What is happening to the Republican party?

When a candidate loses an election for president, they usually brace themselves for blame. When they take down their party with them, they would normally slink off into the sunset while the party regroups and rethinks its strategies. In the case of Donald Trump, he not only lost the presidency, during his time the Republicans lost their majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And yet, when Trump made his first public outing to the annual CPAC conference, he was treated like a conquering hero and party leaders are making pilgrimages to Mar-a-Lago to kiss his ring and going on TV to swear allegiance to him.

In a long article in The New Yorker Jelani Cobb takes a shot at answering the widely discussed question of what this means for the Republican party and he thinks its prognosis is not good.

The most widely debated political question of the moment is: What is happening to the Republicans? One answer is that the Party’s predicament might fairly be called the revenge of “the kooks.” In just four years, the G.O.P., a powerful, hundred-and-sixty-seven-year-old institution, has become the party of Donald Trump. He began his 2016 campaign by issuing racist and misogynistic salvos, and during his Presidency he gave cover to white supremacists, reactionary militia groups, and QAnon followers. Trump’s seizure of the Party’s leadership seemed a stunning achievement at first, but with time it seems more reasonable to ponder how he could possibly have failed. There were many preëxisting conditions, and Trump took advantage of them. The combination of a base stoked by a sensationalist right-wing media and the emergence of kook-adjacent figures in the so-called Gingrich Revolution, of 1994, and the Tea Party, have redefined the Party’s temper and its ideological boundaries. It is worth remembering that the first candidate to defeat Trump in a Republican primary in 2016 was Ted Cruz, who, by 2020, had long set aside his reservations about Trump, and was implicated in spurring the mob that attacked the Capitol.

In November, Trump, facing multiple, overlapping crises, all of them exacerbated by his ineptitude, won seventy-four million votes. Still, the Republican Party confronts a potentially existential crisis. Last year, Thomas Patterson, a political scientist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, argued in his book “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” that, over time, the Party has set a series of “traps” for itself that have eroded its “ability to govern and acquire new sources of support.”

In addition, the G.O.P.’s steady drift toward the right, from conservative to reactionary politics; its dependence on older, white voters; its reliance on right-wing media; its support for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans; and its increasing disdain for democratic institutions and norms all portend increasing division and a diminishing pool of voters. Republicans, Patterson says, have been depending on a “rear-guard strategy” to “resist the ticking clock of a changing America.” Time may be running out for the Party, as its base ages and dwindles. “Its loyal voters are declining in number and yet have locked the party in place,” Patterson writes. “It cannot reinvent itself without risking their support and, in any event, it can’t reinvent itself in a convincing enough way for a quick turnaround. Republicans have traded the party’s future for yesterday’s America.”

Trump’s centrality has so far survived his loss to Joe Biden and the spectacle of the Capitol riot. In states across the country, local Republican officials are working against leaders whom they deem disloyal to the former President. The Arizona Party even censured Cindy McCain, the widow of the state’s six-term senator. The result is that the Party leadership sees no popular incentive to move toward the center, even as the warning signs of decline accumulate. Last year, for the first time, the number of registered Independents exceeded the number of registered Republicans. In the eight Presidential contests since 1988, Republicans have won the popular vote only once, in 2004.

Today, the Republican electorate is whiter and more male by far than its Democratic counterpart. By 2020, eighty-one per cent of Republican voters were white, and fifty per cent were male.

Last November, Trump made gains among some minorities, over 2016, particularly Latinos, although minority groups remain overwhelmingly supportive of the Democratic Party. The gender gap between voters for Biden and those for Trump was the most pronounced in recent history: fifty-seven per cent of women voted for Biden; forty-two per cent voted for Trump. The G.O.P. has also gained increasing shares of decreasing constituencies. White conservative Christians remain prominent in the Party, but they are a dwindling segment of the electorate: in 2007, thirty-nine states had white Christian majorities; today, fewer than half do. In 1996, non-Hispanic whites made up nearly eighty-five per cent of the electorate; by 2018, they were just sixty-seven per cent. In the six Presidential elections since 2000, Democrats have lost the white vote every time, but prevailed in half of them even without it. The day before the 2020 election, Benjamin L. Ginsberg, a longtime Republican election lawyer, who represented the George W. Bush campaign in 2000 and 2004, published an op-ed in the Washington Post, warning that the Party could find itself a “permanent minority.”

The arc of political movements in this country has never been predictable. The Democratic Party, confronted with a changing nation, chose to adapt, evolving, over time, from a bastion of pro-slavery sentiment in the nineteenth century, and of volatile racism for the first half of the twentieth, to its current status as a multiracial coalition emphasizing civil, women’s, and immigrants’ rights. That transformation mirrors the narrative that the country likes to tell about the growth of American democracy. The Republican Party, which had a firmer grasp on that ideal at its outset, rose from a passionate opposition to the spread of slavery to become a redoubt of Confederate sympathizers and racial reactionaries, and home to the twice-impeached former President who cultivated them. Jennifer Horn, the former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, told me that the G.O.P., in its current incarnation, is “the most open embrace of an anti-democracy movement that we have seen in our country in a very long time.”

