The year 2015 may well be regarded as the strangest in the Grand Old Party’s illustrious history. Witness the spat between a senator and big-shot tycoon. It flared up in summer, when the latter bullied the former with name-calling and a juvenile prank. Labeling his opponent Senator Lindsey Graham an “idiot,” Donald Trump took his own stab at idiocy by reading out Graham’s phone number, encouraging his audience to “try it.” Trump’s antics came in response to Graham’s own a day before when in an effort to defend his friend John McCain, another of the billionaire’s targets, he called the rich politico the “world’s biggest jackass.” The contest intensified in September after GOP polls found that the New Yorker carried more than twice the support among South Carolina Republicans as any other candidate. Graham, the homegrown candidate, poled eighth with 4 percent, prompting more cutting jabs from his combatant. “Congrats @LindseyGrahamSC,” Trump texted, “You just got 4 points in your home state of SC—far better than zero nationally. You’re only 26 pts behind me.” Unable to marshal a clever or composed retort, Graham settled on playground posturing instead. If Trump comes to South Carolina for the primaries in early 2016, he blurted, “I’ll beat his brains out.”1
Such is the base politicking that made the 2015 version of the GOP a mockery in its own right. Armed with his $9 billion portfolio, Donald Trump managed to not only relegate one of the party’s most senior statesmen to the status of tongue-tied wimp but also reduce the entire Republican establishment to near-ruin.
True, primary season has always been silly season and vulnerable to phenomena such as “The Donald” spectacle. Still, the tumult of 2015 was different, the degree to which the GOP found itself mired in ridiculousness unusually severe.2
A key reason why, of course, was because of the singular power of the primary rabble-rouser and his unparalleled brand of disruptive politicking. Following a pattern laid out by Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and George Wallace in the 1960s, countless outspoken populists have relied on the acerbic sound bite to stir America’s right-wing base. This held true in 2015, but with a twist: Trump was no mere outlier shouting from the margins. Brandishing authority over a communications empire, occupying Wall Street’s highest echelon, he was an insider who spoke with brutal frankness out of confidence in his standing among society’s 1 percent; status anxiety had no hold over his heart. While playing an up-with-the-people card, Trump was immune to the plain-folk political angst of peers hailing from the remotes of Wisconsin and Alabama. No wonder he saw little need to play nicely, by the rules, for he set his own.
Trump’s platform was also unique. In years past, when populists voiced dissent, they did so not only with an angry lilt but also out of real concerns (however exaggerated) about state power, federal policy, and society’s wayward drifts. McCarthy and Wallace’s caustic attacks on a liberalizing state understandably sparked rage, but they also generated debate—about warring ideologies and pressing crises, America’s fragile global standing, competing concepts of leadership and human nature. Ross Perot, the billionaire who challenged the status quo in 1992, also spoke without a filter about the mess in Washington, and the need for someone with real-world experience to clean it up. Yet, however hyperbolic in his delivery, Perot was also a master planner who offered an agenda of political restoration based on principles rooted in the country’s past. For all of his backwoodsy features, he was the architect of a polished manifesto of reform. Such seriousness and sophistication were noticeably absent in Trump’s campaign. With Trump, the real is merely something to tease and distort, and exploit, with a smirk, for sensational effect. So, rather than propose substantive, workable ways of tackling concrete problems, he preferred to deliver wisecracks about opponents’ facial features and menstrual cycles, and run on a platform of personality. The ultimate media creation, he ably demonstrated what politics of any kind looks like when stripped of meaningful context and reduced to random play.3
Yet the GOP’s predicament in 2015 did not stem entirely from the man stirring the political pot. Party incompetence factored in, too. In years past, the logic of Republican Party discipline always proved resilient. In 2012, GOP power brokers weeded out the Herbert Cains and Michelle Bachmanns among them and leaned on the predictable Mitt Romney for their White House run. Striking during the GOP’s 2015 season of tumult was the absence of this initiative. Even as Graham lashed out, many of his counterparts adopted Trump’s methods, and courted attention by way of the outrageous. Meanwhile, the party brass seemed powerless to intervene. This was made crystal clear during related happenings in Congress following Republican House Speaker John Boehner’s resignation and his presumptive replacement Kevin McCarthy’s decision to withdraw from the race. As political reporter Chris Cillizza surmised, these incidents proved that “The establishment’s hold on power is more tenuous than it has been at any time in recent memory.” “That’s a remarkable development,” he added, “since, for decades, the GOP was known as the party that, eventually, got in line.” As another journalist quipped, “D-Day—Donald Day—is upon us and [with it] the comedy gift that’ll keep on giving for a way-too-brief six-to-eight months.” The gift may still be giving many months after that.4
Whatever the case, one can safely say that it is D-Day for the Grand Old Party as it wrestles with its unusual circumstances and an uncertain future. Regardless of whether or when the tsunami of Trump-mania might recede, Republicans as a collective approached the end of 2015 confronting a pivot point in their history, one that the Trump candidacy and unsettling politics illustrated and exploited, not produced.
