Trump’s Rise Pressures Both Parties to Change

The dynamic could possibly make this year as transformative as the elections of 1932 or 1968—but predicting a realignment is tricky.

An attendee waves a campaign flag outside of an event for Donald Trump in Cincinnati, Ohio, on July 6, 2016.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Daniel Akerson, a lifelong Republican, is voting for Hillary Clinton this fall. The Navy veteran and past chief executive officer and chairman of General Motors says Donald Trump lacks the temperament to be commander-in-chief. What Akerson says worries him more than that, though, is the possibility that Trump—and everything he represents—isn’t just a fluke but the future of the GOP. “I think there’s a real threat to the party,” he says. “It’s kind of unsettling to watch what’s going on.”

We like to think of the two major parties as fixed, known quantities, like donkeys and elephants. But they’ve always been chameleons. The Democratic Party traces its roots to 1792. The Republican Party goes back to 1854. They’ve survived by changing with the times, sometimes radically, even to the point of swapping positions on key issues, whether civil rights, foreign policy, or taxation. Republican hero Ronald Reagan began his political life as a New Deal Democrat. He switched his registration in 1962, before he ran for office. He always insisted he wasn’t the one who changed: “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The party left me.”

Reagan for President campaign poster
Reagan for President campaign poster
Source: DAVID J. & JANICE L. FRENT/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

The question of identity cuts deeper than usual this year for Republicans, who convene in Cleveland starting July 18. Trump rejects much of what his party stands for—or has stood for until now, anyway. For that reason some party regulars such as Akerson still view him as an undeserving interloper. Except that he got more votes than every orthodox Republican in this year’s primaries—and, as it happens, more primary votes than any other Republican has ever received. “I don’t think when you have this degree of political support for a candidate, you can consider it a fluke,” says James Cicconi, who worked for President Reagan and went on to be deputy chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush but is voting for Clinton this year.

Cicconi has a point: Trump might just have located the pulsing heart of a new Republican Party. In 2014, when his run for president was a gleam in nobody’s eye but his, the Pew Research Center clustered American adults into eight groups of roughly equal size based on how they answered 23 questions on subjects including immigration and gun control. No surprise, “business conservatives” and “steadfast conservatives” tended to agree with each other on a lot of matters, as did “solid liberals” and the lower-income “faith and family left.”

Pew identified several issues on which voters busted out of the classic left-right continuum. Business conservatives and the older, less educated steadfast conservatives were far apart, for instance, on whether the U.S. should “concentrate on things at home.” Steadfast conservatives were far more isolationist. Today they form the core of Trump’s base, cheering him on when he threatens to reduce the U.S. commitment to NATO. There were splits on the Left as well. Pew found that 82 percent of the faith and family left agreed that most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard, but only 29 percent of solid liberals felt that way, although they earn more.

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Trump’s brand of Republicanism draws heavily on support from Pew’s steadfast conservatives and much less on business conservatives, who part with him on trade and immigration. He also reaches across the aisle to appeal to what Pew labels “hard-pressed skeptics,” a mostly white group that leaned heavily toward the Democratic Party as of 2014 but believes government is wasteful, considers immigrants a burden, and agrees that “success in life is determined by forces outside our control.”

Even before Trump arrived on the scene, the Republican Party was struggling to hold together a diverse set of voting blocs. Bible-loving religious faithful keep their distance from abortion-permitting, marijuana-decriminalizing libertarians, who are suspicious of subsidy-taking CEOs. The glue that traditionally held the party together was support for small government and low taxes.

Elton John with Donald and Ivana Trump
Elton John with Donald and Ivana Trump
Photographer: The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Now it’s something else. Trump has made clear that shrinking government is less important to him than “making America great again.” He opposes cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Conservatives are skeptical of his promise of tax cuts because he hasn’t sketched out plausible spending cuts to pay for them. His positions on immigration and trade conflict with the party’s free-market agenda. On social issues, too, he departs from party orthodoxy. While opposing abortion, he’s praised Planned Parenthood. He brags of having “so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay.”

