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How Trump Sealed the GOP’s Suicide

It didn’t have to go this way—with the GOP becoming a cult of personality suffused with authoritarianism.
October 15, 2020
How Trump Sealed the GOP’s Suicide
(Photo by MINH HOANG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

I first wrote about Donald Trump in a September 2015 column predicting his political self-annihilation:

Slowly, inevitably, Trump will crack, flooding the maws of an avid media with a tsunami of whining, petty feuds, and overblown grievances. His audience will be watching, and not kindly—some out of sheer fascination with his self-destruction, more because most Americans are, at bottom, sensible. They want an optimistic leader who imbues them with hope, not a self- obsessed whiner whose endless psychodrama is, in the end, exhausting. Not only will they not want Donald Trump in the White House; they won’t want him in their living rooms. And one by one they will switch the channel, until Trump is left alone on a soundstage, and the lens into which he stares becomes an empty mirror.

Okay, so I was five years and one presidency off. Still, better to be premature than to miss the inevitable end game: Because Trump can only be himself, a critical mass of Americans have become sick of his pathology.

The Bulwark’s Tim Miller cites responses from a fresh poll of independents, a crucial voting bloc Trump desperately needs. Their shorthand descriptions beg analysis: “horrible human being,” “incredibly rude,” “terrible representative for our country,” “unfit to do the job,” “sexist and racist,” “idiot,” “arrogance,” “slimebag,” and, of course, “lies.” I merely summarize the implications for his campaign: Unpromising.

Because Trump is immutably pathological, he’s incapable of growth as a politician or president. As pollster Sean Trende told the New Yorker:

One of the big failings of Trump’s Presidency—and there are many—is that he never made the transition from an insurgent candidate to a President. I think he had a very effective insurgent campaign, and it was hard for Hillary Clinton. But, once he became President, he had no reason to listen to people who actually know stuff about politics, who would tell him, “Hey, you’re the President now. You need to put down that Twitter thing.” That’s great for your initial election campaign, but people don’t want their Presidents yelling at the Prime Minister of Denmark because she won’t sell him Greenland. . . . COVID was absolutely a layup for him. . . . People want to hear Presidents give moving speeches, even if what they do isn’t that effective. And he just couldn’t do it.

When a president’s incapacities include inhumanity, self-exposure becomes malignant. Last weekend Trump reprised his “Evito” turn on the White House balcony, fusing Patti LuPone with Benito Mussolini in yet another display of heedless self-adoration before an audience clustered—the pandemic be damned—to appear bigger than it was.

“We’re starting very, very big with our rallies,” Trump crowed, before repeating a claim he first made about COVID-19 roughly 216,000 deaths ago: “It’s going to disappear.” In the real America beyond Trump’s mirror of self, the resurgent coronavirus is causing almost 50,000 new cases per day.

Yet Trump kicked off his renewed contagion tour with potential superspreader events: rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Iowa, using as props throngs of largely mask-free supporters crowded together in disregard of physical-distancing guidelines. Public health aside, this is political lunacy: He was speaking to the converted while reminding the larger electorate of his callous disregard for others—and highlighting his mismanagement of COVID-19 for whatever undecided voters remain.

But he is mentally incapable of doing anything else—and pathetically needy for adulation. So he sequesters himself on pro-Trump media, running a one-man campaign geared only to arousing the supporters he already has.

As Jonathan V. Last writes, “One of the truisms of politics is: Bad gets worse.” So does Trump. The latest Washington Post-ABC News national poll shows Biden leading by 12 points among likely voters. As to COVID, the Post reports, “Almost 2 in 3 voters say Trump did not take appropriate precautions to reduce the chances of catching the coronavirus, and 6 in 10 say they do not trust the administration to provide complete and accurate information about his health.” As for his handling of the pandemic, numerous surveys confirm that he’s irreversibly underwater.

The more voters see him, the more his finite foundation crumbles. The Post poll shows that independent voters favor Biden by 52 to 40 percent—whereas among independents in 2016 Trump beat Clinton by four points. And the widening chasm among suburban women favors Biden by 28 points.

This squares with polling averages maintained by FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, both of which put Biden’s national margin at about 10 percent. Fresh surveys of battleground states show Biden leading comfortably in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, ahead in Arizona and Florida, and up by a hair in North Carolina.

Politics, of course, is the art of addition. Psychologically maladaptive, Trump is practicing subtraction.

His last hope is to squeeze yet more votes out of a shrinking demographic, his base of non-college-educated whites, enabling him to manufacture a synthetic Electoral College margin through voter suppression and disqualifying thousands of mail-in ballots cast for Democrats. Yet fresh polls in Michigan and Wisconsin suggest that white voters are defecting in significant numbers from Trump to Biden. Even the intervention of Republican congressmen, state legislatures, and judges to meddle with the Electoral College may not be enough to stave off defeat.

How did the GOP find itself in this desperate, seamy dilemma? The short answer is four years of subservience to Trump. But it is nonetheless instructive to consider what the party had become before his advent—and how he might have helped save it had he been not only a normal person, but the unconventional political genius some conjured from the ether.

