Trump Remade the GOP Into the Doomed Party of White Identity
It’s become a party full of people who see themselves as victims, and believe that they are losing what should be their country.
In the wake of the attack on our U.S. Capitol, I have continued to wrestle with what has happened to the GOP and the conservative movement, as well as whether either are salvageable. It’s clear that Trump’s base is what gives him leverage. Even now, with Trump defeated, some Republicans cite their political and physical fear of the base as their reason for opposing impeachment.
For the last four years, it might have sounded like a distinction without a difference to say that most Republican-elected officials were actually afraid of Trump’s supporters (not Trump). However, with Joe Biden about to be sworn in, this distinction becomes a more important diagnosis: Merely getting rid of Trump won’t solve the problem. The Republican Party and the conservative movement have been conquered and transformed by the barbarians at the gate. How do you rescue people who don’t want to be liberated?
Merely installing new leaders (assuming that were possible) isn’t enough. In a democracy, leaders will eventually reflect the values and priorities of their voters. Trump was a magnet for those white voters who no longer share traditional bourgeois values (and a repellent for those—these days, often college-educated suburbanites—who do), which means that even after he is gone, the tail will wag the dog in that direction.
I call these new MAGA Republicans “immigrants”—a name most of them would find ironic, if not objectionable. But stick with me. Like any nation, a political party or movement requires constant replenishment of its ranks. But preserving your founding principles also requires assimilation, lest your vision and traditions disappear after one generation. In the 21st century, two waves of immigrants joined the GOP: first liberals mugged by 9/11, and then a Trump wave that mingled working-class whites, angry about the changing culture, with formerly apathetic voters wowed by Trump’s celebrity. Both waves brought a flood of refugees who did not share what might be thought of as a Reagan-conservative worldview.
Not to paint with a broad brush (one of the stories of the 2020 election was Trump’s appeal to—and improved performance among—various groups of people of color, particularly Cuban-Americans in Florida), but MAGA voters are generally white Americans without a college education who feel like they have lost their place in the world. They culturally identify as Christian, but don’t often set foot in a church, and find the moralizing of a Mitt Romney (or even a George W. Bush) at best off-putting. They craved a sense of meaning and purpose, so they turned Trumpism into their religion. They also don’t have a deep philosophical commitment to what we might call Burkean conservatism, or a particular loyalty to the party of Lincoln.
How’d they end up as Republicans? By accident, in some cases. Or—more accurately—by default. In recent years, the Democratic Party had “first-mover advantage,” and doubled down on the “coalition of the ascendant.” This effectively alienated many decidedly non-ascendant lower-income whites (who’d once been a major part of the FDR coalition) and turned to the GOP as the only game in town. With that shift, skin color became almost predictive, replacing ideology and even class as something close to the defining characteristic of partisan affiliation. And that was a truly unhealthy development.
There is, of course, the aforementioned caveat: Trump’s appeal to some people of color, which came in part from a sense that he’d delivered (at least over his first three years, pre-virus) on an optimistic conservative vision of opportunity and growth. So ironically at the same time that he’s gained what we could call “whites of despair,” he’s also picked up just enough aspirational and optimistic minorities to help obscure that, at least to those still drawn to his cause and not inclined to explicitly see it as identity-oriented.
Will these minority voters stick around after he’s gone (if he’s ever really gone), or were they specifically drawn to Trump’s cult of personality? My assumption is the latter, but it’s also possible that voting Republican once makes voting Republican twice feel less weird—that, for some people of color, Trump has created a permission structure going forward.
Regardless, this interesting subplot should not distract from the broader reality that, with Trump’s rise, the GOP largely became a white identity politics party. (The GOP has long had a problem attracting minority support, but that’s different from being the default party for non-college-education white people.) Racial and cultural identity supplanted ideas, philosophy, or other forms of identity. You don’t have to be a businessman, care about family values, or want to reform Social Security (in fact, the last one is now a deal breaker) to be in the club. It’s a club of despair, of people who see themselves as doomed in the near future and will fight—sometimes violently—to hold on to power in the present as such.
In this regard, Trump was a Trojan Horse who snuck insurgents inside the GOP tent. To be sure, I’m OK with a big tent, but not a circus tent. And it is starting to look like the GOP has permanently settled on the latter. Questions remain:To what degree has QAnon congealed with the Republican Party? Is the Alt-Right now the entire Right? According to a new Ipsos/Axios poll, Republicans are sticking with Trump, despite all the horror that has transpired (a new Pew poll, showing Trump’s approval rating down among Republicans, offers more hope that the ratio of redeemable Republicans is better than previously feared). The impeachment trial in the U.S Senate might tell us a lot about whether the GOP is salvageable.
What is clear is that the influx of Trump voters into the GOP, coupled with his capture of formerly normal Republicans, will make it difficult, if not impossible, to restore the party and the conservative movement to its more sane, more decent, pre-Trump standing.
That’s because, as previously noted, the base of the party is now full of people whose racial and cultural fears led them to conclude that they were losing their country. As Thomas Edsall writes, “There is evidence that many non-college white Americans who have been undergoing what psychiatrists call ‘involuntary subordination’ or ‘involuntary defeat’ both resent and mourn their loss of centrality and what they perceive as their growing invisibility.”
Embracing a personal sense of victimhood is both un-Christian and unconservative, and that’s sort of the point. This is a radical departure from an optimistic and compassionate conservative vision that is about opportunity and growth. The GOP of today is dominated by people whose identity is defined largely by their skin color and whose motivation is spurred by a quality that, a few short years ago, would have been anathema to conservatism.
To make matters worse, their disposition (presumably) makes them more susceptible to conspiracy theories like QAnon. It also makes it nearly impossible to use evidence and logic to “deprogram” or reason with them at the individual level. One possible way to change that would be a large-scale spiritual and moral awakening that would change the hearts, culture, and zeitgeist of America. But how long would that take? That could be a generational project. The other possibility is simply that some of these people will fall back out of politics if Trump recedes. This has not happened during previous waves in the late 20th century, when new adherents became embedded (and sometimes co-opted) into the party apparatus. But past waves were not driven by a cult of personality, making today’s wave less susceptible to domestication, but probably more susceptible to attrition. So our best hope may be that voters turned on by Trump will simply drop out of politics.
I know the idea of celebrating people leaving the political process seems unpatriotic. Like immigration itself, the addition of new voters and activists are often welcomed as an unmitigated good. Parties and movements obviously do need an injection of new people and ideas to survive and thrive. But problems arise when new members join too quickly and aren’t assimilated. This happens when you lack an adequate process, remove the gatekeepers, and lower the bar for entry. When this happens, you risk losing your country, party, or movement as you know it.
And that’s what has happened to the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Rather than slowly evolving into a serious movement that accommodated a changing world by working out its nagging problems and anachronisms and becoming both more populist and more inclusive, it has, in the course of a few short years, become a conspiracy caucus where the inmates run the asylum.
Trump is largely to blame, but a healthy party wouldn’t have been so vulnerable. Parties should not pretend to be democracies; they require leaders and gatekeepers to vet nominees and determine party principles. Only then should they try to attract supporters who agree with those principles. In recent years, the GOP has put the cart before the horse, with predictable results.
When crazy people wag the dog, parties turn into incoherent messes at best and violent mobs at worst. This is the story of Trump’s Republican Party.