Eight days after a tape revealed – to no one’s surprise – the dark side of Donald Trump, there is no doubt about it: A civil war is raging within the Republican Party. It seems the paranoid Joseph McCarthy and the racist George Wallace have been reincarnated into one salacious character who is taking the GOP hostage. The foundations of the elephant party are shaking, Republican voters are losing confidence and defections are multiplying.
Three weeks before Election Day, the Republicans have started down the road to hell, while at the same time changing the Electoral College map along the way. Pollsters are moving some traditionally Republican states (Arizona, Georgia) into the pool of swing states, swing states (North Carolina, New Hampshire) into the Democratic camp, and other traditionally Republican states into a grey zone (Arkansas, Minnesota, the Dakotas). Projections have changed so much that the super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton (Priorities USA) has shifted some of its resources to senatorial races in North Carolina, Nevada, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.
Since Trump has dominated nearly all media coverage over the past few months, it is easy to forget that during the Republican Convention this summer, state delegations opposed his nomination. Two months later, after being accused of sexual assault, Trump became an undesirable candidate for many elected Republicans who are also on the campaign trail. Utah Rep. Joe Heck’s call for Trump to step down sounded the death knell of the status quo, and several Republican Party donors have decided to distance themselves; some have even turned their efforts toward the libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.
Having waited this long, GOP leaders may find themselves trapped: If they renounce Trump to gain wider appeal, they might be turning their backs on voters who have been won over by nativist populism. Though this is not the first time members of Congress have had to distance themselves from a presidential candidate (as they did 20 years ago when Bob Dole’s plummeting poll numbers threatened to bring down elected Republican officials), it is the first time that, “free from his chains,” a Republican Party Frankenstein has spent as much time tearing down Republican leaders as he has throwing insults at his Democratic adversary.
While Trump focuses his campaign on his white, misogynist base, he is reducing the Republican Party to its common denominator with a hatred of Hillary Clinton. But what happens after Nov. 8?
That said, the GOP is far from being dead. The libertarian wing is still going strong. A financial network, like that belonging to the Koch brothers, continues to act from the shadows since the last electoral cycle, weaving a tight net of grassroots groups. Evangelicals are a fractured bloc that can no longer be considered a homogeneous group, but they can still find a political voice within the GOP. The National Rifle Association, now aligned with the Republican Party and its Trump-supporting fringe, spent more this year than it ever has, riding on a wave of paranoia and conspiracy.
Trump’s defeat could be a victory for moderate Republicans and the #NeverTrump crowd. But let’s not fool ourselves: Trump’s candidacy jump-started the nativist right, which offered small extremist right-wing groups a political opening that could one day be funded by the future former candidate. In that sense, Trump’s campaign will partially redefine the party.
However, if they do not want to become a pale imitation of the California Republican Party, which is limited to white, elderly inland districts, the GOP will have to welcome minorities that can (re)define themselves as conservatives (southeastern blacks, Hispanic Catholics), and remove National Committee president Reince Priebus and, with him, a large part of the establishment. This could lead the party to reorganize itself along a hard line, with leaders (like Iowa Sen. Tom Cotton) who are able to synthesize Trump’s gains with traditional conservatism.
Democrats can rejoice … but they should not celebrate too much. First of all, polling distortions do not take into account the “Brexit Effect,” which veils some Trump voters, and a high voter absenteeism rate that, without reversing the trend, could affect the legitimacy of the president-elect. Second, Democrats also need to think about the Sanders effect in 2018, the year of the next Congressional elections. The reorganization of these two parties has just begun.