Donald Trump upturned the political applecart in 2016 by assembling a coalition of anger. Now he’s arousing them to new heights of fear and loathing. He is losing parts of the coalition as a result but hopes enough fence-sitters and fellow-travellers who stayed home in 2016 will rally to him. In addition, the Republican Party is using every administrative trick to put up obstacles to Democratic voters and counting on a Right-tilting Supreme Court to wink at them. But the American Right-wing should be praying for a Trump defeat. If he were to come back, he would put the Republicans on a path to ideological perdition.
The 2016 polls undercounted the number of working-class and small-town White voters who wanted an anti-establishment candidate. As a team under political scientist Loren Collingwood showed, dislike for their national elite was so strong millions of them voted for Barack Obama because he was an outsider even though many were unhappy about his colour. Trump repudiated almost every element of traditional Right-wing ideology along the way, including free trade, open borders and fiscal conservatism, and won their backing in large part because he did so.
Trump is hurting today because Covid-19 showed his administrative competence was not on par with his ability to tap this anger. He also didn’t deliver on his promises to overturn the establishment. Lots of noisy immigration bashing, racist signalling, tax cuts and so on, but the system is largely intact. Finally, his own misogyny, entitlement and boorishness appealed to no one. His support among White women of all classes has flagged. Elderly Whites are appalled by his pandemic response. College educated White men align with his policies but find the man distasteful. He has picked up new support. Twice as many young Latinos and Blacks like his elite-bashing. But almost every election analyst in the US says Trump has lost more than he has gained – and this makes returning to the White House more a maze than a path.
It could yet happen, thanks largely to vagaries of the US electoral college system. If he can hold onto all the southern and western states he won in 2016, he would need only two largish Midwestern states, say Pennsylvania and Ohio, to breast the tape. Or it could end up in the Supreme Court. But the odds are against him. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has the 232 electoral college votes that went for Hillary Clinton in the bag. He only needs 38 more to win and he can get them from roughly any three of the dozen swing states in play. And most polls have him leading in two-thirds of them. The polls, the pocketbooks and the pandemic are lining up for Biden.
The real question for the Republican Party is their own future. In 2012, the party realised its base was increasingly Whites in non-metropolitan areas, an aging and shrinking demographic. A famous party analysis, called “the autopsy,” laid out a strategy to target Latinos and youth. The party began implementing it, but then Trump came along. He broke the party’s fraying coalition of blue-collar Whites and business, doubling down on the first part and discarding the second. He energised the base so they came out in numbers, picked up discontented in other groups as well, but has put the Republicans on a dismal path.
If Trump returns, the Republican Party will be fully redrawn as a caricature: Protectionist, isolationist, anti-immigrant, blue collar and deeply racist. The party will jettison its belief in free markets, minimal government and balanced budgets. More importantly, it will lose its ability to attract socially conservative minorities, the party’s best hope to create a winning electoral coalition. For history buffs: he will resurrect the short-lived Know Nothing Party of the 1850s, imbuing it with a similar sense of paranoia. It is one reason big business, both Silicon Valley and Wall Street, leans against Trump. If he returns, they will fully turn against the Republicans.
It is true that there is much less political space in the US for free trade and untrammelled markets. Trump pressed the accelerator on an existing bipartisan trend. Biden’s election manifesto is all about industrial policy and managed trade. But, as the Pew Research Center and others have shown, today a Democrat is more likely to be in favour of trade agreements and foreign policy alliances than a Republican. Trump 2.0, by driving away minorities, college-educated Whites and Big Tech, will push his party further down this path. The problem is the residue he will have left are what Hillary Clinton called “deplorables” — disgruntled working-class Whites steeped in racism and QAnon.
Hence the many anti-Trump Republican groups, like the Lincoln Project, and so many traditional conservatives have endorsed Biden. They hope a Trump defeat will allow them to recapture the base, return to “the autopsy” and align the US Right with an increasingly more diversified and digital America. The New Yorker recently cited Indian-American Nikki Haley as the standard-bearer of this school.
However, there are strong signs that even without Trump, the Republicans will not change their present path. Too many of their Nextgen leaders see his formula as a winner. They will be less crude and polarising, but they will be about preserving a mythical White America and using state intervention and evangelical rulebooks to do so. The US’s fate under them can be summed up in Trump’s quip, “I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.”
The views expressed are personal