Dr. Brandon C. Zicha and Joes de Natris
Following the two major party conventions we officially know the two presidential candidates for the coming American Presidential elections: Donald J. Trump versus Hillary Rodham Clinton. For some reason the gap in the polls between Trump and Clinton is not as large as you might expect. Some polls even showed a Trump lead following the Republican National Convention (RNC). Given the perception around the world that Trump is a dangerous demagogue it makes you curious what is going on inside the Republican Party (the Grand Old Party, the GOP) at this moment. The support for Trump may partly be a result of the fact that many Republican figureheads and representatives have endorsed him. It is possible the GOP’s response is just ‘business as usual’ because they genuinely have no idea what to do and no one wants to be the first to stick their neck out.
Trump goes way beyond what we already expect from the Republican Party Building walls, cozying up with Putin, openly advocating killing innocent civilians, banning Muslims from entering the USA, Trump’s proposals are dangerous. Others have noted the parallels between Trump’s style of politics and the early rise of the Nazi Party in Germany’s 1930 election. But, it bears repeating as it is a good warning for other nations which face emergent anti-system populist challenges that unity against these forces is far less costly than letting them win. Another relevant historical episode is the 1828 American election of Andrew Jackson to the U.S. Presidency. Jackson appealed to the traditionally disenfranchised, used nativism, racism, and hatred to mobilise voters and made good on his promise to smite the Native Americans with one of the worst violations of human rights in American History (beside slavery) with the Indian Removal Act.
However, unlike when Jackson was President during the Pax Britannica, the United States is no longer a marginal actor in the global system. Indeed, the whole world economy largely rests on a combination of expectations about what the American government will do politically and economically. This further adds to one’s confusion about the reasoning of GOP leaders. There is good reason to believe that before any of those proposals could be put into effect the simple uncertainty generated by Trump’s erratic behaviour, unorthodox proposals regarding trade and immigration, utterances suggesting the upending of over 50-years of U.S. foreign policy orthodoxy vis-a-vis the centrality of the NATO alliance or its use of nuclear weapons is likely to rock markets, encourage opportunists in the international system and lead to a reaction that makes the reaction to Brexit look like the shock of a slow sales year at Christma . This reality could be realised as early as November 9th (the U.S. votes on November 8th this year), just as the day after Brexit greeted Britons with a substantial drop in the overall value of the economy as the pound sterling plummeted. In short, general global instability will ensue for which only the GOP can be blamed.
So what has led so many Republican Party officials to endorse Trump? Most importantly, the Speaker, the Majority Leader and the Majority Whip of the House of Representatives and the Majority Leader of the Senate have endorsed Trump. If the Republican leadership in the House and Senate really were honest about their endorsements, Trump will find a very friendly environment if he takes office. Do these Republicans not see that the mob-democracy Trump advocates, and the hatred and fear he sparks form a direct threat to what they themselves stand for and to the USA as a democratic republic?
What is Going on in the GOP?
By way of context, it is necessary to note that unlike in many European countries, party discipline in the USA has always been quite low. This means that even though politicians are of the same party, they can openly disagree about policy, and they can openly try to change policy proposed by their fellow party members. They can choose to support candidates other than those of their own party (though this is discouraged by parties). So, Senators, Representatives in the House and the President are all directly responsible to their own constituency, and not to each other or their party.
Nevertheless, political parties do try to discipline their members with various carrots and sticks. For instance, the party may offer or withhold party funding for a representative’s next campaign, support or disavow a challenger in primary, or offer or deny certain job prospects to the candidate. Yet, the core of the matter is that if the members of the Republican Party vote for a certain Republican presidential candidate, this does not create an obligation for other Republican officials to support this presidential candidate. They have their own mandate, and they can decide to not cooperate with the presidential candidate, or the later President. In fact, this division of power between executive and legislature, and between federal and local government is one of the principal ‘checks and balances’ in the American constitution meant to make a tyrannical majority difficult to create.
