The Republicans’ Desperate Apartheid Calculus

It would seem strange to call the Republican Party desperate, given that they will soon hold more power at the federal level than at any time since 1928, plus control of a majority of the states. But despite the good fortune of the GOP in their unexpected slim victories in the Rust Belt, Republicans remain in a precarious position. Their party remains divided between new Trump loyalists predicated on white nationalism and economic protectionism, and the more establishment donor class core that supported Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Demographically, Republicans still face major hurdles in the short and long term: Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million votes, did not gain significant ground among whites, and only won the presidency due to a small shift among rural Rust Belt voters combined with dampened Democratic enthusiasm. Downballot, Republicans have significant advantages due mostly to gerrymandered districts and and political segregation, but it will be much harder for Republicans to maintain those district advantages after the 2020 census–especially if Democrats retake governorships and legislatures in an anti-Trump wave. They know their time is limited. The Trump phenomenon itself can be seen in many ways as a temporarily successful Hail Mary pass by a conservative base that sees its vision of America collapsing in front of its eyes

Nowhere is that desperation more visible than in North Carolina, where Republicans reacted to electoral losses in the governorship and State Supreme Court by making a shocking power grab to strip the incoming Democratic governor of most of his powers–most notably over the boards of elections.

The Republican approach to power dynamics here more resembles asymmetric warfare than traditional political conflict: parties that expect to regain power once they have lost it don’t typically behave this way, because they know that bad behavior can become a precedent used against them that will make it difficult for them to govern when they return to power. The Republican strategy here only makes sense if they expect never to regain power once they have lost it.

There’s a good reason for this, of course. In states like North Carolina, the demographic tide is working against Republicans. There are fewer rural angry whites, and an increasing number of more liberal, younger, browner, better educated and more urban voters moving in. The Republican Party in states like North Carolina has made it a priority to restrict access to the voting booth in a desperate play to prevent their own electoral collapse. Their attempts to disenfranchise poor and minority voters were so egregious that the Supreme Court had to step in to stop them.

There is a precedent for this sort of political desperation: apartheid South Africa. South African whites knew that to allow true democracy in the colonial nation would mean their permanent disempowerment. Their reaction was to violate international norms and become a pariah in order to hold onto power that, once lost, would never return. Political factions with a legitimate claim on power and a reasonable argument for the majority of the public know they can temporarily give up control in a democracy and win the next time around.

But Republicans know that absent some sea change that improves their numbers among women and minority voters, they cannot expect to regain power once states like North Carolina are lost to them. And they know that they cannot count on flukes like Donald Trump’s narrow electoral college victory for long as the map continues to shift away from them.

That’s what makes the current incarnation of the Republican Party so dangerous. They have total control now, but they know their time is limited if elections remain fair. They’re reduced to the apartheid calculus: either implement authoritarian control, or watch everything they have worked for disappear in four to eight years, perhaps forever.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.