Jennifer Horn told me, “I maintained this hope that, if we could just beat Donald Trump, then others in the Party would see that as their opportunity to come forward and say, ‘O.K., let’s put that behind us.’ ” She did not anticipate the durability of Trump’s version of Republicanism even after his defeat. “The Party,” she told me, said, “ ‘You may have defeated Trump, but we’re all in for Trumpism. Full steam ahead.’ ”

Full steam ahead, indeed. But where to? Cobb seems to think that despite winning more votes than any other Republican candidate in history, the fact that he still lost means that its destination is oblivion.


  1. johnson catman says

    Mano: The third paragraph in the blockquote is repeated. I don’t know if it was in the original like that or if you made a copy/paste boo-boo.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    I am not particularly concerned with the fate of the Republican Party per se, my concern is what it will do to the country as a whole. Consider that in 2020 there were large regions of the country where Republican candidates won in the House, the Senate, and at the state level, even as Trump lost the White House. Consider the possibility that January 6 was not the last time Republicans will place their own power over the democratic process, even to the use of violence.

  3. raven says

    It would be a mistake to count the GOP out.
    They are still very powerful and could easily control the US government in as little as two years.

    The GOP controls most states as governor and controlling the state legislatures.
    The Democrats control the US House narrowly, 222 to 213.
    The Democrats control the US Senate 50 to 50 with the VP making 51.

    If it hadn’t been for the 540,000 dead in the pandemic that Trump didn’t bother to fight, the GOP would still control the Federal government.

    Just because they are the lunatic fringe doesn’t mean they can’t obtain and exercise ruling power.

  4. raven says

    Paul Krugman’s take is that the GOP will either destroy itself or destroy the USA.
    As a Nobel prize winner, he is at least worth listening to.

    He doesn’t know which one it will be, them or us.
    We’ve seen this movie before and recently.
    Anyone remember a powerful superpower called…the USSR?

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … it seems more reasonable to ponder how he could possibly have failed.

    Failure being Trump’s default mode, this implies the GOP’s structure was rotten top to bottom.

    Seems about right.

  6. Sam N says

    @5, ugh, being a Nobel prize winner does NOT make someone worth listening to.

    That Paul Krugman has pretty good reasoning and some intellectual honesty make him worth listening to.

    Oh, how I wish I had not attended James Watson’s last guest seminar at the Salk Institute.

  7. Mano Singham says

    johnson catman @#1,

    Thanks for pointing the error out. The New Yorker with its legendary checking is very unlikely to have made such an error and indeed did not. Such a blunder has to be by me!

  8. Callinectes says

    The Republican party may be on its way out, but as they go they will do everything in their power to bring the country down with them, and with the help of their foreign allies they might just succeed.

  9. lanir says

    Trumpism only dies if people who oppose those ideas keep opposing them. So… we don’t get to dance on the grave of his political ambitions. It’s more like we have to schedule a block party every week until they’re so thoroughly ground under enough heels that they’re no longer recognizable to anyone.

  10. says

    Richard Nixon and the Southern Strategy was the party walking to the edge and Ronald Reagan was them stepping off. If they didn’t hit bottom with Trump, then the hundreds of voter suppression bills being worked on in red states will be them strapping a rocket on to get there faster.

  11. TGAP Dad says

    Meanwhile… the democrats seem to be blundering their own way to self-immolation, as witnessed by the Nevada Democratic Party’s recent change to its elected leadership All the newcomers are from the Democratic Socialists of America wing of the party. Immediately upon losing the leadership, the entire party staff resigned en masse, the consultants all canceled their contracts, and the outgoing leadership transferred a boatload of party money to DSCC. Oh yeah -- they didn’t turn over passwords to social media, financial accounts, etc. for a period of days after the election.
    It reminds me of the parents of Mississippi high schoolers who, rather than allow a same-sex couple to attend prom, canceled the official prom and created their own alternative prom, which excluded said couple.

  12. doublereed says

    I never understand this point of view that the Republican party is somehow fated to crumble. They clearly have paths to success with voter suppression tactics and electoral shenanigans. Republicans have made it clear that they are perfectly willing to do anything anti-democratic to win. Even with the theoretically devastating loss in 2020, they still have half the senate and most state legislatures. If anything, Democrats are barely holding on to anything.

    Paul Krugman often has good economic stuff, but frankly I think his political ideas are fraught with establishment bubble groupthink.

  13. garnetstar says

    I don’t see how, in a democracy, a political party can sustain itself without some kind of platform and governance, etc. Change or die, you know.

    That is why the republican party is now trying to bring about autocracy (plutocracy seems to already be here.) Instead of them changing (or returning, whatever you think) to being a political party that works in a democracy, they intend to change the structure to let them function as what they are now.

    And so, they are very dangerous. They are not discouraged by the failure of the last attempted coup, they are emboldened.

  14. Canadian Steve says

    Agree with #13 doublereed No one should count out the Republicans unless voting procedures and gerrymandering can be eliminated. Note that despite a large overall margin in both national popular vote and electoral college, the actual margin between a Trump second term and Biden’s victory was roughly 100,000 votes. Next time Democrats could win nationally by 8 million, and still lose the Senate, the House, and the presidency.

    Republicans can win on an increasingly small share of the electorate by making it increasingly hard to vote, and ramping up the disinformation. This is a long way from over. It’s quite frightening for Canadians to be honest as the USA is quite the presence on our border, and we are saturated by its media, and our economy is closely tied to that of the US as well.

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