So, given that party officials do not have to fall in line with their party, what led Republican officials to support Trump? This question is particularly interesting because many Republican officials, like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have major policy differences with Trump.
Firstly, office considerations loom large at a time when President Obama is relatively popular, while Congress (where the Republican Party is strongest) is relatively unpopular, so many Republican officials are simply afraid to lose their jobs. As has been noted elsewhere, this is not a great year for Republicans generally, regardless of Trump. So, with a candidate like Trump energising the base many candidates are left with the choice between going with the traditional core of the GOP or the core plus Trump’s voters. For reasons we discuss below, this is not an easy calculus.
Trump has made the decision to support or withhold support very difficult for ‘down-ticket’ candidates. For instance, in the primary race which determines the Republican candidate for Senator in Arizona Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) faces a strong challenge from an extremist right-wing pro-Trump opponent who commands the most motivated part of the insurgent anti-establishment base mobilised by Trump’s candidacy. If McCain is able to fight off this challenger (made more difficult by Trump saying that he would not support his candidacy until 20 days before the primary election and thus signalled to his voters to vote for McCain’s opponent) he will then probably face a fierce anti-Trump candidate from his Democratic Party challenger Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ).
So, if McCain sticks to his principles and unendorses Trump, he may lose the primary race, but if he, rather cynically, sides with Trump, he will probably lose the general election for his Senate seat unless Trump does extremely well in the general election and brings out lots of voters for his supporters down-ticket in so doing. Thus, McCain is likely trying to thread the needle by being a weak not-so-anti-Trump-but-not-really-supporting-Trump-either candidate.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) situation is similar – though less dramatic given the degree to which his district is ‘safe’ from a Democratic challenge due to gerrymandering (more on this later). However, he does have a responsibility as the hitherto most visible official representative of the GOP (a position now occupied by Mr. Trump) to look out for less safe incumbents from his party. Thus, neither can easily move directly against Trump, for fear that substantial portions of their voter base would have none of it.
The calculus is made more complicated due to a decline in ‘split-ticket voting.’ In the United States, voters elect candidates individually for a great many offices ranging in some districts from Municipal dog-catcher, to family court judge, to State legislator, to U.S. Senator, to President. Each vote is cast individually. Until recently Americans were fond of ‘splitting their ticket’, and voting for the ‘candidate and not the party’. What this means for down-ticket candidates in the larger GOP is that their fates are more tied to their Presidential standard bearer than in previous elections. The increased number of voters that vote in Presidential election years will strongly reflect the presidential candidate. So, regardless of whether individual candidates disavow Trump, voters will treat as Republicans linked to Trump, making candidates more reliant on Trump’s success to gain office.
So, even if party discipline in the USA is weaker than in many European countries, a presidential candidate will always be an influential figure in his party (as we have seen in Trump’s ability to control the media cycle and attention to issues). So, Trump’s support can be important for Republican officials to win (re-)election. It is instructive that currently the only Republican member of the U.S. House to openly oppose Trump as of this writing is Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), a moderate from one of the most competitive districts in the country who decided in January not to run for re-election (Zicha’s former district).
A Beast of an Electorate
Secondly, we might ask ‘where did these Trumpian voters come from?’ Well, many Republicans appear to be suffering from what might be called the ‘Boris Johnson-effect’ which in the U.S. case comes in both a short-run and a long-run version.
The short-run dynamic closely resembles the recent situation with the Brexit campaign. First you get a lot of people in a frenzy, by appealing to nationalism, to fear for migrants and terrorism, and to disgust for politically-correct elites and experts, as a vehicle for your own political advancement. Then, after a while you find out this vehicle is actually a tiger you cannot control. As Democratic Senate minority leader Reid pointed out, the Republican Party has created an atmosphere of hatred and fear for the past eight years, they have made Trump possible. Trump simply brings out in the open the latent racism that has been part of Republican discourse for a long time now. And now this populist tiger is let loose, Republican officials simply do not know how to get it back in its cage. So, they keep trying to ride the tiger, because as long as they are with the tiger, the tiger is not coming after them.
