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Taking Donald Trump seriously

Just for a minute.

Ty Wright/Getty Images

It's been tough out there for political scientists. We can't seem to fully explain the Donald Trump phenomenon. Many of us thought he would be out of the race by now, or at least a minor player. With each outrageous statement, however, he seems to gain a firmer hold. And most of us would argue that while polls aren't everything, they signify something different in late November than in July. At least one prominent political scientist has conceded that Trump might have a chance.

I'm not ready to sign on to that view yet. But for a few paragraphs I am going to entertain the idea that there are divergent preferences between Republican primary voters and elites, and that the early part of the winnowing process has not been able to resolve that gap. The three historical parallels that come to mind are 1912, 1948, and 1968. These comparisons are hardly original; commentators have been invoking Theodore Roosevelt, George Wallace, and the Dixiecrats for months trying to put the Trump candidacy in context. I'm not sure about those parallels. But I think we can look to the past for some comparative leverage on how party processes work.

Each of these nomination contests had a different trajectory and outcome. In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt broke his promise not to seek another term as president and challenged (his erstwhile friend and hand-picked successor) William Howard Taft. The big rift at the 1912 convention was about process, as Roosevelt had demonstrated his popularity among voters in the states that had adopted that newfangled institution the primary. But party leaders at the convention had other ideas, and Taft won the nomination. TR ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the party.

The Democratic contest of 1948 was a different story. At the first post-FDR convention under the new rules, which allowed candidates to win the nomination with a simple majority instead of the traditional two-thirds, the South lost out. Truman, who had endorsed federal action on civil rights, became the nominee. Hubert Humphrey gave a pro–civil rights speech, and the platform included a civil rights plank. Some Southern delegates walked out of the convention, and Strom Thurmond ran on a separate Dixiecrat ticket that appeared as the official Democratic ticket on some ballots. Truman still won — not quite as narrowly as you would think, given the gun jumping that occurred in the press.

The 1968 nomination is, obviously, the most recent, and perhaps the moment that seems to bear most directly on our current situation. It was most clearly cast as a contest between activists and party officials and ended in a violent and complex convention in Chicago, where Hubert Humphrey, now on the establishment side of the party equation, became the nominee. The party didn't splinter to the left in that contest, exactly, but George Wallace ran as an independent candidate on the Southern populist right. And the discontent on display at this convention ultimately inspired the reforms that now characterize our formal nomination system.

There are a couple of lessons that can be drawn from these examples of party discord. First, the party really has, historically, decided. The 1948 nomination was more of a split among elites, but in 1912 and 1968 party elites and officials got their way. This was the power arrangement that reforms were supposed to change, and the premise of The Party Decides is that they didn't really displace elites in the nomination game.

Second, these kinds of divisions may not be the only signals that change is coming, but they seem to be based on real and enduring issues, not on fleeting or superficial factors. The vision that TR had of party politics in 1912 has become the way that Americans think about party politics, for better or worse — where primary elections are the norm and party leaders are suspect. Both the 1948 and 1968 elections represented the change that occurred in the Democratic Party as it first transformed from the party of the Jim Crow South and then sorted into a liberal party.

The third thing we learn from these events is that although I've often said that the essence of party politics is the processes that allow fissiparous coalitions to make decisions together, even the best process cannot always overcome division over principles and issues. For example, even if the Democratic Party had not eliminated the two-thirds rule, it was not clear that there was a candidate who could satisfy the South and the growing civil rights wing. This also applies to informal rules, like the one stipulated in The Party Decides — that nominees will be both electable and satisfactory to policy demanders. If the Trump phenomenon is real and not superficial, this may be the reality that Republican leaders face going into 2016.

Several factors distinguish the current moment from these historical comparisons, however. First, the insurgents who seek the nomination are well and truly outside the party. Hans Noel pointed this out in his piece about Trump a while back, suggesting that if Trump wins the nomination, it will be because he "imposed himself." This wouldn't have been true of Theodore Roosevelt, a Southern Democrat in 1948, or Eugene McCarthy in 1968.

Second, unlike the Democrats in 1948 and 1968, and the Republicans in 1912, the current Republican coalition is not an outsize one. These historical elections occurred after long periods of party dominance — multiple decades of presidential control, landslide elections. Whatever is happening with the Republican Party right now is happening during a competitive era, at the end of a two-term Democratic administration.

On a related note, the previous establishment-insurgent contests had a defined set of party heirs. Taft and Truman were incumbent presidents; Humphrey was the vice president. We can hardly cast the current contest as a clash between the establishment and insurgent candidates because there is no clear establishment favorite. We can call this the "Jeb Bush (Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, once Scott Walker but not now, maybe John Kasich), you're no William Howard Taft" phenomenon. Since the policy-demanders school of nominations thought is based on the idea that elites can resist attempts at insurgency, perhaps the lack of agreement on a candidate is part of the story about why this theory may not hold, or at least has not predicted what we've so far observed.

But I think one of the most important features of this election cycle is also one of the hardest to observe. The spirit of 20th-century reform movements has perhaps had a deeper impact than the reforms themselves. We expect that party nominations will be done with voter input, regardless of whether this is actually true. The nomination outcomes of 1912 and 1968 would likely be viewed as illegitimate now. Furthermore, the small-d democratic impulse — the right of people to rule themselves and the populism that can extend from that — often is not racially neutral. Opposition to party bosses and insistence on popular sovereignty have anti-immigrant and pro-slavery histories, respectively. Given the substance of Trump's remarks this year, this combination deserves our attention.

Obviously, I don't know what will happen. I don't know how Trump will do in the early primaries or in the later ones, when the delegates are really up for grabs. I've been saying for months that he'll fade out by then, but as those dates grow closer, that prediction seems less reassuring. It's possible that a year from now, I'll look really silly for even devoting a few paragraphs to this and will be begging my Vox overlords to delete the post. It's very likely that the final stages of winnowing will happen quickly after Iowa and New Hampshire, if not before then. But even if that outcome lies ahead, the past few months of Trump's remarks and steady presence in the polls will still be part of our history. I'm genuinely unsure of the punchline here. But my hunch is that this candidacy is no longer just a joke.