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Opinion

Donald Trump versus the party system

By Richard Johnston      

If the content of Mr. Trump’s appeal could be packaged more carefully, it might even deliver the Presidency in 2020. But the content of Mr. Trump’s current appeal is unacceptable to the Republican elite.

Open racist appeals may inflame the base, but they alert the rest of the electorate and enable pushback. They are not a prescription for winning a Presidential election, writes Richard Johnston.
Photograph courtesy of Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons.

For Republicans, the cruellest month turns out to be not April, but October. Not so long ago, Donald Trump was close to a tie with Hillary Clinton. Now the margin seems so great that at least one oddsmaker has decided to pay out the bets. This is unlikely to prevent the implosion of Mr. Trump’s campaign. We will continue to hear racist, xenophobic, and misogynist messages, and to witness incitements to mob violence by the candidate and abandonment of him by Republican elites. The Trump agenda has shifted to strangling the Clinton presidency in the cradle. How did we get here? What lessons should we draw?

Although U.S. parties seem rather shadowy, they try to act as gatekeepers. Political scientists point to the existence of an “invisible primary,” an off-screen process of vetting, signalling, and controlled the release of money. Blog sites such as FiveThirtyEight bring the invisible primary on-screen with tallies of endorsements by senior figures in each party. In 2016, the process failed miserably. With unparalleled unanimity, Democratic elites endorsed Ms. Clinton, and yet the primary season went right down to the wire.

Republican elites issued virtually no endorsements until it was too late. The party’s coalition fractured into its economic, social, and foreign policy parts, such that there was no firewall against Mr. Trump. One of the reasons was money, due largely to the Citizens United decision. No less important has been the internet and its facilitation of small donations. On the Republican side, this enabled mainstream candidates to remain in the field too long. Even though Mr. Trump averaged less than 40 percent of primary and caucus votes before late April, his margin over the divided field looked huge. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders gained ground right to the end, even though he never had a real chance. Along the way, he gifted a potent anti-Hillary script to the Republicans.

For the media, Donald Trump was the ultimate “man bites dog” story. He generated massive, unflagging audiences, helped along by his similarly unflagging willingness to return phone calls. That his was a niche appeal was not a problem when the GOP alternatives were divided.

Within the Republican coalition, his core claims mapped right on to the subtext of recent GOP campaigns. Although the party’s elites believe in alliance politics, in open borders for trade and—more hesitantly—in immigration reform, its candidates have regularly campaigned with covert racial appeals and general xenophobia. Acting on the appeals delivers nothing of substance to the voters most responsive to them—as the policies such voters do get, they don’t want.

There is a reason such appeals have been covert. Open racist appeals may inflame the base, but they alert the rest of the electorate and enable pushback. They are not a prescription for winning a presidential election. They may also cost the Republicans the Senate and there is even talk about losing the House (to be sure, a very long shot). They will also leave hostages to fortune: simmering anger on one side, massive distaste on the other.

Rumours of the death of the Republican party are premature, however. The traditional formula will continue to deliver the House. The 2018 election will most likely hand the Senate back. If the content of Mr. Trump’s appeal could be packaged more carefully, it might even deliver the Presidency in 2020. But the content of Mr. Trump’s current appeal is unacceptable to the Republican elite.

Can the Republicans even conduct the requisite soul-searching? The 2016 election is a potent reminder of a truth that is hard to stomach: parties are indispensable to mass democracy. The U.S. parties differ profoundly. When one is able to displace the other in power, policy outcomes shift accordingly. But to get power, parties have to tame the very passions they mobilize. In 2016, the Republicans failed to do this. The damage extends to the entire U.S. system. Critics of strong parties, take note.

Richard Johnston presented this material to Parliamentarians on October 25, 2016 as part of the Big Thinking on the Hill lecture series.

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