It may be a bit odd, at a time when the Republican Party dominates all branches of the federal government as well as most governor’s mansions and state legislatures, to declare it a political party in dire peril. From one perspective, Trump seems to have saved the GOP from the brink of disaster and infused it with new energy. But the danger signs are flashing brightly nonetheless, and the cure may well be worse than the disease.
While it’s true that a combination of district-level gerrymandering, voter suppression and newfound white-working-class appeal has helped sustain Republican majorities and launch Donald Trump into the White House despite a popular vote loss, the demographic tide remains squarely set against the GOP. And even though minority voters did shift slightly to Trump from Romney per exit polling, people of color have nonetheless been shifting sharply away from the GOP over the last two decades. Millennials, too, despite a similar slight shift to Trump from Romney in 2016, remain the most progressive generation in American politics. Even conservative young people are more liberal on a host of issues than their parents.
These trends have forced Republicans to become much more aggressive in their gerrymandering and suppression efforts to retain statehouses and congressional seats. They have also been the chief reason that Republican presidential candidates have failed to earn a popular vote majority in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections. Only the anti-majoritarian Electoral College has saved the GOP from near annihilation in White House contests over the last 30 years.
These trends are still working aggressively against the Republican Party. Even if Republicans manage to maintain the white working class voters who switched from Obama to Trump in the last election cycle—and that’s a big if given Trump’s precipitous decline in the polls and the large boost Democrats have received against their baseline numbers in recent special elections—it won’t be enough to save Republicans from the slow-rising tsunami of the emerging Democratic majority.
Not even gerrymandering can stem the tide for long. Gerrymandering works by packing one’s opponent into many lopsided districts while ensuring narrowly comfortable margins in one’s own. But when those narrowly comfortable margins become nearly even battles due to demographic changes, the results can devastating in a wave election.
The Trump presidency and the broader rise of the “alt right” openly white supremacist movement in Republican circles is only going to accelerate the problem. After the re-election of Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican Party wrote an autopsy declaring that it had to make itself much more palatable to women, youth and people of color in order to survive. Voices on the far right countered that the GOP needed to move in the opposite direction to secure “missing” white voters. Donald Trump’s successful campaign based in part on his willingness to wear his bigotries on his sleeve destroyed the ability of the Republican establishment to even attempt to make good on those post-Romney recommendations.
But the GOP did not, in fact, manage to seize on a new cache of white voters. Trump’s victory was more a function of declining Democratic turnout than a surge of white supremacists. Whites only shifted from Romney to Trump by a single percentage point, Trump still lost the popular vote by a fairly wide margin, and the degree to which those Obama voters who flipped to Trump were motivated by bigotry versus economic anxieties is a matter of hot debate. Certainly, Trump’s abandonment of economic populism in favor of pure white resentment has resulted in sharp declines in his approval ratings.
All of this has Republicans openly fretting about the party’s future prospects. It is almost certain that voters of color will shift even more strongly to Democratic candidates in the face of the Republican Party’s move from racial dogwhistle politics to booming bullhorns of hate. The majority of young voters, increasingly locked out of decent jobs and housing and inspired by the Sanders campaign and anti-fascist resistance movements, are more mobilized than ever toward increasingly strident leftism. And while women did not vote against Trump in the numbers that some Democratic strategists expected, the Republican Party certainly cannot expect to gain ground with them after the Trump debacle, either.
The landscape after Trump leaves office (whenever that may be) doesn’t look so good, either. Young Republicans are leaving the party in droves, disgusted by a revanchism severely out of line with even conservatives of their generation. The few remaining youth Republican activists aren’t in the mold of Rand Paul or Mitt Romney so much as the new breed of conservative counter-culture trolls. They are more 4chan than Heritage Foundation, and their reason for remaining in Republican politics despite the prevailing cultural wave is usually centered around intense resentments: of liberated women, of empowered minorities, and of a loss of superiority that they feel is naturally owed to them. As Alex Pareene notes, it is these sexually frustrated and socially isolated young men, devotees of the Red Pill and citizens of Kekistan, who will be in the pipeline for Republican leadership over the next two decades.
Donald Trump may have salvaged the Republican Party’s prospects in the short term. But he and the rise of alt right faction he represents may be an unbreakable curse on the party for decades to come.