clock menu more-arrow no yes
Javier Zarracina / Vox

The Republican civil war starts the day after the election

Will the GOP remain the party of Trump post-2016?

You may think the Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war.

You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

If Donald Trump loses the election next week, “there will be a lot of blood left on the floor between November and the 2020 primaries,” predicts GOP consultant John Weaver, who advised John Kasich’s campaign.

For all the attention on the fights between Trump and a faction of Republicans who have refused to support him, most GOP elected officials have so far taken the path of least resistance. They’ve supported their party’s nominee, even if they’re not thrilled about him.

These Republicans — from Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Reince Priebus to Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and many others — have calculated that since Trump was the nominee chosen by Republican voters, and the only person standing in between Hillary Clinton and the presidency, they should stand by him.

Should Trump lose on Election Day, though, many Republicans will want to say "I told you so" and turn the page on the Trump experiment, returning to a more generic Republicanism that they see as a better vote-getter and a more substantively defensible ideology. And to discredit Trumpism, they’ll make the case that Trump is to blame for his defeat — that he blew what should have been a winnable election for Republicans.

Many of Trump’s most passionate supporters won’t see it that way at all, though. They’re being primed to see a candidate betrayed by an out-of-touch establishment that is compromised by its social and economic ties to a cosmopolitan elite. So if Trump loses, his backers will try to turn grassroots disappointment at his defeat into grassroots rage against Republicans who were insufficiently supportive, thus leveraging their own way into power. (If he wins, the party will face a whole different set of issues.)

Before the next presidential cycle, this war will be fought in the media, in Congress, in primaries, and for the hearts and minds of Republican politicians. And strikingly, even many Trump critics in the GOP are already concluding that the party had previously failed to satisfy the concerns of his strongest supporters, who aren’t going anywhere and must therefore be accommodated somehow — for primary politics if for no other reason.

But others are sounding the alarm that if Republicans continue down the path of white identity politics, they’ll drive nonwhite voters and young voters away from the party for decades to come — and put a presidential election victory even further out of reach.

“That is the existential threat to the party,” says Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush staffer and a fierce critic of Trump. “Some candidates and elected officials will want to go down the Trump path, in ways that viscerally turn off young voters and minorities, because there would be short-term gain.”

“And if that faction wins out,” Miller continues, “the party is going to die.”

Battleground No. 1: The media (or, the “conservative entertainment complex”)

Stephen Bannon, Trump campaign CEO, currently on leave from running Breitbart.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images for SiriusXM

When you ask around about who should get the blame for Trump’s rise, the media is usually high on the list. And while many conservatives like to gripe about the endless coverage the mainstream media gave to Trump, others tend to acknowledge that a more serious problem lies within their own shop.

"There is no autopsy this year that does not include dealing with the right-wing media," conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic, told Business Insider’s Oliver Darcy and Pamela Engel. "There is none."

The problem, as establishment-oriented and even some staunchly conservative Republicans see it, goes beyond Trump. Right-wing media outlets have grown increasingly willing to whip the GOP base into a frenzy with fact-free nonsense — and even mainstream Republican politicians have often been unable or unwilling to resist their demands.

Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign, dubs this “the conservative entertainment complex.” It “has become the tail that wags the dog that Washington leaders, policymakers, and conservative leaders are terrified of,” he says.

The complex’s leading members include many Fox News commentators (especially Sean Hannity), talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, and leading online outlets like the Drudge Report and Breitbart. And it soon may include Donald Trump himself, if reports that he’s looking to participate in a post-election media venture of some kind pan out.

For years, commentators and media outlets like these have loomed large over the Republican Party’s messaging and policy priorities. “I’ve seen with my own eyes conservative leaders alter their message and public priorities in response to Fox’s demands,” David French writes at National Review. Talk radio hosts and outlets like Breitbart would frequently give Republican leaders heartburn by denouncing them as not conservative enough, or as unwilling to truly fight against Obama.

But when Trump rose, most of these personalities either enabled him or actively promoted him, despite his lack of conventional conservative credentials. Some, like Hannity, have become particularly fawning backers. As in the Republican Party writ large, some of these commentators will likely turn against Trump if he does lose big to Clinton.

Others won’t. If Clinton wins, Hannity has said, he will try to make sure that conservative critics of Trump would get the blame. And Breitbart in particular has positioned itself as not just a pro-Trump website but one that will continue to stand up against “globalism,” offer friendly coverage of the “alt-right,” and denounce Republican leaders it deems to be sellouts — like Paul Ryan — after the election. (Not so coincidentally, Breitbart chief Steve Bannon became the Trump campaign’s CEO in August.)

There’s a fundamental discrepancy in incentives between Republican leaders, who want to win the presidency and need to win over swing voters to do so, and the right-wing media, which wants to stoke outrage and appeal primarily to the faithful.

“We’ve got this online media where the profits are driven by controversy and clicks,” says Sarah Rumpf, a former Breitbart contributing writer who’s joined Evan McMullin’s presidential campaign this year out of disgust for Trump. “It’s just an activism problem in general, where it’s easier to fundraise and easier to get members when you can declare an emergency, when you can declare a crisis, when you can identify an enemy.”

So there’s a growing sense among anti-Trump Republicans that, in some way, the power of these media outlets must be challenged — that their incentives have developed in a way that’s fundamentally incompatible with the Republican Party’s electoral success in presidential years. “I think there will be some effort with certain elements of the conservative media, with the talk radio folks, that there will be some effort to at least try to come to terms with that, and to try to some extent reduce that influence,” says GOP consultant Patrick Ruffini.

How would this happen? "You can put pressure on advertisers and corporations that run them," GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said to Darcy and Engel. “Someone needs to be making sure that if you want to go open $50,000 [in ads] on Breitbart … that you get a phone call that follows that up and makes clear you're not helping.” And Ruffini mused to me, speaking hypothetically, that perhaps conservative institutions and organizations like CPAC might end up trying to disassociate themselves from media outlets like Breitbart.

Still, the problem here is that these commentators and media outlets get their influence because they can get ratings and clicks — and behind those ratings and clicks are actual people attracted to that content. Breitbart has set traffic records this year as it’s championed Trump when other conservative websites wouldn’t. Hannity recently bragged that his show “pays the bills” for Fox.

In many cases, these hosts are deliberately delivering what their viewers want, as Robert Draper recently concluded in a New York Times Magazine feature. And when some big-name conservative commentators have ended up criticizing Trump, they’ve been subjected to intense backlash from his fans, as Fox’s Megyn Kelly and Redstate’s Erick Erickson were.

“There’s clearly a market for Trumpism,” says Schmidt. “So anywhere there’s opportunity to communicate to a sizable market, there’s gonna be people doing it.” Indeed, even if the biggest names abandon Trump, he could still have conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his corner, plus the newly minted pundits that have sprung up supporting Trump this year and the legions of websites that post false pro-Trump content optimized to go viral on Facebook.

Breitbart in particular seems set on establishing itself as the home for Trumpism after the election, whether Bannon and Trump end up going into business together or not. “I think what you’re gonna see,” Schmidt predicted to me, “is Steve Bannon monetizing 30 percent of the electorate into a UKIP-style movement and a billion-dollar media business.”

Bannon himself was nearly as blunt to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Green and Sasha Issenberg, saying the Trump campaign had built “the underlying apparatus for a political movement that’s going to propel us to victory on Nov. 8 and dominate Republican politics after that.”

We’ll see about the “victory” part in a week, but Bannon is suggesting that his post-election ambitions will be very big indeed — and that he doesn’t want to stop with merely getting more clicks and making more money. He wants to transform the GOP.

Battleground No. 2: Congress (and Paul Ryan’s future)

Photo Desk / AFP / Getty

Except for the 2016 presidential primary, the most vicious internecine Republican Party fights in the past few years have been fought in Congress — and, in particular, in the House of Representatives.

And the rising bad blood between Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump’s biggest supporters suggests many more of these fights are still to come.

The House Republican conference has long been dysfunctional and vulnerable to pressure from the far right. Every House Republican is up for a primary and general election every two years, but relatively few of them face competition in the general. So they tend to zealously guard their right flanks.

