsider became greater.
Whatever happens in November, the fractured Republican Party will struggle for a long, long time to find an identity and a center of gravity. Almost certainly, given the retirements from Congress and the vulnerable incumbents, the relative influence of the Freedom Caucus — radical lawmakers who want no compromises — will be significantly greater.
Trump’s bombastic rhetoric aimed at minorities, including Hispanics, African Americans, and Muslims, among others, including his pledge to build that wall on the southern border, will make it even more difficult than it was after the 2012 loss for Republican leaders to make any gesture on immigration that might broaden the party's appeal beyond white working-class voters.
A Trump victory, unlikely but far from impossible, would not create a new GOP: The old problems we identified would remain, along with new ones. There is no way to predict how Trump, who has no discernible knowledge of public policy or the governing process but who has made stark pledges on a range of issues, would handle his presidency, but the differences between his stated policy preferences and those of party leaders in Congress are substantial. In any case, Democrats will have enough members in the Senate to filibuster his initiatives.
On some issues, like immigration and trade, Freedom Caucus Republicans will be with Trump. On others, including his support for Social Security and Medicare, neither they nor the leaders will back him. Most likely, when it comes to things like torture and trade, Trump would bypass Congress and use executive action in ways that would potentially create constitutional crises and divide Republicans in profound ways.
A Clinton victory could inspire a return to the old playbook
If the single most likely election outcome occurs — a Clinton presidential victory and a narrow edge for Democrats in the Senate, with a reduced Republican majority in the House — the party divisions will be huge. A Trump loss will energize the Ted Cruz/Tom Cotton/Freedom Caucus wing, with Cruz doubling down on his assertion that Republicans keep losing because the party is not pure enough: It keeps nominating moderates like Romney and liberals like Trump instead of purists like Cruz (who would theoretically bring out tens of millions of voters who stay at home otherwise).
At the same time, Trumpist populists inside and outside Washington will attribute any Trump loss to the perfidy of the party establishment. Aided by the bevy of cable TV hosts, talk radio impresarios, and bloggers who thrive on chaos — they will spread the belief that Americans have been betrayed both by Democrats and by weak-kneed and corrupt Republican establishment leaders. They will continue to push nativist and protectionist policies.
And the establishment itself, divided over its level of support for Trump, battered by a horrible political year, targeted both by the purists and the populists, will have little traction to craft the kinds of policies that both fit its broader philosophy and can achieve meaningful compromises with Democrats.
Unfortunately, what will likely emerge a few months into the Clinton presidency is a deep desire by Republicans to recapture the party mojo by once again prevailing in the forthcoming 2018 midterm elections — by using the old scorched-earth strategies. Following the road maps of 2010 and 2014, party leaders will want to demonize the president, delegitimize Washington and the policy process, and block any meaningful policy action that could lead to a Clinton signing ceremony —feeding the anger of the grassroots.
That could once again result in both sizable GOP gains in the House and a renewed Republican majority in the Senate, but it would also mean a repeat of the vicious cycle that led to Trump in the first place.
On the other hand, if Speaker Ryan, filling his fiduciary responsibility as a constitutional officer and his heartfelt vow to become a party of ideas and policies, moves to enact constructive policies, or simply to keep the government operating, it is hard to see how he could avoid the fate of his predecessor John Boehner: retirement.
Just as troubling is the shameful appeal Trump is making, as the Republican standard-bearer, to racist, anti-Semitic, and nativist elements in the populace. To their detriment, party leaders did little to discourage those nefarious appeals. Getting the racist genie back in the bottle may prove impossible.
When we wrote It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, many former Republican officeholders understood we were not attacking the Republican Party as partisans but trying to save it from itself. We took no comfort from calling out the GOP. We well recognize that our polity will not function as it is supposed to without two strong and vibrant parties whose goal is to solve societal problems within the rubric of our constitutional system.
That does not mean going back to an Eisenhower-era or even Nixon-era GOP, when centrists were key forces; it means a very conservative party by any reasonable measure. As such, we sympathize with Republicans like David Frum who have been harshly critical of the party’s course but refuse to leave it, believing their presence is necessary to fight to yank the party back to a problem-solving state.
If they can’t, perhaps, as when the Whig Party hit a dead end, a new force will emerge to replace or challenge the Republican Party. But anyone expecting a quick or clean resolution of this turmoil will be sorely disappointed.
Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor and writer for the Atlantic. Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and a resident scholar, Institute of Governmental Studies, at the University of California Berkeley.