True, such ruptures are not without antecedents. As Heather Cox Richardson notes, the Republican Party has always grappled with an inherent tension between those who want to promote individual economic opportunity and those who seek to protect property. Under Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, the GOP shifted to the progressive side to protect everyone’s access to the American dream; in the 1880s, 1920s, and 2000s, “backlash within its own ranks” forced it toward the corporate-conservative wing. Following each rightward lean, she adds, has come a “devastating economic crash.” This was the case in 2008 when the GOP’s defense of wealth helped trigger fiscal collapse. Now, seven years after this crisis, Richardson sees a party that for the first time is unable to envision its next transition, or even identify the ideological terrain on which it once stood or should stand. Despite an illustrious past, during which it has wrestled with the challenges of democracy, the GOP in Richardson’s view is a once noble institution that has become a bastion of irrelevance.5
Unprecedented or not, Republicans are, as Richardson rightly stresses, now facing another crossroads in their political existence, this one exceedingly daunting. And although the long-standing internal polarities of the party continue to shape the current crisis, there are other factors in play, all of which are making it more difficult for Republicans to figure out what their party should look like once past 2015’s discord. Viewed at different political altitudes, we can identify at least four factors now contributing to the GOP’s conundrums, ranging from the high atmosphere of ideas and discourses to lower-level fundamentals of branding and mobilization.
A first aspect of the GOP’s struggles is its inability to innovate big-picture ideas. No easy divide between progressives and conservatives, the current GOP is fragmented because of a void in creative thinking. “Ideas matter” is a mantra that first gave life to the Republican Party in the 1850s, and that energized its constituents in the following decades. Between the Eisenhower and Reagan eras, one could count on Republicans to square off over matters of deep intellectual import. Although Democrats rallied people behind agendas of social change, GOPers wrestled with the efficacies of that change, and the epistemological challenges it posed to rooted ways of thought.
Movement conservatives were central to this ideational ferment. At the grassroots, they generated weighty treatises that required citizens to be earnest and rigorous in their ideological commitments. Activist Marie Koenig, for instance, spent most evenings between the 1950s and 1980s reading conservative and liberal publications, clipping and cataloguing essays she deemed key, and stuffing bulging files into overweighted cabinets. For her, politics was a discipline that demanded tireless honing of intellectual skill. The ideas she welcomed most were bold and groundbreaking—forward-looking concepts such as Ronald Reagan’s “creative conservatism,” which she championed as a school-board crusader in California. When she died in 2003 at eighty-four, Koenig had amassed a collection of files that filled two hundred large boxes (housed in the Huntington Library in San Marino). She was one of countless grassroots Republicans immersed in ideas, and determined to make the rank-and-file mind a weapon in pursuit of power.6
Such conviction has less traction among Koenig’s successors; gone is the clipping and cataloguing—and cultivating—witnessed in her generation. This is not to say that the current GOP pool lacks conceptual catchalls. The Princeton/Harvard-trained Ted Cruz likes to draw from Reagan’s notebook when touting his candidacy: “Stick to your principles and win the argument, and winning elections will follow.” Borrowing from the most ambitious concept of the entire twentieth century, Marco Rubio’s campaign seeks to define “A New American Century” and offer an informed perspective needed to govern “a rapidly transforming and innovating America.” Ideas seem to be plentiful in the current GOP, then, yet for the most part, they are derivative of something that has been thought and said before, their authenticity sacrificed for memorability, their depth trimmed to generate the sensational. George Will is not the only leading mind to comment on the GOP’s troubling lack of philosophical depth, but he is among the most colorful when noting the harm done to conservatism and the Republican Party by their abandonment of bold concepts, and kowtowing to the “sulfurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon.”7
