GOP doomsday is coming: How the dreadful tax bill exposes a Republican rift

Public opinion and the Virginia election suggest the GOP is losing college-educated whites. Without them, it's done

By Heather Digby Parton


Published November 29, 2017 8:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/David McNew)
(Getty/David McNew)

On the morning of the presidential election last year, The Atlantic's Ron Brownstein wrote about some long-term trends in the electorate and the possibility that the 2016 race, with its distinctive odd features of a celebrity demagogue and the first woman nominee, might just accelerate the change. His thesis was that the unfolding electoral order would see the GOP relying on "preponderantly blue-collar, white, and older Rustbelt states that have mostly favored Democrats in recent years," while Democrats would "depend on white-collar, diverse, and younger Sunbelt states that as recently as the 1990s leaned reliably toward the GOP." He concluded the piece with what turned out to be a stunning prophecy:

The worst-case scenario for [Hillary Clinton] is that Trump’s blue-collar blitz narrowly pushes him past her in some of the Rustbelt states she needs, while she cannot advance quite enough among minority and college-educated white voters to overcome his non-college-educated, non-urban, religiously devout coalition in Sunbelt states like North Carolina, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, much less Arizona and Georgia. Transitioning between her party’s past and future, Hillary Clinton’s nightmare is that she might be caught awkwardly in between.

Since the election we have had a flood of postmortems blaming everything from Facebook to Russia to racism, misogyny, bad campaigning and good old James Comey. I'd guess it could be any of those things plus a dozen more. Maybe all of them in some measure led to Trump's narrow victory in several states that won him enough votes in the Electoral College.

Trump likes to say that it was a great landslide (it wasn't), that winning the electoral college is very difficult for Republicans (it isn't) and that his overwhelming defeat in the popular vote was the result of voter fraud, mostly by undocumented immigrants (it wasn't). While that historic election will undoubtedly provide fodder for political arguments for the next quarter-century at least, I'm more interested in whether or not the Trump circus and general Republican dysfunction has derailed those long-term trends Brownstein identified.

On Tuesday, Brownstein wrote a piece for CNN analyzing whether the appalling tax bill working its way through the Senate might fracture the GOP coalition. He goes some distance toward answering that question. The Republican Party has long operated on two tracks, the first of which appeals to cultural conservatives (with a strong strain of racial resentment), who include the Christian right and blue-collar and rural whites resistant to social and demographic change.

The GOP's other track is all about big business, Wall Street and free-market capitalism. It appeals to plutocrats and wealthy heirs to large fortunes like the Trumps. Brownstein points out something that many have failed to recognize: Despite his outrageous behavior and alleged populist iconoclasm, Trump has not deviated from this dual track. He has "complicated this balance nonetheless by intensifying the pressure on each side of the fulcrum."

We are all well aware of how Trump has pushed every button of racial resentment, apparently to the delight of his white, blue-collar base. His belated embrace of Roy Moore after the former judge was accused of assaulting underage girls has further bonded Trump with the religious right. But where Republicans in the past would produce tax cuts that merely tilted toward the rich, he's given the green light to the GOP Congress to deliver massive tax cuts for the wealthy while actually raising taxes on everyone else to help fund them. Despite this, so far the GOP coalition has mostly held together. The defections that cost the Republicans a victory on Affordable Care Act repeal (which operated on the same logic) came mostly from representatives in suburban districts and senators whose constituents cannot stand Trump's outrageous style.

One thing is for sure: The tax plan is tremendously unpopular, even among white-collar white voters one might expect to be enthusiastic about it. According to a recent Quinnipiac Poll, they oppose it by two to one, and largely believe that it helps the rich at the expense of the middle class. In fact, they like it a lot less than the blue-collar workers the Democrats have assumed would be open to their own populist agenda. Those voters are sticking with Trump and the Republicans, at least so far, for reasons that have nothing to do with their economic situation.

In the Virginia elections and others around the country earlier this month, college-educated whites went with the Democrats, while working-class and rural whites stayed with the Republicans. As Brownstein says, that pattern "suggests the GOP has more to fear from well-off voters who believe the Trump-era party is violating their values than from working-class voters who conclude it's betraying their interests."

A majority of college-educated whites have voted Republican since political scientists first started keeping track of such things, but the margin has been growing smaller over time. White, college-educated women in particular have been moving to the Democratic Party in recent years, which makes sense given that the gender gap overall between the two parties is large and growing. Donald Trump seems to be accelerating that change.

This article in The Washington Post about the Virginia elections last month focuses on suburban Chesterfield County outside Richmond, formerly a bastion of traditional Republican voters, which went for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate for the first time in 56 years. This was because of a huge jump in turnout, driven by grassroots energy and mostly organized by local women.

This phenomenon may even have an effect down in deep red Alabama, where the Trump base is defiantly sticking with Moore, despite the accusations by numerous women that he pursued or attacked them when they were teenagers. According to this article in the Post, "the percentage of women in the state who had a favorable view of Moore dropped 11 points between mid-October and mid-November, from 47 percent to 36 percent; among men, Moore dropped by just two points." Once again it's the suburban white GOP women who are defecting. Nobody thinks these women are likely to shift permanently to the Democratic Party. They are very conservative -- only 16 percent of them voted for Barack Obama. But Roy Moore is a bridge too far.

Donald Trump's over-the-top appeals to racism and his eagerness to rescind regulations and give tax cuts to the wealthy may be keeping the Republican coalition of blue-collar rural whites and the richest one percent happy. But that's not enough. Without white, suburban, college-educated voters, particularly women, they will lose. Every day that Trump says something crude and obnoxious to excite his dedicated fans, he alienates more of the faction that is repulsed by that tactic. Each time Republicans in Congress try to stage giveaways to their donors at the expense of the middle class, they lose a few more.

Trump didn't create this dilemma for the GOP. The cracks in its coalition have been growing for some time. But he has taken a sledgehammer to the party, and a huge chunk of it has fallen off all at once. Republicans hold power, for the moment. Holding onto it will be quite another story.

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.

MORE FROM Heather Digby Parton