The Associated Press ran a story earlier this week on the continuing crack-up of the Republican Party:
As he [Trump] skips from one gaffe to the next, GOP leaders in Washington and in the most competitive states have begun openly contemplating turning their backs on their party’s presidential nominee to prevent what they fear will be wide-scale Republican losses on Election Day.
Republicans who have devoted their professional lives to electing GOP candidates say they believe the White House already may be lost. They’re exasperated by Trump’s divisive politics and his insistence on running a general election campaign that mirrors his approach to the primaries.
The central weakness of the article—like so much of the reporting on the election this year—is that it posits Trump as the source of the party’s crack-up.
In actual fact, the seeds of the decline of the GOP and conservatism were sown long ago. That decline has little to do with the weaknesses of any candidate or elected official, mistakes this one or that one might have made. To the contrary, the decline reflects the strengths and achievements of both the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Both the party and the movement, in other words, are victims of their success.
The candidacy of Donald Trump, for all its idiosyncrasies, is symptomatic of two cycles of political time: one peculiar to the Republican Party, the other to the conservative movement.
Presidential/party regimes in the US have a rise and fall, roughly coinciding with the various party systems we’ve seen through American history. (Though not always: historians and political scientists still debate these periodizations, so what follows, which focuses on presidents as drivers of regime changes, may not coincide with how other scholars conceive these regimes.) The first regime was the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican regime, which lasted from 1800 to 1828. The second was the Jacksonian Democratic regime, which lasted from 1828 to 1860. The third was the Lincoln Republican regime, which lasted from 1860 to 1932. The fourth was the FDR New Deal regime, which lasted from 1932 to 1980. We are currently in the fifth regime: the Reagan Republican regime, which began in 1980.
These regimes are inaugurated by presidents (Jefferson, Lincoln, etc.); they are carried on by presidents (Monroe, Polk, Teddy Roosevelt, LBJ, George W. Bush); and they are destroyed by presidents (John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter). Other factors—social movements, the economy, international relations, cultural shifts—certainly play a major role, but for various reasons, I’m focusing here on presidents.
As the Yale political scientist Steve Skowronek has argued, the successor presidents who do the most to carry on the legacy of the inaugurating presidents—Polk for Jackson; LBJ for FDR; George W. Bush for Reagan—often set the stage for the destruction of that inaugurating president’s legacy. These successor presidents (Skowronek calls them articulation presidents) so vastly over-use their power to extend the basic commitments of the party regime, to fulfill its unfulfilled promises, that they wind up shattering the regime itself. LBJ did it with his commitments to Vietnam, the War on Poverty, and the Civil Rights Movement. Bush did it with his paired commitments to those massive tax cuts and the Iraq War. In both cases, these presidents articulate founding commitments of their regime. But in the process, they bring to the fore and empower the dissonant forces have long been restive under the regime—both African Americans and white supremacists, in the case of LBJ; or the rank-and-file Tea Party and Christian Right with little patience for the elite business and national security types, in the case of Bush—who now see each other not as natural allies but as enemies. (It’s interesting, as Skowronek notes, that these articulation presidents often fought wars that helped destroy their regimes. Polk with the Mexican-American War, LBJ with Vietnam, Bush with Iraq.)
Donald Trump is now facing a situation similar to that of candidates like George McGovern in 1972: he’s the beneficiary of an unprecedented mobilization of one part of his party’s coalition, which put him in the place he’s in, but like McGovern, he can’t turn that coalition into something broader. Hence that quote in the AP story above:
They’re exasperated by Trump’s divisive politics and his insistence on running a general election campaign that mirrors his approach to the primaries.
Winning the GOP base is no longer a ticket to the White House, as it was for Reagan and Bush. Because the base is so at odds with the whole of the GOP, not to mention the nation.
So that’s one political time cycle: the rise and fall of presidential/party regimes.
But there’s a second, arguably deeper and more fatal time cycle: the rise and fall of conservative movements and regimes.
Conservatism, as I argued in The Reactionary Mind, is an inherently reactionary movement. This wasn’t my brilliant insight; it’s right there, as the book demonstrates, in the testimony of conservatism’s leading thinkers and practitioners, going back to Burke and Peel, the inventor of Britain’s Conservative Party, up through more genteel voices like Michael Oakeshott or George Nash, the court historian of the modern conservative movement in the US. The only difference is that my book takes their testimony seriously, while others tend to ignore it.
But as I argued at the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind, if conservatism is an inherently reactionary movement, the greatest threat to it will be its success. Once it defeats the movements it was launched to overcome—and those movements will change across time, which is why conservatism, despite being a consistently reactionary politics, will also change across time, in response to the movements it opposes—it loses its raison d’être.
Modern American conservatism, I’ve long held, has succeeded. It essentially destroyed the labor movement, which was, in conservatism’s most recent incarnation in response to the New Deal, its original enemy. It also successfully beat back the Black Freedom movement, which was its second enemy. And it was able to defang the feminist movement, its third enemy. While all these movements are still around—the labor movement, only barely—they don’t have the same traction and forward momentum they once did. (The one exception is the LGBT movement, but I would argue that it was a late arrival on the scene of the conservative backlash, so its successes haven’t been able to generate the same kind of ongoing momentum that the earlier movements did.)
Which is what has left conservatism in the fairly weak place that it is, as I speculated at the conclusion of The Reactionary Mind:
Which leads me to wonder about the long-term prospects of the Tea Party, the latest variant of right-wing populism. Has the Tea Party given conservatism a new lease on life? Or is the Tea Party like the New Politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the last spark of a spent force, its frantic energies a mask for the decline of the larger movement of which it is a part?…
Modern conservatism came onto the scene of the twentieth century in order to defeat the great social movements of the left. As far as the eye can see, it has achieved its purpose. Having done so, it now can leave. Whether it will, and how much it will take with it on its way out, remains to be seen.
Trump is desperately trying to fashion a new reactionary politics out of the bits and pieces that are now left to it: a white nationalism that draws its animating energies from its hostility to a black president, immigration, and Islam. But the evidence is increasingly clear that that kind of politics simply does not possess enough appeal to propel him or any other similar candidate to the White House. Not, I would argue, because Trump is such a weak candidate (though clearly he is), but because these forces can’t supply the reactionary rationale for modern conservatism the way empowered and radicalized movements of workers, African Americans, and women once did. As a reactionary mode of politics, conservative is a response to politicized, radical movements of subordinate classes; it is not a response to secular changes in society and culture, however unwelcome those changes may be.
It’s going to take a massive victory for the left—not at the polls but in the streets, as a comprehensive social movement of emancipation—for the right to recover its energy and animating purpose. Until that happens, the right might win an election here or there, but they’re essentially going to continue their free-fall plummet.
Trump, in other words, is the least of the GOP’s problems.