Not that Republicans are the only ones suffering from the plight of boilerplate politics, and the limiting of the political mind, but their troubles are self-inflicted on at least two counts. As Daniel Rodgers has written, in the post1960s “age of fracture,” all Americans lost the capacity to conceptualize “society and the self, morality and justice [and] the special world mission of the United States” in big-picture terms. Republicans were not solely to blame for this thinning of American society’s “intellectual resources,” but their rule over this period was consequential. They were the political actors who sanctioned the deregulatory policies that gave economic, cultural, and political fragmentation so much momentum. They were also the political actors who brought a second disruptive force to the political fore: popular media. By 1990, aided by the Federal Communications Commission’s abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine, which had impelled radio stations to maintain politically balanced programming, conservative Republicans were commanding the airwaves, riveting listeners with “attacks on femi-nazis, hatred of affirmative action, [and] scorn for Liberals.” Such strategies were not completely inconsistent with earlier times, when Koenig’s peers propagated John Birch Society screeds. The dawning of a Rush Limbaugh age, however, drew Koenig’s heirs into a new ethos, one that was more encouraging of chatter, less so of rumination. On the surface, the new mediums of talk-show radio and eventually cable television promised to supply conservatives with an advantage in the “war of ideas,” yet in retrospect, they re-framed this struggle as a shouting match, with victory decided by volume. Twenty-five years later, the era’s ultimate media creation, Donald Trump, has turned the titillating promise of the new media into the GOP’s burden.8
A second reason for the GOP’s struggles is its lost command of familiar culture-war discourses. Rooted in the 1960s, and the dizzying debates over American identity, moral authority, and secularization that followed, the culture wars were a true clash of competing world views. This struggle, energized by hot-button issues of gender, sexuality, and “family values,” gave Republicans a raison d’être for concerted action. Pat Buchanan seized upon this during his 1992 campaign when he declared that his allies were embroiled in “a war for the soul of America . . . as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” In so doing, Buchanan skillfully turned multi-faceted, and at times discordant struggles into a unifying motif, one that could supply inordinate motivation for revolt.9
Conservatives rode this motif to new political heights by century’s end, yet as they approach 2016, the culture wars seem to have run their course. As Andrew Hartman writes, although “the culture wars have left lingering residues,” insofar as they continue to be fought in the twenty-first century, “they feel less poignant and more farcical.” Why? In some sense, conservatives have won the day by shaping the terms of political acceptance. Despite their bold assault on normative America during the 1960s, liberal activists have given in to conservative-friendly constraints. So it is that gay liberation has morphed into a struggle over access to the traditional institution of marriage. At the same time, and more significantly, conservatives have seen their battle cries for traditional values muted by a rapidly diversifying society eager to move past old binaries and values now deemed passé. Recent state-level battles over religious freedom protection laws, for instance, have revealed widening fissures within Republican business circles between big business, which leans libertarian, and small business, which often seeks to uphold social conservative values. Much to the chagrin of the latter, gay marriage now seems like corporate America’s cause, too. Finally, even a long-standing stronghold of culture-war activism, evangelical Protestantism, has become divided (if still slightly) in its willingness to fight. Rejecting some of the certainties of their Cold War/ Culture War parents and grandparents, an increased percentage of young evangelicals have decided that they would rather be warring for wider universal concerns of Earth care and economic justice than against gay rights.10
To be sure, some of the traditional battle lines remain unbroken, some of the warring parties unfazed. One of the most striking moments in the GOP candidates’ debate on September 16, 2015 came when the party’s only female campaigner, Carly Fiorina, denounced Planned Parenthood and raised another impassioned plea for Republicans to fight abortion. “This is about the character of our nation, and if we will not stand up and force President Obama to veto this bill, shame on us.” It is likely that this remnant of an enduring existential struggle will assume even more import to Republicans as they desperately seek to rally their troops behind a proverbial cry for traditional American values. But their options on this plane are diminishing, for the culture wars have largely succumbed to stalemate.11
