Back in March I discussed what could happen with Trump supporters when he loses. How will they deal with their feelings of disempowerment? It’s hard to say but it’s more likely to be ugly than not. Trump has opened the can of racism for all to see after decades of sensible Republicans peaking under its lid. It’s unlikely to go away when Trump loses. Should Trump want its mantle (and it’s likely he will, given his enormous ego) he can own it and its movement.
Today I want to ponder what his loss will mean to the Republican Party, which could actually be the Republican Party. It all depends on how badly the election goes for Republicans. With tightly gerrymandered districts, Republicans will probably retain control of the House. At worst the odds are about even that Democrats will retake the Senate. One credible analysis suggests Democrats need to win about eight percent more votes than Republicans for them to win the House. Given that is a pretty high bar, Republicans are likely to emerge from the election bloodied and bruised but not out for the count.
Over the last couple of decades, Republicans have been the more fortunate party in winning massive amounts of seats in Congress. They picked up 52 seats in 1994 and an astounding 64 seats in 2010. Democratic gains tend to be more incremental: 31 seats in 2004 and 24 seats in 2008. Presidential election years, particularly when a new president will be elected, tend to bring out Democrats. Democrats would have to flip 30 seats in November to wrest House control. It’s a high bar but not impossible, as they did it in 2004. Regardless, Democrats will pick up House seats. If they don’t gain the majority, it is likely their minority will be ten seats or fewer.
Democrats wresting total control of Congress and the Executive is a gram slam, last done in 2008. History tends to prove these majorities are ephemeral but while they last they allow Washington to move, providing the majority party can stay united. This is always problematic with Democrats.
A triple loss did not kill the Republican Party in 2008, but it did make them meaner and more ornery, pushing the party from mainstream to extreme. Trump has captured the party and turned it into an officially extreme party. Those Republicans left in Congress after November will come from more gerrymandered districts, which means they will be more extreme, not less. However, if Trump loses badly it will be hard for the remaining Republicans to escape the feeling that they don’t have an electable message. There is likely to be more fruitless soul searching by the Republican Party leadership on how it can reach out to new voters. This is hard to do if your party has essentially become a white nationalist party and demographics mean this will only make your party more in the minority in the future.
Moreover, the national disgrace of nominating Trump as their candidate in the first place won’t have new voters switching parties or coming into their movement. Whatever percentage of votes that Trump gets is likely the party’s ceiling in the future, unless they fundamentally redefine their party. If they can’t turn some purple states red, the party is unlikely to reclaim the White House for decades. Complete refusal to work with a Democratic president has proven counterproductive. More of the same – no matter how natural a reaction it will be – won’t improve the party’s chances of enacting its agenda in the future.
Republicans supporting Trump today won’t easily be able to walk it back. Texas senator Ted Cruz recently endorsed Trump, despite saying he would never do so. It’s unclear why he is preferable to Hillary Clinton, when Trump is a sociopath, serial adulterer, misogynist, liar and likely a lawbreaker as well, given shenanigans with his charity and apparently illegally doing business covertly in Cuba. By supporting him, Republicans are also tacitly endorsing policies hitherto anathema to Republicans: ending free trade, allowing the expansion of nuclear weapons, reducing our commitments to NATO and approving of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Any of these positions would have immediately disqualified any candidate in Ronald Reagan’s mind, and yet the pro-Reagan party has nominated a candidate his complete antithesis. How on earth do you get back to a governing majority after promoting this wreckage of a candidate?
My suspicion is that after four years or so of trying, Republicans won’t try anymore. Their brand is likely to be fatally tarnished by this election. The truly principled Republicans are actually very few, but the Bush clan seems to be among the few that simply won’t abide or vote for Trump. Most of the Bushes are likely to vote for no one, but as least one (former president George H. W. Bush) plans to vote for Hillary Clinton. When push comes to shove, few Republicans can actually put country before party.
The party must moderate and be more inclusive or die. Since it is now principally a party full of extremes, it is more likely to die, which means it is likely to Balkanize. There are a few people to watch to see what happens including Ohio governor John Kasich, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and House Speaker Paul Ryan. I think that within four years the Republican Party — while not ceasing to exist — will shrink yet again, with perhaps a third moving in a new direction under a new label and brand, perhaps under a Prosperity Party. Expect a couple of years while the party thrashes and ultimately fails to unite first. Those who put power over principle are likely to eventually win this test of wills because a party that cannot wield power is not really a party.