Who’s Left In the Republican Coalition?

Chris Cillizza engages in a bit of historical revisionism while lamenting the civil war that Trump announced yesterday with the Republican Party.

This is an absolute worst-case scenario for Republicans. Had Trump turned against them months ago — or had his poll numbers dipped then as they have now — extricating themselves from the dumpster fire might have been painful, but it was possible. Now it’s almost certainly too late to do any real distancing from the nominee even as he is promising more unpredictability and more intraparty attacks.

The reason I call that historical revisionism is that there is a reason why the #NeverTrump movement failed. You can blame it on their incompetence, but it actually has a lot more to do with the fact that Republican base voters wanted Trump. That’s why so many down-ballot Republicans are between a rock and a hard place right now. If they denounce Trump, they lose a big portion of their supporters who love him. And if they don’t, they look like hypocrites to the voters who consider him to be unfit for the presidency.

Pondering that dilemma led me to travel back and take another look at how the Republicans got here. As is often the case, I’ll start with the party realignment that happened in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. At that moment, the GOP built their coalition of support by bringing together fiscal conservatives, anti-communist foreign policy interventionists and white Southerners (as I mention these groups I’m very aware that there is significant overlap between the groups). Due to their appeal to that third group (i.e.,  Southern Strategy), they had a majority coalition to work with. Later during the 70’s and 80’s, they added the religious right (or social conservatives) to the mix.

During the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the true fiscal conservatives were offered an alternative. Both of those Democrats demonstrated that the federal deficit could be reduced by raising taxes on the wealthy, focusing on priorities, and cutting ineffective spending. On the other hand, Republicans began to embrace the “voodoo economics” of tax cuts for the wealthy combined with huge increases in military spending. That did major damage to the claims of fiscal conservatism for all but those who continued to buy into the “post-truth” nature of their claims.

While foreign policy interventionism in the Republican ranks was eventually captured by the neocons and received wide support after the 9/11 attacks, it was repudiated by the Bush/Cheney misadventure in Iraq. That part of the Republican coalition is now limited to the war hawks in the “elite” circles of the Republican establishment.

What that leaves in terms of the Republican coalition is white Southerners (actually the white working class men we’re hearing so much about in this election) and social conservatives. While the candidacy of Donald Trump has caused a dilemma for some in that latter group, many of them are hanging on due to a combination of Hillary-hate and concerns about the future of the Supreme Court.

That is the base of supporters that the Republican Party leadership now has to contend with. The idea that at any point in this election cycle they could have distanced themselves from that minority coalition and survived is nothing but pure fantasy. The $64,000 question these days is, “How does that party go forward after this election?” Right now, that might be above my pay grade.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .