I keep reading about the possibility that Trump supporters will take over the GOP the way that the Goldwaterites owned the future of their party after 1964, and the McGovernites owned the future of the Democrats after 1972. Let’s be a little careful. I think that there is reason to suspect that the Trump movement, while disruptive, will become less ideologically dominant within the GOP than those earlier insurgencies.
First and most importantly, the grassroots, activist base of the GOP is anti-Trump. The Goldwater and McGovern supporters were able to out-organize their establishment rivals in low-turnout contests. This year, it was the Cruz activists who consistently out-organized and outsmarted Trump’s nearly nonexistent grassroots organization. Trump’s voters are disproportionately civically disengaged. Even if Trump wanted to convert these voters into political activists (and he has shown zero inclination to do so), it would be difficult. At the activist level, the real contemporary successors to Goldwater and McGovern are Cruz and (to a much larger extent) Bernie Sanders.
The second reason to doubt the durability of the Trump movement is that the core of Trump’s enthusiastic, prominent public supporters is drawn from people who have transitioned from serious endeavors to con artistry. Huckabee, Carson, Gingrich, and Palin were all distinguished in one way or another, but they now are closer to late-night infomercial pitchmen than to serious political activists. They still like to be interviewed by the cable-network clown shows that fawn over Trump, and they are good for the occasional rambling speech in front of mystified and disgusted political activists, but they are more likely to spend the next few years selling herbal supplements and Founding Father–themed children’s books than organizing local Trump supporters into a durable force.