As a result, for the past several years, the party’s base — spurred by media outlets and commentators mentioned in the previous section — has repeatedly managed to pull the House GOP into waging doomed, self-destructive fights that weren’t sought by its leaders.

Many hoped the election of Paul Ryan as speaker late last year would heal these wounds and unite the party’s warring establishment and far-right factions. Indeed, Ryan was perhaps the only person in Congress deeply respected by both groups, to the point where he was downright begged to run for speaker.

But Ryan’s handling of Trump’s rise has changed all that. His support for Trump has been notably tepid. He withheld his endorsement for a few weeks after Trump clinched the nomination, and he said Trump’s remark on Judge Gonzalo Curiel’s heritage was “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Finally, after the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape leaked, Ryan let it be known that he would no longer spend any time defending Trump (though he’s still voting for him, he says).

In response, Trump has condemned Ryan’s perfidy, and his biggest fans in the media have vowed to punish Ryan if Clinton wins. Sean Hannity has called Ryan a “saboteur” and said he needs “to be called out and replaced.” And Breitbart recently published an article headlined: “He’s with her: Inside Paul Ryan’s months-long campaign to elect Hillary Clinton president,” which maintains that “Ryan and Clinton share a progressive, globalist worldview.” (Even before Breitbart’s Steve Bannon joined Trump’s campaign, he internally dubbed Ryan “the enemy” and wanted him “gone” from the speakership, according to a report by the Hill.)

Indeed, there is a fundamental ideological clash between Ryanism and Trumpism that goes beyond Trump’s controversial personal behavior. Ryan has devoted his career to shrinking government spending and the welfare state — he brought the idea of sweeping entitlement reforms to Medicare and Medicaid from taboo to the position of the national Republican Party. Like most conservatives, he’s also been pro-trade. And he’s hinted that under the right circumstances, he’d support immigration reform.

So if Ryan does hold on to a likely reduced House majority in 2017 with a Trump defeat, he’ll not only have to manage the ideological conservatives that bedeviled John Boehner’s speakership — he’ll also have to a deal with a Trumpist faction that thinks he stabbed their man in the back, and is uninterested in much of Ryan’s own agenda. (And Trump is currently more popular within the party than Ryan. According to a recent Bloomberg Politics poll, 51 percent of GOP voters say Trump better represents “what the Republican Party should stand for,” and only 33 percent think Ryan does.)

We don’t yet know what the major legislative battles of 2017 will be, but there will certainly be some overspending at the very least. And the nature of Ryan’s job strongly incentivizes that if he holds on to his majority and Clinton wins the election, he’ll have to make some compromises with her to fund the government — compromises that will surely prove intensely controversial on the right and imperil the 2020 presidential bid he’s rumored to be interested in making.

Furthermore, Ryan’s hands will partly be tied because of the odd math of a speaker of the House election. While most party leaders are elected in private among party members only, a speaker is elected by the whole House. That means to win the job on the first ballot (or survive a challenge), Ryan needs to have the support of 218 Congress members — and recent practice suggests those will have to be 218 Republican Congress members.

So unless Ryan feels comfortable waging a fight over multiple ballots (past speakers have been extremely averse to this), or unless he makes a deal with Democrats (he’d be pilloried for that), he could end up essentially the hostage of his party’s most extreme dozen or so Congress members, depending on how big his majority ends up being. Conversely, if Trump wins, he could end up at war with his party’s president for years.

And that’s if he even holds on to that majority, and his own job. Indeed, things look so grim for Ryan’s political prospects that Politico reports House Republicans have taken to joking that he might be better off if the Republicans do lose the House. Better to be the consistent but ineffective opposition to Hillary Clinton than to be torn apart by Trumpists or far-right conservatives for trying to actually govern.

Battleground No. 3: The primaries (or, Night of the Living Mini Trumps)

Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty

Members of Congress have to head back home eventually if they want to keep their seats. And one of the most consequential questions about the future of the GOP is whether there will be a wave of Trump imitators in future primaries across the country.

