The Great Unravelling: What Is Driving The Republican Civil War

When Trump announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination he kicked off the biggest civil war inside a US political party since LBJ fought the Dixicrats in the 60’s, relinquishing the Democratic Party’s hold on the South. Paul Ryan’s comments earlier today are another watershed moment in this civil war. With 30 days left in the race the GOP establishment has all but abandoned their standard bearer, partly out of political convenience as they hope to maintain a majority in the House and Senate, and partly because they want expunge the party of Trump and his ideology, “Trumpism.”

Paul Ryan by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Why are the GOP establishment and Trumpism so fundamentally at odds?

The GOP establishment embraces a set of social and political conservative principles that can largely be described as “pro-business” and “anti-social change.” They’ve veered to the right on the economy over the past four decades and have fought, and largely lost, bitter social battles from abortion to gay marriage. Their social ideology has resonated well with voters, which has conveniently disguised the incoherence, incompetence and unpopularity of their economic policies.(1)

The establishment is threatened by three different elements of Trumpism:

  1. Nativism.
  2. The deeply flawed personality of Donald Trump the candidate.
  3. A genuine recalibration of conservatism focused on prioritizing America and (White) American communities.

Varying degrees of nativism have underpinned the Republican party since the “Southern Strategy” of Richard Nixon who moved in to fill the void left by a Democratic Party that embraced Civil Rights and alienated Southern Whites. Too much nativism, however, threatens the GOP’s ability to ever be competitive in a Presidential race. That explains the soul-searching report commissioned by the GOP after Romney’s loss that encouraged them to embrace immigration reform to appeal to conservative Latino and Asian migrants. Trump ignored that advice and proceeded to embrace and stoke nativism and racism, disturbing the equilibrium within the party and putting Republicans in diverse down-ballot races at risk.

Trump himself represents a personal threat to the Republican Party. His ego, extreme narcissism and larger-than-life personality jars with the more austere image the party has of itself. As the recent Access Hollywood tapes reminded us, he’s a vile reality TV show star, whose made a living objectifying women and creating spectacle over substance. Or, as a 70-year-old female Trump supporter told me “he’s a son of a bitch…” that was meant as a compliment. It’s not exactly the type of company a Connecticut Conservative or a Southern Gentleman would want to share.

Finally, there is the third element of Trumpism: the genuine, new direction he offers voters. On economic policy he’s much more populist than his GOP peers, attacking free-trade, a long-standing pillar of GOP economic policy, and talking openly of increased spending on infrastructure and the military, even if it is financed by printing money. He doesn’t subscribe to a theory of American Exceptionalism, believing that the US, like other nations, ought to take care of its own citizens first before subsidizing alliances or offering up security guarantees. These policies fly in the face of conventional GOP thinking, threatening a long-term realignment of the party. Already the party’s views on trade and foreign intervention have softened.

The civil war isn’t just between Trump and the GOP establishment. During the turmoil of the past 72 hours thousands of rank and file Republicans flocked to Donald. Sure, they aren’t enough to help him win a general election, but they were enough to propel him to the top of the Republican ticket and beat back multiple attempts to slow him down.

How the Republican Party emerges from this battle will shape American politics for a generation to come. Will the party embrace economic policies that will benefit the poor, white America it relies on for votes? Will it embrace nativism as a way to obscure it’s pro-business economic agenda that hollows out those same communities? Will it beat back the insurgency and bring back a Marco Rubio type figure, someone ready to embrace some social reforms while still being close to big corporations? Will it collapse, ceding the political space to the grand “Clinton Coalition” that encompasses Bernie Bros and Goldman Sachs (more on how untenable that coalition is in another post)?

At the risk of sounding glib, the 2016 seems like a lock for Hillary, although, if anyone can blow it, it’s Hillary. The war over the soul of the Republican Party is only just beginning.

UPDATE (Tuesday, October 12): Today Donald Trump took to Twitter to attack Paul Ryan and the entire GOP. Here’s what he said:

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(1) I don’t want to get into a debate about the virtues of neoliberal economic theory or the virtues of the “free-market.” This is more a statement of how contemporary Republicans have implemented or interpreted those theories. For example, how the Bush tax-cuts led to a fiscal deficit and how the “gold standard” remains popular among GOP lawmakers.