The legacy of 2016: Trumpism, broken politics and third-party futility

If the GOP corrects itself after suffering Trump's damage, his backers might turn to a (powerless) third-party

By Heather Digby Parton


Published August 18, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump; The 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami.   (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)
Donald Trump; The 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami. (AP/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)
Being a person who doesn't like to make predictions since I'm usually wrong, I even hesitate to predict that Hillary Clinton will win the election despite the polling. This election season has already been so bizarre I'm even less inclined than usual to assume anything. Nonetheless, it's reasonable to wonder what's going to become of the Republican Party after November in the event that Donald Trump is defeated. (If he isn't we have a whole different set of problems beginning with very long lines at the passport office.)

The establishment will likely see it as an opportunity to reassert its dominance in the wake of a Trump defeat but Trump voters may have something to say about that. However much the DC insiders love that dreamy Paul Ryan he gets booed at Trump rallies. He is enemy No. 3 (after Hillary and Obama) in the conservative movement press. Mitch McConnell doesn't fare much better. The establishment may have a harder time picking up the pieces than they realize.

So what happens if they don't? Is "Trumpism" something that exists beyond the reality star himself? Public policy professor Justin Guest conducted a major study of white working class politics for his new book called "The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality" and came to a startling conclusion:

I solicited white Americans’ support for Donald Trump, but also for a hypothetical third party dedicated to “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam”—essentially the platform of the UK’s right-wing British National Party, adapted to the United States. How many white Americans do you think would consider voting for this type of protectionist, xenophobic party?

65 percent.

He says that most of these people are likely to fit the standard profile of a Trump voter: male, working class and conservative. But they are also something that other studies and polls have not turned up — young. Most of them are under 40 which means this might be more enduring than most people believe.

His thesis is that if the GOP simply goes back to standard movement doctrine we stand a good chance of seeing the rise of a real right-wing third party like that which is happening all over Europe at the moment. This would obviously not be a good thing for the Republicans. On the other hand, if the GOP decides to accept this ideology, they would "risk ushering in an era of unprecedented Democratic dominance." That is quite a dilemma.

Like virtually every one of the 7,568 articles written in just the last few months about this political faction (including my own) Guest's delves into the various reasons why these folks are feeling the way they feel and ends up with the same economic/sociological explanation that most people do:

I observed a remarkable sense of loss. Lost wealth in many cases. But more poignantly, I observed a sense of lost status. And while some white Americans were concerned by their loss of political status as a constituency with power, many others were more frustrated by their loss of social status—their drift from the middle of American society to its periphery. Once America’s backbone, many white working class people now feel like an afterthought.

This is a large group of people so it cannot be ignored. But it's very unlikely that this phenomenon will result in a third party, at least beyond a cycle or two. And that's because the American system just isn't equipped for it. There have often been third and fourth parties but they rarely get any traction and their presidential candidates almost never have an impact on the outcome much less win.

Theodore Roosevelt remains the most successful third party presidential candidate in history when in 1912 he actually carried six states in the electoral college and won 27% of the vote under the Bull Moose (Progressive Party) banner. In 1948, Strom Thurmond ran as the segregationist States' Rights candidate and won a few Southern votes. That race foreshadowed George Wallace's candidacy in which he won five states in 1968 as the American Independent Party candidate. The Reform party's Ross Perot got 19% of the popular vote in 1992 but didn't win even one electoral vote. And while the Green's Ralph Nader won 2.7% of the popular vote it arguably had a bigger impact on history than any of the others due to the race coming down to a handful of votes in the state of Florida.  (Except for the Green Party which consistently performs at around 2%, all those parties disappeared within a decade.)

The main reason for this is structural, related to the fact that the president must obtain an electoral college majority which makes it very difficult to build a sustainable party from the ground up. Combined with the problem of getting ballot access in 50 different states and obtaining the money required for a modern presidential run, the chances for success are pretty much nil.

The way these third-party campaigns are dealt with is by the parties folding the agenda of the defeated third party into their own under the same guise of "reform" that often inspired the new party in the first place. In the case of the Thurmond and Wallace candidacies, the parties were realigning and the racist agenda was picked up by what had been the opposition. Trumpism has elements of both, but because of its strong racist and xenophobic elements it's destined to remain in the GOP. The globalization fears, the outrage at corruption in the political system and the underlying social dysfunction, however, are themes that were part of both the Perot and the Nader campaigns as well as Trump and Bernie Sanders. This is a bipartisan challenge.

Guest suggests that if the Republicans want to fend of extinction in the near term they'd better figure out how to address those issues. He thinks it's a matter of reviving meritocracy, education, economic development and fair market prices which strikes me as mostly beside the point. And he says Democrats must persuade them that people of color have the same problems they do which does not seem promising. I think the question of what to do about this is still open.

I don't make predictions, but I'm willing to guess that we will see continued turmoil on both the left and right for a while. There are some economic and cultural tectonic shifts going on that are shaking up the entire system and they don't seem to be slowing down. We're in for a bumpy ride.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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