The Republican leadership has no one but itself to blame for Trump’s emergence as its de facto head, says former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who in 2014 lost in the primary to a Tea Party challenger coming at him from the right. GOP leaders created an opening for Trump by “overpromising and underdelivering,” says Cantor, who’s now vice chairman of Moelis, a boutique investment bank. “The inability of the party to connect to people’s problems and to demonstrate that we have a solution to their problems has become a big challenge.”

Top Republicans disagree on whether the Democrats could profit from the GOP’s disarray by picking up more support from business. Trump has so far managed to douse efforts by hedge fund manager Paul Singer and others to block his nomination. And he’s unified most of the party’s congressional caucus behind him simply by not being Hillary Clinton. “Democrats are no longer in suspicion of business; they now disdain business,” says Cantor, who points to Clinton’s move leftward in the campaign to fend off Senator Bernie Sanders and win the backing of Senator Elizabeth Warren, both outspoken critics of corporate America. “I don’t think you’re going to see business saying, ‘Hey, the Democrats offer us a better home.’ ”

Cicconi, the former Bush aide, is more concerned than Cantor is that CEOs will cross over to the blue side. Trump has blown up the traditional Republican agenda without developing a usable replacement, he says: “There is no coherent underlying philosophy. He’s all over the map. When you strip away the candidates, political parties have to mean something vis-à-vis the other party. Otherwise there’s no need for a party.” Cicconi, now a senior executive vice president at AT&T Services, speaks from experience: He ran the GOP’s platform-writing process in 1988. “I don’t know how the hell they write a platform this year,” he says.

Trump’s embrace of Democratic positions on trade and other issues causes headaches for other Republican candidates whose positions diverge from his. It also gives Clinton an opportunity to circle around and grab business-minded voters on Republicans’ exposed right flank. “If a Clinton administration were conducting itself in a way where business was doing well, GDP was growing, things of that nature, I think you could find plenty of business community support shifting,” Cicconi says.

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That could possibly make this year as transformative as the elections of 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt built his New Deal coalition, or 1968, when Democrats lost the South. Predicting a realignment is tricky, though. Political identity is a murky brew of ideology, a sense of belonging, and historical accident. Blacks were solidly Republican for decades because that’s what Abraham Lincoln was. The Democratic Party became the party of the Jim Crow South, overseeing a machine hostile to black interests. But Southern blacks made strange bedfellows with the prosperous, conservative white Northerners who dominated the Republican Party for the first half of the 20th century. It took a big tent to house such different constituencies.

The two parties began to organize along today’s ideological lines in the 1960s. President Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat, faced down members of his party to pass the Civil Rights Act in 1964, giving rise to the Republicans’ Southern strategy—an appeal to white voters that eventually flipped former Confederate states to the Republican column, just as blacks flooded into the Democratic Party. It took several decades; even in 1992, Bill Clinton could win the presidency as a Southern Democrat. But by 2014 almost all the liberals had been flushed out of the GOP, and almost all the conservatives were gone from the Democratic Party.

Bill Clinton waves to the crowd as he speaks in front of a tour bus during the 1992 race.
Bill Clinton waves to the crowd as he speaks in front of a tour bus during the 1992 race.
Photographer: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Impressively, the parties have managed to survive despite the dissatisfaction of their own members. A Pew survey this spring found that only a quarter of Republicans and Democrats are enthusiastic about their own party. Many are frustrated. If the U.S. were a parliamentary system, there would likely be at least four major parties. The Republicans would break in two along ideological lines, a libertarian-flavored business wing and a religious-conservative wing. So would the Democratic Party, which struggles to hold together socially liberal but fiscally conservative voters and those who favor government intervention.

The Founding Fathers suppressed minority parties by building an electoral system that requires the leader of the government to win an outright majority, rather than a plurality, as in many parliamentary systems. They feared what James Madison called, in Federalist Paper No. 10, “Domestic Faction and Insurrection.” A breakaway party would be too small to win an election, so there’s no point in breaking away, says Johns Hopkins University political scientist Daniel Schlozman. Instead of breaking apart, the parties would reshape themselves, sometimes settling on compromises that make no one happy. “Jesse Jackson used to say a party needs two wings to fly,” says Tom Hayden, the co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, who later served in the California legislature and participated in writing national Democratic platforms.