“We’re gonna have scores of Mini-Me Trumps running around in Republican primaries in ’17, ’18, and ’19, at the state level and at the congressional level,” predicts John Weaver. “In many ways it will be like Night of the Living Dead.”

The primary challenge has been one of the most powerful tools conservative groups have used in recent years to enforce ideological discipline and push the party to the right. The impact of withholding money from a politician or making a strongly worded criticism of him pales in comparison to a direct challenge to his career.

Some victorious conservative primary challengers — like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Mike Lee — have gone on to win in the general election and rise to prominence in national politics, while others — remember Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, and Richard Mourdock? — end up losing badly to Democrats. Most of them, however, never make it out of the primary in the first place.

But primary challenges have an impact on politicians’ thinking that’s far more impressive than their actual record of success. Politicians fear being primaried, since, after all, weird things can happen in low-turnout races. So they proactively try to head off any chance of it happening, by changing their behavior so they’re on the right part of their party’s most engaged base voters.

So if a wave of Trumpist primary challengers emerges, and if they have some high-profile successes — or even just support from Breitbart or whatever Trump’s new media venture turns out to be — many Republican politicians would likely respond by working extra hard to prove they’re on the right side of Trumpism. They want to avoid threats to their careers like the one Laura Ingraham is making to Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a vocal Trump critic:

Now, it’s still unclear whether strong Trumpist challengers will in fact emerge. So far, there are few signs that Trump has truly built an enduring political faction of his own. Beyond his fans in the right-wing media, few seem to feel as strongly about his major issue positions. There’s Jeff Sessions in Alabama, and maybe Paul LePage in Maine, but not many other well-known politicians have been so willing to embrace Trump’s unique combination of noxious racism and economic nationalism.

Furthermore, there are reasons to doubt that candidates with Trump’s views — but without his money or charisma or ability to command media attention — will end up matching his primary success.

But then again, there’s Dave Brat.

Brat was a little-known economics professor who mounted a long-shot primary challenge to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. He repeatedly trashed Cantor’s (fair-weather) support for immigration reform, and accused him of being too close to Wall Street.

And though he raised hardly any cash, and got little outside support or media coverage — except from talk radio hosts like Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin — Brat shocked the political world by winning by double digits and taking down the likely next speaker of the House.

It was enormously consequential. In some tellings, Cantor’s defeat put the final nail in the coffin for GOP leaders’ hopes of advancing immigration reform in 2014. “Before Majority Leader Eric Cantor's primary loss in Virginia last month, the House leadership's private whip count was 144 GOP votes in favor of passing a bill,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized. “Afterwards it was half that.”

Of course, not every mini Trump will be a Dave Brat. Breitbart made an effort to hype up a primary challenge to Paul Ryan this year, but it was an utter flop; Ryan won with 84 percent of the vote. But Brat succeeded even before he had Trump as a model, proving it could be done on the biggest stage — and now future candidates will have Trump to imitate. And it will only take a few successes, or even near misses, to strike fear into the hearts of Republicans across the country.

Battleground No. 4: Republicans’ hearts and minds (or, appeasement?)

DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty

In the end, though, the greatest Trumpist threat to the Republican Party may be, oddly enough, the existing Republican politicians themselves — because they’ll be tempted to take the path of least resistance once again, and accommodate Trumpism.

Strong Trump critics within the party are calling for a reckoning after the election, particularly on Trump’s racial rhetoric. “We need to have a policy debate that does not repulse Hispanics. Both from a moral standpoint and an electoral standpoint. The debate needs to be done in a way that signals to the Hispanic community that they’re welcome within our party,” Tim Miller says.

Steve Schmidt concurs. “One thing we need to do is just be honest about what this was. You can’t excuse away the racist comments, the anti-Hispanic comments, the misogynistic comments. It’s just not acceptable. And there’s no path to victory for us.”

Yet many Republicans have very strong incentives to avoid such a reckoning. Most of them, after all, represent largely white states or districts that have overwhelmingly white primary electorates. They don’t see winning the presidency for their party as their job.

