The planned retirement of Texas Republican Congressman Will Hurd has shaken Republican circles in more than one way. Most notably, it has turned GOP jitters over the possibility of Texas becoming a blue state in 2020 into a full-blown panic. There has been a wave of Republican retirements in Texas, and the statistics on voter shifts are looking ominous unless Trump’s party can somehow win back suburban voters they are hemorrhaging. The loss of incumbents in vulnerable districts puts Republican efforts to claw their way back to a House majority even deeper in the hole.
But Hurd is symbolic of a much deeper problem for what used to be the Party of Lincoln. Hurd is the lone black GOP member of Congress. He’s been the outlier in a party that is rapidly becoming the province of older, less educated white men. Only 13 of the GOP House delegation are women—down to a 25-year low. The party’s brand is toxic among younger voters of nearly all backgrounds; even young Republicans are frustrated with the party’s hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil position on climate change. Hurd was a rising star of the GOP delegation, a lodestar for the party’s potential for growth in an increasingly diverse country. Now, he’s leaving.
It has become something of an article of faith in some circles that Trump represents an aberration from the Republican norm, a deviance that will be set straight by wiser heads once he leaves office and the fever breaks. But there is no reason to believe that will be the case. A number of factors are locking the Republican Party into Trumpism in a way that will be nearly impossible to reverse within at least the space of a generation.
First, it will be difficult to persuade whole generations of voters who are shifting hard to the left. Younger Gen X, Millennial, and a new wave of Gen Z voters are utterly hostile to Republican stances on social issues, and almost as hostile to conservative positions on economic issues as well. Voters who grew up in the era of Enron and Bear Stearns, struggled with outrageous education, healthcare, and housing costs. They watched Republicans spend a decade calling mild-mannered moderate Barack Obama a crazy socialist, are now eagerly embracing socialism. In 2018, a combination of GenX, Millennial, and GenZ voters outvoted baby boomers for the first time. Moreover, after tearing itself apart over social issues versus class populism in 2016, most Democrats have come to an intersectional understanding of how each affects the other—and that, in a country where large racial disparities exist, laissez-faire libertarian economic policy is intrinsically founded on racist assumptions no matter whether presented in dog-whistles by Marco Rubio or train whistles by Donald Trump. It won’t help Republicans to tack slightly to the center to please a young and more diverse voting bloc at the expense of mobilizing their older, more openly racist base if younger, better educated, and more diverse Americans won’t be fooled either way.
Second, candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are not what Republican voters actually want. They proved it in 2016. Trump’s rock-solid popularity with the GOP base has only increased over time. After Trump’s horrifically racist tweets telling Congresswomen of color who were born in America to “go back where they came from,” Trump gained in approval ratings with Republicans. While conservative strategists may see value in nominating a less openly bigoted candidate to win over young, minority, and suburban voters, there is no reason to believe that the core Republican base will cooperate in, say, 2024 any better than they did in 2016. It’s far likelier that if Trump is resoundingly defeated in 2020, Republican voters will rely on conspiracy theories about voter fraud to resolve the cognitive dissonance, rather than accept a more moderate candidate who doesn’t thrill them by granting them permission to let their prejudices loose. Electorates don’t turn on a dime just because it would be convenient for strategists.
Third, there is the impact of the conservative infotainment complex. Increasingly, the Republican Party is more the legislative arm of Fox News than they are the media arm of the GOP. This is most obvious under Trump, who despite having access to the world’s most secretive and sensitive information, chooses instead to watch endless hours of mindless Fox News and tweet angrily afterward. But it’s obvious that after an era in which Republican politicians played puppet master to a hypnotized base, this decade’s crop of GOP elected officials at the state, local, and federal level have many of the same media habits and assumptions as their voters. And the problem with a political party being led by a media complex rather than vice versa is that a political party has an incentive to retain a majority, whereas the incentive of right-wing political media is to stoke outrage to sell ads for reverse mortgages to gullible seniors who need not comprise a majority or ever win a national election.
Duverger’s Law suggests that this situation cannot last forever, but much as the market can stay irrational longer than an investor can stay solvent, so too can a political party that has lost control of its own voters. And, as we’ve seen, a propaganda apparatus can remain itself in exile for a very long time before it can shed enough ideological dead weight to become viable again. There is no good reason to believe that Republicans will step back from the brink anytime soon. Will Hurd is leaving. Trumpism will remain in his place.