By 2012, the GOP had come to rely on a partially overlapping base of evangelicals; whites without college degrees threatened by economic dislocation; and malcontents whose distrust of government partook of paranoia. These folks were not natural allies of the party of business or its wealthy donors. In exchange for pursuing the economic agenda of the wealthy, the GOP increasingly offered up a primal vision rooted in culture wars, contempt for government, and scapegoating blacks, immigrants, Muslims and other minorities.

The real causes of blue-collar woes were globalization, the Great Recession, the housing crisis, and an information society which marginalized the undereducated. About this, the GOP elite did nothing—not about student debt, stagnant wages, dwindling benefits, diminishing job security, retraining for the new economy, or the widespread unaffordability of quality medical care. The epitome of their nihilism was Ted Cruz: a grandstanding opportunist who tried to shut down the government while assembling a stunted coalition of evangelicals, gun fanatics, nativists, climate-change deniers, and Tea Party atavists.

By the primary season of 2016, that covered most of the GOP base. The party’s only realistic alternative to Cruz was an incendiary and ideologically unmoored interloper—Donald Trump.

Had the RNC’s then-Chairman Reince Priebus and foresighted party officials and consultants gotten their way, this trajectory would have been different. After Mitt Romney lost in 2012, these seasoned professionals concluded that the GOP was headed for demographic oblivion. The result was the widely-touted “autopsy” which called for a comprehensive rethinking of Republican electoral strategy.

Its analysis was unsparing—and proactive. The GOP had been “continually marginalizing itself,” said Sally Bradshaw, one of the autopsy’s authors. “We have lost the ability to be persuasive with or welcoming to those who don’t agree with us on every issue.”

The party, she added, “needs to do better with women” and to become “inviting and inspiring.” Another of the autopsy’s authors warned that “if our party isn’t welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.” Among the solutions proposed was an extensive outreach to women, African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and LGBT voters which included embracing “comprehensive immigration reform.”

But that last, in particular, ran athwart the nativist passions roiling much of the GOP base. Faced with their fury for his cosponsorship of an immigration reform bill, Marco Rubio folded. Broadening the party’s appeal, it seemed clear, would require a nominee with the vision and gifts to propitiate its restive electorate.

Enter Donald Trump. In 2013, he tweeted: “New @RNC report calls for embracing ‘comprehensive immigration reform.’ Does the @RNC have a death wish?”

Smart Republicans foresaw the consequences. Said Jon Huntsman in 2016: “The party itself is less consequential than ever before, and . . . the tribal differences are increasingly irreconcilable. . . . If Trump prevails, he will have single-handedly upended the old Republican order and built a new movement in its place. The question then will be, is it sustainable?”

Not in the long run, others forecast. Peter Wehner warned in 2016 that the GOP “is becoming redefined by Trump, and the question is, Can we jerk it back? . . . The Republican Party has to make its own inner peace with the changing demographics in America. . . . If it runs against Hispanics and other minorities, that ultimately can’t be sustained.”

Nonsense, Trump tweeted:

In 2020 he is proving himself wrong. But his victory in 2016, however transient and peculiar to its circumstances, foreclosed the path to a broader-based GOP.

Particularly problematic is that Trump’s appeal—while fatally limited—has among the base a visceral depth which transcends loyalty to the party, its elected officials, or whatever threadbare ideas it retains. The party of Trump has become a cult of personality suffused with authoritarianism.

As described by the Washington Post, the new book Authoritarian Nightmare by Bob Altemeyer and John Dean presents “data from a previously unpublished nationwide survey showing a striking desire for strong authoritarian leadership among Republican voters.” This squares with findings by Vanderbilt political scientist Larry Bartels summarized by the Post: “Many Republican voters hold strong authoritarian and anti-democratic beliefs, with racism being a key driver of those attitudes.”

In the Altemeyer-Dean survey, roughly half of Trump supporters agreed with this statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.” Many Trump supporters, the authors conclude, “are submissive, fearful, and longing for a mighty leader who will protect them from life’s threats. They divide the world into friend and foe, with the latter greatly outnumbering the former.”

As president, Trump has pushed the boundaries of our constitutional democracy to achieve unprecedented executive power. Not only do his followers support this, but elected Republicans have done nothing to stop him.

The GOP is no longer about ideas like limited government, or the higher ideals of inclusiveness and an American Dream open to all. Its toxic compound of raw anger and nativist passion is, at bottom, about subjugating the demographic “other.”

Before Trump, the GOP’s better angels were already enfeebled. In 2016 he killed them off.

It is barely possible now to imagine the GOP had Trump been different. He came without ideology, propelled by a gift for embodying a potent but undefined populism. He might have become an agent of constructive reinvention, eschewing racism and xenophobia in favor of offering embattled middle-class and blue-collar workers genuine economic uplift. He could have reinstated fiscal responsibility by disdaining tax cuts for the wealthy. He might even have taken steps—if not to drain the swamp—at least to reform it.

But that would have required real talent, sustained attention, and a genuine interest in governance. Instead this irredeemably vicious, vacant, and narcissistic demagogue unleashed white identity politics and the endless overreach of Republican donors. This leads inexorably to the deadest of ends—a demographic death knell for his party and, for our democracy, the most grievous of wounds.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.