Destroying the party to save the party: Donald Trump is the existential crisis the GOP needs

Trump's dredged up the racism lurking within the GOP for decades. The party can finally reboot after his defeat

Published August 3, 2016 10:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (Reuters/Brian Snyder/AP/Rainier Ehrhardt/photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Brian Snyder/AP/Rainier Ehrhardt/photo montage by Salon)

Since Richard Nixon's administration, the GOP has walked a thin line: They wanted to be the party of racists and ethno-nationalists without actually being racist or ethno-nationalist. It was called the “Southern Strategy,” and it was a smashing success. The party of Lincoln absorbed the segregationist white South and the GOP became the default option for nativists and cultural discontents. It was a risky long-term bet, but the string of electoral victories made it immediately rewarding.

And then Donald Trump happened.

Trump has violated the unwritten rule in Republican politics: You court the racists, but you do it discreetly. Trump has put his racism front and center, and it earned him the most primary votes in the history of the Republican Party. After 50 years of flirting with the “silent majority,” the GOP now has an intractable demand-side problem, and the election results prove it.

Political scientist Michael Tesler pointed this out in a recent analysis of Trump's campaign. Previously, race was implicit in Republican rhetoric. Republicans have long been more likely to hold racist beliefs, but ostensibly they weren't voting on the basis of those beliefs. Not so this year.

Tesler writes: “Donald Trump's campaign effectively bucked what the political scientists Donald Kinder and Lynn Sanders adroitly termed the Republican Party's electoral temptation of race – using implicit racial appeals to win over racially conservative voters without appearing overtly racist. Trump's play instead was to make several explicitly hostile statements about minority groups.”

Trump's amoral pandering has activated anti-minority sentiment in an uncommonly powerful way this year. Drawing on data from the 2008 Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project (CCAP) and the 2012 CCAP, Tesler shows that Trump succeeded because he appealed to the most racially resentful primary voters. Those who scored highest on racial resentment were roughly 30 percent more likely to vote Trump in the primaries. The same is true of voters with strong anti-Muslim attitudes.

Importantly, Tesler writes, the 2016 “pattern is noticeably different from 2008 and 2012, when racial conservatism had a slightly negative relationship with support for the eventual GOP nominees.” Now, in other words, racism isn't merely correlated with voting preferences; it appears to be the motivating factor. I use the word “appears” deliberately here, as causation is difficult to prove. But these numbers certainly suggest a causal relationship. And when you consider that Trump launched his campaign by self-identifying as a “Birther,” his appeal is fairly obvious.

This is not surprising. Trump is a political entrepreneur par excellence. He understood his audience (read: customers) and gave them exactly what they wanted: cutural resentment wrapped in nationalist rhetoric and racist innuendo. In doing so, he pulled back the curtain on Republican politics. Things have changed. There's no point in dog-whistling to racists once your party has nominated a “textbook racist,” to borrow Paul Ryan's phrase.

But there may be good news. A Trump-like Republican candidate was inevitable and therefore necessary. The GOP had to explode at some point. Party elites could not preserve the balance forever. Establishment Republicans are essentially libertarians. They pay lip service to culture war issues, but all they care about is low taxes and limited government. These policies don't benefit working class whites, so they tethered them to racial and cultural narratives. But now those racial and cultural narratives have supplanted the conservative ideology they were designed to help inaugurate. Trump doesn't have an ideology. He doesn't have ideas. He's just a conduit for fear. And he's the face of the party.

Republicans now have an opportunity to course correct. The “Southern Strategy” has culminated in Trump, and it has to end with Trump. Make no mistake: this is an existential crisis for the GOP. They can recognize Trump as the political Frankenstein they helped build and set about redefining the party or they can fall into line and watch the party sink deeper into cultural rot.

Although Republican leaders like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continue to disgrace themselves by disavowing everything Trump says while refusing to rescind their endorsements, many Republicans have seen the light. CNN reported last week that Mitt Romney is considering voting for the Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson. The first GOP Congressman announced Tuesday that he won't vote for Trump. Several Republican senators have already taken a stand. Others like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and Lindsey Graham have been admirably critical of their nominee. And scores of conservative intellectuals, including George Will, have drawn a line with Trump.

On Monday, former Jeb Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw told CNN she's leaving the party, and for familiar reasons: “I've been considering a switch for months. Ultimately, I could not abide the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump and his complete lack of principles and conservative philosophy.” After Trump's recent slander of the Khan family, one suspects more Republicans will follow Bradshaw out the door.

I'm not a conservative, but conservatism has a rich intellectual tradition, one worthy of engagement. Liberals benefit from their collisions with those ideas. The country does, too. What we have now isn't an ideological or even a political debate. Instead, we have a culture war and thus an argument that no one can win.

Republicans will likely lose in November. But after that they ought to use Trump as an excuse to ideologically reboot. The culture war is over. Politics adapts to culture, not the other way around, and the country has spoken. Progressives have won the legislative battle. The GOP cannot survive if it doesn't accept that. If they do, they can become something closer to Gary Johnson, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal candidate who accepts LGBT Americans, doesn't race-bait, affirms the separation of church and state, wants to end the drug war, and has no interest in legislating morality.

That's a Republican Party with a future. The current GOP is an anti-intellectual cultural movement death-rattling its way to extinction. Trump's nomination makes that abundantly clear.


By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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