But, as Senate Minority Leader Reid’s comments suggest, there is longer story beyond just the Trump campaign. We can break these long-term factors driving the GOP’s current plight to three factors:
- The move to bring in more working class white formerly democratic voters burned by deindustrialisation using a combination of anti-elitism, social conservatism, and racism;
- The gerrymandering of the U.S. House districts combined with a Supreme Court decision that rendered legal challenges against redistricting more difficult;
- and related to 1 and 2, the Radical move of the GOP to the right over the past decades – often facilitated by demonising opponents in the Democratic Party.
Coalition Changes and Ideological Fraying
The Republican Party was in deep trouble at the end of the 1960’s. The anti-war movements were focused on the Democratic Party, the Great Society was relatively popular, and demographic changes where threatening to make the GOP a permanent minority (which they had been and would continue to be in the House of Representatives from 1955 until 1995) given the surge of African-American voters into the Democratic Party following the voting rights act and their general more ‘pro-youth’ image picking up younger voters. However, the Democrats had a weakness in the form of Democrats in the Old Confederacy who were somewhat to modern eyes ‘Trumpian’. They were relatively left on trade, preferring protection and control for southern workers, somewhat isolationist, culturally conservative, hostile to civil rights, while being anti-union. Nixon, in his famous ‘Southern Strategy’ moved the Republican Party to try to capture those voters by embracing cultural conservativism and right-leaning evangelicalism to a higher degree despite how inconsistent this was to their traditional ideological perspective (The Republicans, for instance, had an Equal Rights Amendment for women in their platform continually up until the southern strategy).
Analysis has since revealed how these voters were kept in a conservative coalition that was at odds with their economic interests through the use of coded language and emotional appeals that spoke to these predominantly white and poor Americans. The GOP establishment tried to thread the needle by advancing a doctrinaire conservative agenda with occasional open or coded appeals to the racism and victimisation felt by these new voters.
However, eventually a good many voters noticed and this hypocrisy which gave birth to the more small-government purist Tea Party insurgency into the GOP – pushing it ever rightward and more radical in the hopes that the promises made to them would be realized. The backlash from this move to the right has been the Trumpian revolution bringing back some of the more populist, statist, and racist elements that the GOP had been signalling but not putting explicitly to work for this group of politically ‘southern’ voters.
So, a key element is that Republicans have brought in a different voter base that is not by any reasonable definition committed to ‘conservative republicanism’ but who have been convinced that the other side (The Democrats) are demons trying to destroy all that they hold dear. Trump has noted this disjunction and exploited it by offering these voters everything they have always dreamed about when they are alone at home seething at the latest real or perceived injustice they have endured. Trump is the voice of these voters, as he made dramatically clear in his RNC nomination speech. So, essentially he just used the political weapon of the Republican establishment against that establishment by offering these voters what they always wanted and he has picked up disaffected anti-modernists in the North as well.
Moreover, the United States utilises single member districts to elect his Congressional Assemblies. However, whereas the upper house has a fixed number of two Senators per state, the 435 House seats (fixed at the same number since 1910 in Permanent Apportionment Act of 1929) are apportioned by population every 10 years (after the U.S. census that counts every individual in the country) to the States and those district lines are drawn under the authority of state legislators.
During the last census in 2010 the Republican State Leadership Committee began the Redistricting Majority Project (or RedMap Project) aimed at capturing – strategically – as many seats in state legislatures as possible during the elections. Once the state legislatures were captured they could draw the district lines (often in very convoluted ways) in order to move the House of Representatives from a Democratic Party majority to a Republican Party majority more durably. There is no doubt that this initiative was a purposeful attempt to secure the House, as Republican Party internal memos explicitly state this intent.
Often underplayed in this story is the role of the Supreme Court decision in Vieth v. Jubelirer which found that charges of unfair partisan gerrymandering were not justiciable due to the lack of a clear standard for detecting gerrymandering (A situation that may be soon rectified by the development of such a standard) and this ruling thus providing the essential conditions for the GOP RedMap initiative to succeed and goes some distance to explain why this extreme degree of gerrymandering is so prevalent now.
