mitch mcconnell
Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr

It’s an axiom of national politics that the party with an incumbent president will seem politically united, while an opposition party in the midst of a primary will seem to be at its most fractious. This should be doubly true given the Republican reputation for loyalty at all costs, and the Democratic reputation for disorganization and division.

And yet in the era of Trump a curiously opposite dynamic seems to be developing. In contrast with the bruising fights of 2016, most of the leading Democrats running for president are aligning themselves more strongly with the policy preferences of the Democratic base on issues from healthcare to immigration than they have in the past. While big and important distinctions do remain, of course, the reality is that the difference between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on most policy issues in 2020 is significantly less than between the two main contenders in 2016. Most Democrats outside of the ardent twitter universe probably couldn’t articulate the differences; in fact, most polling shows that Democrats are overwhelmingly more concerned with electability (the meaning of which is a whole other topic.) Meanwhile, the most keyed in activists debating between, say, Warren and Sanders are arguing less over policy directly than over theories of change and ultimate goals about the structure of the economy. This is a remarkable degree of unity for a party that is choosing a leader and champing at the bit for a return to power.

Republicans, on the other hand, are much more fractured than a party should be with an incumbent president and an economy performing fairly well by traditional measures (how those traditional measures are utterly failing to tell the real story is for another time.) The lack of unity is showing itself in myriad ways. GOP representatives in state and federal office are retiring in waves, handicapping any hopes of their retaking the House next year, and potentially putting statehouses at risk. An ideological war is occurring between nationalist, neoconservative and libertarian elements across the party’s media, think tank and supposedly intellectual bastions as acolytes of Hayek do battle with acolytes of Steve Bannon, and the Tucker Carlsons take up arms against the John Boltons. And Trump’s deep unpopularity and wildly unorthodox style have both earned him multiple primary challengers–always a bad sign for an incumbent president, and the source of enough consternation that some state Republican parties are moving to eliminate their primaries altogether this year. These actions look far more like weakness than confidence and strength.

The larger dysfunctions create other crucial practical problems, especially in a party already given over to grifting and advantage-seeking. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Republican search for a competent answer to Democratic fundraising juggernaut ActBlue. This shouldn’t be too hard for conservatives in theory, but a combination of mutual political and financial distrust is making it much harder, as Politico’s Melanie Zanona reports:

During a testy exchange on the first day of the House GOP’s annual retreat, members expressed misgivings with WinRed, a small donor apparatus designed to compete with the Democrats’ online fundraising behemoth ActBlue that was launched this summer by the national campaign arms after months of delays.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) specifically raised concerns about data sharing, while other lawmakers were confused with how the operation works and pressed operatives for more information about the fundraising tool, according to aides and lawmakers who were present…

Since launching, WinRed has come under fire from critics who have questioned who stands to profit from the donations it gathers, forcing RNC Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel to defend the platform during a heated meeting with GOP officials.

This isn’t so much a problem for Donald Trump, who will have more than enough money to stay as competitive as money will allow. But it’s a much larger problem for the Republican Party both in 2020 and going on into the future. If most prognosticators are correct about the GOP’s demographic challenges in the years to come, maintaining control of gerrymandered statehouse and congressional blockades will be essential to their ability to hold back the Democratic tide while attempting some sort of redefining realignment. Lack of an effective small-dollar donor apparatus will make winning those races much more challenging as Democrats commit increasing resources to remove those structural advantages.

Looking beyond 2020, one might think that a sweeping Democratic electoral victory would focus conservative minds and unite them against a common enemy as is typically the case in American politics. But it’s just as likely that the anti-Trump elements in the GOP who have been quietly waiting in the wings will attempt to pounce after his defeat, only to find that the party’s actual base and most of its new bench of electeds are unflinching Trumpists who will seek to double down on his rhetoric and bigoted political instincts.

Republicans could be in disarray for quite some time to come.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. 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.