Most people who work in Republican politics want Donald Trump to win but think he will lose. They hope that afterward the party will unify in opposition to President Hillary Clinton. They are, however, underestimating the divisions in their party that Trump’s campaign has revealed.
From the standpoint of Republican unity, the worst possible outcome of the November election would be a narrow defeat for Trump. The nominee’s Republican supporters would be enraged at those Republicans who balked at Trump, and the party would be consumed by recriminations.
A larger defeat would be harder to pin on “Never Trump” Republicans. If Trump underperforms among independents as well as Republicans; if he runs behind Republican Senate candidates, in a reversal of the pattern of the last two presidential elections; if he gets a lower percentage of the vote than Romney, even though Romney was running against an incumbent and a politician better liked than Hillary Clinton: The more such results are registered, the more those Republicans who warned that Trump would be a disastrous candidate will be proven right, and be seen to be proven right.
If Trump were to fail by these measures, almost all of the many Republicans who are backing him solely because he is the party’s nominee would accept that verdict. Even some of the Republicans who backed Trump during the nomination contest would accept it and, if past political experience is a guide, would forget that they ever voted for him in a primary. Only his most die-hard fans would maintain that Trump would have won if not for the treacherous opposition of Senator Ben Sasse and the treacherously equivocal support of Speaker Paul Ryan.
But even a decisive result would not clarify other live debates within the party. The bulk of Republican politicians, activists, and commentators are not Trump loyalists, but they are themselves split between “establishment” and “tea party” factions. Republicans aligned with the first group generally blame the second for Trump’s rise: The tea partiers kept delegitimizing Republican officeholders as sell-outs and thereby, the argument goes, made Republican voters more open to a demagogic outsider. The anti-Trump tea partiers make a mirror-image argument: The establishment set up Trump by repeatedly selling out and thereby disgusting Republican voters to the point that they turned to a demagogic outsider.
Neither theory is a close fit to the available facts. Exit polls suggest that primary voters who felt betrayed by Republican politicians did not back Trump at greater rates than other voters did. Voters who consider themselves “very conservative” — the voters one would expect to be most disappointed in Republicans for not repealing Obamacare — were less likely than other voters to support Trump. That’s not surprising when you consider that Trump sounded more favorable toward government involvement in health care than did any of the other candidates, but it runs counter to both the establishment and the tea-party theories.
The weakness of those theories suggests that these factions are more interested in continuing their feud with each other than in understanding and responding to the Trump phenomenon. Any such effort would have to begin with the recognition that the core of Trump’s vote does not belong to either faction and has a very different set of preoccupations.
Trump drew many different kinds of voters during the primaries. In several of his crucial victories, he nearly ran the table among the demographic groups the exit pollsters considered. His strongest supporters, though, made up a distinctive group that had long been present in the Republican party but had never been organized as such or had an influential champion. These voters had less formal schooling and attended church less frequently than other Republicans. They often described themselves as “moderates,” perhaps because neither shrinking the government nor saving unborn children was a passion of theirs. But they were not Chamber of Commerce Republicans, either.
“Working-class nationalist” might be a good label for these voters. They are, like the vast majority of Republicans, white: Is it fair, then, to describe them as “white nationalists”? Actual white nationalists — the kind of people who explicitly argue that whites should vote for an unapologetic champion of their racially defined interests — are certainly enthusiastic about Trump. But while they are active on Twitter, they are a small group.
A number of media outlets have drawn attention to scholars who suggest that a milder sentiment, which they call “racial resentment,” is the defining characteristic of Trump’s base. Their research showed, for example, that Trump supporters are especially likely to agree with the statement that a “growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten U.S. values.” Findings like this one have led some people to conclude that the Republican party as a whole is better described as “ethno-nationalist” than “conservative”: That’s how Trump was able to win its nomination without running on either economic-conservative or social-conservative themes.
This view has been expressed both by liberals who see in Trump’s nomination vindication for what they have been saying all along about Republicans and by conservatives whom that nomination has disillusioned to the point of believing that the liberals were right. But it’s worth remembering that “racial resentment” is not the same thing as racism. The view that large-scale immigration has the potential to undermine some of the things Americans value, for example, strikes me as correct. In some voters’ minds, this sentiment surely sits alongside less defensible and even ugly ones, with the proportion of each varying from person to person.
The reason these points are worth remembering is that they should affect how Republicans respond to these voters in the event of a Trump defeat. Republicans could follow two paths. The first would be to hope that a big loss would destroy Trump as a political force and that nobody else would be able to mobilize his core vote as he did; then Republicans could go back to ignoring the working-class nationalists in the expectation that this group would continue to vote for the GOP over the Democrats. The risk of this path would be that the calculation might prove incorrect in the presidential race of 2020. But it would have an advantage if the core Trump vote were composed of racist idiots, as some anti-Trump Republicans believe: It would not require Republicans to take the morally dubious step of courting them (and in the process alienating other voters).
Since that view is a hostile oversimplification, however, Republicans should take a second path: Try to appeal to Trump voters on the basis of their reasonable views while rejecting the rest. Henry Olsen, writing about these voters in National Review this spring (“Trump’s Faction,” May 9), pointed out that Republicans in the past have been able to integrate the theme of national solidarity, which they cherish, with other conservative themes, such as individual initiative. Doing so in the future will require some policy adjustments. Doubling the number of low-skilled immigrants we take in, for example, should be off the table for Republicans. Prior to those shifts, though, should be a change in outlook. Republicans need to do a better job of keeping in mind that not all of their voters have college degrees, or care about corporate-income-tax rates, or find the example of Ronald Reagan immediately compelling.
That doesn’t mean that Republicans have to abandon everything they have ever stood for in favor of whatever Trump’s supporters want. It does mean that even in the Republican primaries, a winning conservative coalition has to be formed rather than assumed to exist.
If Trump loses, then, Republicans will not only have to devise a strategy for responding to President Clinton and healing the bitter split between Trump supporters and opponents. They will also have to stitch together an alliance from among three groups: very conservative tea partiers, voters who think along the same lines as the party establishment, and much of the core Trump vote. And then, if that weren’t enough, they must attract some voters who don’t belong to any of these groups, since they do not add up to a majority.
So while a Clinton presidency would be a long four or eight years, Republicans would have no trouble coming up with work to fill the time.