The partisan gerrymander that has given the Republicans and Democrats a scenario where voters are essentially allocated to districts such that they are either all Democratic, and thus all those Democratic voters over the 50% needed to win the seat are ‘wasted’ and not able to unseat a Republican in a neighboring district, or sufficiently strongly Republican such that no challenger can reasonably mount a campaign against the incumbant. The result are ‘safe seats’ and ‘non-competitive’ districts. Indeed, of the 435 House seats, the Cook Political Report noted that “The House is well-sorted out: there are only 17 Republicans sitting in districts Obama carried, and only nine Democrats sitting in districts Romney carried.” in 2014.
These none-competitive districts have many consequences but of special relevance here is the manner in which it changes the strategic calculus of GOP congressmen in largely safe districts. The most critical challenge for these GOP incumbents in the House of Representatives is in their party primary, where only the most motivated and committed voters will show up. Trump has been extremely good at motivating his voters to come out to primary votes, whereas establishment candidates have not. Even Ryan and McCain face tough challengers in the primary who accuse both of not being ‘Trumpian’ enough. In the case of Speaker Ryan’s primary this was more or less solely responsible for this candidate moving from single digit levels of support to being within striking distance of Ryan a few weeks ago. But, once through the primary fight, there is no real concern about a strong backlash against Trump supporters in the GOP as there are not enough non-GOP voters to go for a Democrat in the district competitively. Given that these House Reps would want to work with a Trump Presidency would need to be (particularly due to Trump’s famously thin-skinned personality) on his good side, their are therefore few reasons to ‘dump Trump’ publicly so long as you can survive your primary election.
Move to the right
Thirdly, one of the reasons why there is little risk of a GOP member in one of these safe seats, or heavily right-leaning states is that the GOP has tacked to the right so far from the opposition Democrats that the alternative is a very bitter pill to swallow for GOP voters. Combine this with a related and increasingly hostile approach to characterising politicians on the other side and you have a situation where much of the GOP voting base feels sufficiently trapped that they will need to be very appalled by Mr. Trump to defect to a democrat just because the incumbent endorses Trump.
To illustrate this, we can see how the GOP has (you might say radically) moved to the right over the past 30 years. Using a rather complicated methodology that uses the statistical patterns in role-call votes and position-taking on various issues we see that the Republicans have travelled to the right since 1980 nearly as far as the Democrats moved over its entire history in the 20th century. Moreover, Democrats did not radically change their expressed opinions in the meantime – despite claims made my Republicans that they moved far leftward and, for example, that Obama is a socialist.
This vehement obstruction of Obama’s agenda, resorting to raising doubts over his patriotism, and even his nationality, are a direct result of this move to the right. In such a context it is difficult indeed to be a Republican who openly argues for voting for Clinton. Even if the Republican establishment has more in common with Clinton than with Trump, many of them would lose credibility with voters by admitting that now. More specifically, Clinton has been the focus of Republican attacks for nearly a quarter of a decade, which might even prevent Republicans from mounting an effective third-party challenge to Trump. After all, if Trump loses votes to this third-party challenger, Clinton – the great evil in the minds of many rank-and-file Republican voters – wins by default. Again, the GOP’s populist rhetoric of the last few years has come back to bite them.
So why doesn’t the GOP just STOP it already?
Why all these desperate attempts to mobilise voters and manipulate the system? Why aren’t we seeing this generally in the United States (ie: Why is the GOP uncharacteristically crazy)? A big reason for this is that the GOP, unlike the Democratic Party, is demographicaly dying, and has been for some time. The Party needs to bring in new voters, but is not sure about how to do it (A useful illustrative video for those unfamiliar with how different coalitions have come and gone with the two major parties). The solution began by Nixon in the 1970’s has clearly backfired (as discussed above), however Trump has made it particularly difficult to pivot to a new more inclusive message. This has left the GOP with one choice – double down and hope you can bring out the vote by (a) demonizing your opponents, (b) demonizing their policy, an (c) emotionally pandering to voters’ populist desires. Trump excels at all three requirements of this strategy.