Elite Republicans already tried a makeover once, with the post-2012 RNC “autopsy.” The document, which contains sentences like “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” is a darkly comical read in retrospect, since the party’s voters went about as far away from its recommendations as possible in nominating Donald Trump.

But even before Trump, most Republicans had nixed one of the report’s key recommendations by shying away from immigration reform, when the backlash from their white base voters proved to be too secured. The autopsy was ignored by most GOP politicians, political scientist Dave Hopkins writes, because its “recommendations departed sharply from their own individual political incentives” — a divide that “has only widened further” with Trump’s rise.

The fate of the 2012 autopsy shows us, then, that this issue won’t be settled in think tanks or among Washington elites. That’s already been tried, and Republican voters spoiled up their party’s leaders best-laid plans. And realistically, those voters are not going anywhere.

It is for this reason that Patrick Ruffini, who is a NeverTrump Republican consultant, also argues that “there has to be a serious effort made to incorporate the views of Trump voters, or factor that into our primary calculus.” He says he’s still optimistic that the party can figure out a way to win over voters concerned about “declining American greatness, American-ism, America First, whatever you want to call it,” without going so hard on “identity” and “racial nationalism” as Trump did.

Others may not be so high-minded. Another lesson one could take from the 2016 primaries is that issues of race, identity, and immigration are far more important to GOP primary voters than their party elites had believed.

And particularly since Trump’s economic nationalism clashes with the views of the donors many GOP politicians still need for fundraising, the most efficient way to meet his voters’ concerns may be to send out the right signals on racial and identity issues.

How does the Republican Party escape its demographic bind?

Maddie McGarvey/Getty

The big-picture demographic problem for Republicans is, of course, that continuing down Trump’s path of white identity politics would mean alienating the nonwhite share of the electorate that, as National Review’s Tim Alberta reminds us, is rising by 2 to 3 percentage points in every presidential year. So even if Trump does squeak out a narrow victory this year, it will only get harder for Republicans down the road.

But the even bigger picture problem is that for the vast majority of the party, this demographic math is merely an abstract concern far removed from their own political incentives.

Though the Republican politicians who have endorsed and praised Trump have gotten their share of criticism, they’ve been acting in a coldly rational manner, so far as their own careers are concerned. The basic fact is that, for now at least, most Republican voters quite like Trump — about two-thirds of them view him favorably, according to Gallup.

Nothing illustrates that more clearly than the behavior of several GOP politicians who, after Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” tape leaked in early October, took the high-minded approach of renouncing their support of him — only to, remarkably enough, re-endorse him days later. By the time the dust had settled, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska had all calculated that they were just taking too much criticism from the right to remain vocal Trump critics. (Not coincidentally, they’re all from deep red states where their biggest future political headaches are likely to be primaries.)

Again and again, then, these conflicts come back to incentives. Right now, few in the Republican Party see winning the presidency as their job — they’re too busy trying to keep their own jobs, in a political environment shaped by their overwhelmingly white base voters and the outrage-obsessed conservative media outlets those voters consume. They may not be all that worried about the Republican Party becoming defined as the party of old white people — because as far as they’re concerned, it already is.

The party will remain staunchly united in opposition to Hillary Clinton and her agenda should she win the presidency, of course. But they were similarly united against Obama. What isn’t yet clear is whether resistance against a new President Clinton can be channeled into productive action toward actually defeating her in 2020, or whether it would end up being used mainly to juice ratings and win the midterms (a task at which the party has been very successful indeed).

In the end, though, the GOP’s problems will only be solved — if they’re ever solved — in the next presidential contest. “I tend to subscribe to the great man theory here,” says Ruffini. “You need a person to actually move voters.” What the GOP needs is a figure who gains broad popularity among the electorate, but who also has the credibility to position the party so that it can appeal to more than just the base.

Of course, there were a few candidates in 2016 who seemed like they could meet that description.

The voters had other plans.

Politics

The Justice for J6 rally is Trump supporters’ latest attempt at revisionist history

Politics & Policy

The housing crisis is the top concern for urban residents

Health Care

The pandemic has created a nation of insomniacs

View all stories in Politics & Policy