The consensus-building architecture of the Founding Fathers has been partially undermined by innovations such as social media and gerrymandering. A graphical analysis published in the online academic journal PLOS One shows that the party divisions in Congress have become far deeper than they were immediately after World War II. “Partisanship has been increasing exponentially for over 60 years,” write the authors, led by Clio Andris of Pennsylvania State University and David Lee of MIT.

The birthplace of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin.
The birthplace of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin.
Photographer: MPI/Getty Images

Americans who don’t work on Capitol Hill are also feeling more prickly, but often not in the same way as their representatives in Congress. “Most Americans are simply not ideologically consistent,” says Stanford political scientist David Broockman. “They have a mix of liberal and conservative beliefs, and that mix is different for different people.”

Trump’s views are often labeled incoherent by his critics, but they are incoherent only when considered against the current policy configuration of the two parties, Broockman says. “Thirty, 60, 90 years ago, different things were supposed to go with different things,” he says, citing the research of University of Maryland political scientist David Karol. In his 2009 book, Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management, Karol wrote, “The only way a politician can maintain a reputation as a loyal Democrat or Republican over time is by adopting the new party line when it changes.”

Shape-shifting by parties may be hard for doctrinaire policy mavens to grasp, but it’s no big deal to a lot of voters, especially those who aren’t involved in the parties. Ariel Malka, a psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York, says Trump has pulled in just the sort of inexperienced voters who don’t demand the ideological consistency that longtime party operatives expect. “It’s these lower-political-engagement people who are the least likely to align their diverse attitudes on the right-left dimension,” he says.

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More than that, Malka says his research finds that Trump may have hit on a blend of political positions that’s easier for many to embrace. People with a conservative personality, who value certainty and security, seem to be naturally drawn not to the bracing air of free markets and free movement of people but to protectionism in trade, restriction on immigration, and a strong embrace of national identity.

Trump’s flaws as a candidate sometimes obscure the potency of his ability to tell voters what they want to hear. His speech on trade at a steel and aluminum recycling plant in western Pennsylvania on June 28 was masterful. Working from a text for a change, he made his familiar arguments about foreign cheaters but in a way that was more programmatic, less bar-stool philosopher. “I will use every lawful presidential power to remedy trade disputes,” he said, citing arcana such as “section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.”

“Working-class whites in the South have already departed the Democratic Party for cultural reasons. Well, the working-class whites in the North are now deserting the Democrats because of economic reasons,” Democratic strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders told the conservative Daily Caller in April. He predicted Trump will beat Clinton like “a baby seal.”

Even if Trump fails in November, a Trump-like candidate without his baggage could be a formidable challenge to the Democrats in 2020. The Jeb Bushes of the party would certainly attempt to reassert control, arguing that the election results proved they were right all along. But it’s hard to see how a message that face-planted in the 2016 primaries could suddenly inspire voters in 2020.

What may haunt the Republican Party the most about 2016 is Trump’s contentious relationship with Latinos, the fastest-growing group of voters. The Republican Party has placed a high priority on winning over Latinos with an aspirational message of America as a land of opportunity. Trump’s promise to eject 11 million undocumented immigrants and build a wall on the border with Mexico threatens to set back that effort. Although some polls show Trump doing no more poorly with Latinos than Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008, the damage he’s doing to the party’s Latino project is likely to be lasting, says Duke University political scientist John Aldrich, author of Why Parties? A Second Look.

Once the party changes what it stands for, it may not readily change back. Physicists refer to the process as hysteresis: When a hunk of iron is magnetized, it remains magnetized even after the powerful magnetic field—Trump, in this case—is removed. Says Aldrich: “The cool thing about realignment is you don’t know what’s going to happen until you get there.”

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