Adding to the practical difficulties created by their whily coalition of voters is that as has been noticed for sometime the Democrats are more-or-less explicitly a collection of interest groups. The GOP is at its heart and ideologically driven party and it’s elites are loathe to abandon their key points easily. Thus, where party ideology in the Democratic Party tends to emerge from an amalgam of groups, the establishment has been trying to drive voters to the GOP using party ideology. This makes quick pivots to alternative stances far more difficult as the party contains more doctinaire ‘true believers’ in an ideal and explains to some extent why no bold new agenda was laid out well in advance of the 2016 primary season.
Lastly, there is a large difference between moving against the presidential candidate of your own party, and forcing him to behave responsibly once he is in office. Many Republican officials probably hope that they can change, or if necessary block, Trump’s policies. As Huffington Post collumnist and professor Kuttner pointed out, Trump is himself part of the elite he claims to oppose. He would not gain from fundamentally upending the system. He benefits from the system as it is. So, the odds are Trump will fall in line with the party establishment on economic policy, while maintaining his hateful and xenophobic rhetoric, and implementing some symbolic measures, such as banning head scarfs, to placate the disgruntled voters he inherited from the Tea Party which he has built his candidacy around.
Conclusion: What might this tell us about where we go from here?
So, what is going on in the GOP? Firstly, the structure of party discipline in the GOP seems to work well for Trump. The Republican establishment is falling into or maintaing a line with Trump, and endorses him for President. But, it is worth noting that this discipline is not the result of ideological fidelity primarily, as part of this discipline is driven by party officials afraid of losing their jobs, be it because they have lost control of their own voters after years and years of conspiratorial rhetoric, or because they are afraid to be punished by the Republican Party. On the other hand, maybe Republican officials expect Trump to come around on many issues, this making him a much safer bet to defend their interests than Clinton.
But we have two predictions about how things might go if a number of certain parameters remain constant (which is something that, in this election, should not be taken as given):
First, if Trumpism becomes increasingly toxic we should see GOP officials from less safe or more moderate districts beginning to break with Trump while putting pressure on the national organization to ‘Dump Trump’, as they say. Essentially, this will be because Trump is more trouble than he is worth. There is a limit, even in this very polarized, gerrymandered, and diverse electorate to how far Trump can go before it is in the interests of elected leaders to abandon him.
Second, a recent (and to our mind more hopeful) trend is what appears to be the insertion of a new dimension/frame in the political discourse following the Democratic National Convention: civic republican virtues and constitutional stability. The Democratic National Convention speeches almost entirely abandoned highlighting policy differences and instead focused on issues of citizenship, patriotism, civic values, and the constitution of the U.S. republic and the situation of that republic in the world. In short, it is an appeal to principle and long-termism, and they are principles that are anathema to Trumpism while still appealing to the same emotional parts of the brain as Trumpism. In this battle over minds and hearts there is the possibility of many future scenarios the spell different levels of devastation for the GOP. There are currently few plausible scenarios where it ends well.
If this new dimension of the political discussion gains sufficient salience, those Republicans who remain attached to Trump for too long may see there reputations tarnished irreperably and could in a very short period of time turn the entire logic we outline above on its head. The only GOP elected officials spared would be those from very extreme districts or those that never supported ‘the would-be tyrant’.
Thus, from our perspective the future of the GOP-Trump connection hinges on an interplay of public opinion and how the dominant dimensions upon which voters will evaluate the candidates evolve. The trend as of the day of this writing looks very worrying for Trumpism indeed.
Dr. Brandon C. Zicha is the loving father of a European-American daughter, and an Assistant Professor of Policy and Major (Governance, Economics and Development) convenor at Leiden University College, The Hague. His views expressed here should not be taken as a reflection of the perspective of Leiden University or its component institutions.
Joes de Natris (BSc) is a Research Master’s student of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam, and a proud member of Leiden University College’s first generation of political-economists.