The GOP is struggling on yet a third altitude, that which concerns the brass tacks of uniting constituents behind a potent political brand. In the aftermath of Boehner’s and McCarthy’s retreats from House leadership and Donald Trump’s continued success, Chris Cillizza noted that the Republican Party was embroiled in “full-blown . . . revolution. . . . There is no one currently in office that can claim with any credibility that he or she speaks ‘for’ the party as a whole.” The lack of coherence to the GOP field is not only striking but also problematic, at least for anyone seeking to coordinate a run in 2016. By October of 2015, fifteen people remained in the race for the GOP’s presidential ticket, all spread out over a field that was more of a smorgasbord of political samplings than a left-right continuum of clear-cut positions. Nate Silver’s assessment of early January, 2015 still held true by October: far “more complex than a simple left-right spectrum would imply,” the GOP was more of a “five-ring circus,” with a vague cluster of constituencies (“Moderate,” “Libertarian,” “Establishment,” “Tea Party,” “Christian Conservative”) overlapping and clouding one another in their quest for control. If the Republican Party were undergoing a revolution, then its point of comparison would be the French version, with multiple interests vying for power amid relentless confusion.12
Overcoming these incongruities remains one of the greatest challenges going forward for the GOP. Writing in the National Review, Michael Barone states it succinctly: while Democrats act “like a regimented army,” Republicans “act like an unruly mob.” Whereas the former “support their officeholders with lockstep loyalty and seem untroubled by the serious flaws of their party’s front-runner,” the latter seethe with “discontent toward their party’s officeholders” and candidates. It is too easy to blame this condition on the Tea Party and Christian Conservative factions, although their influence has clearly been felt. Eager to “sniff out” any politician who does not hold firm to their doctrines of traditional social values, limited government, and tax reduction, members of these intersecting constituencies have wreaked havoc when they have deemed it necessary, be it in the Republican House, on party leadership, or in opposition to the GOP’s moderate and establishment wings, represented by Chris Christie and Jeb Bush. Just as troubling, though, is the absence of a strong, “electable” candidate who seems prepared to occupy space in the middle of the five clusters and calibrate to many (if not all) Republican spheres without getting boxed in, or discarded—space that Mitt Romney occupied in 2012.13
Granted, it will not be surprising if 2012 patterns ultimately hold again as the GOP works through the higher-stake struggles of 2016: Bush may very well become the next Romney. Indeed, although he was entrenched at the bottom of fall polls entering October, Bush remained ahead in another telling statistic: the number of endorsements received from influential GOPers. As Aaron Bycoffe explains, just as important to primary season is the “invisible primary” among party elites who “seek to coalesce around the candidates they find most acceptable.” As one of the clearest indicators of future victory, Bush’s swift acquisition of endorsements suggests that his victory may not be completely farfetched. Yet even if his victory occurs, what seemed apparent by the end of 2015 is that more than ever, Republicans were unable to shake the systemic failings of their current order. Embroiled in infighting and a decentering politics of discontent, many chose a fallback route by rallying against things (open immigration, compromise with Iran, gay marriage) rather than for a set package of forward-looking priorities. Others simply turned to Trump—a no-nonsense, business hero with the ability to dabble in all five Republican camps, with little long-term accountability—as their elixir for troubling times.
If Republicans have lost some of the traction that bold ideas, culture-war battle lines, and in-party consistencies once supplied them, they have also lost sight of new political frontiers. As Richardson stresses, since its very founding, the GOP has always counted on expanding frontiers as a way to work out its internal tensions, imagine new beginnings, and connect its ideals to a spirit of advancing borders. For the longest time, it was the West that served as this “land of promise,” then it was the South. Although place usually embodied this hope, recently, it has been people who have assumed this significance.14
For two generations, evangelical Protestants provided Republicans with the necessary room to grow. Much of the energy behind the culture wars that defined the GOP during the Reagan-Bush years was evangelical-made. Yet, like the culture wars, evangelicalism is itself at a point of political exhaustion. As Steven Miller astutely writes, from the “born again years” of the 1970s to 2008, Americans lived in an “Age of Evangelicalism,” during which evangelicals enjoyed unmatched political cachet. Yet by 2012, their reserve of influence was spent: veteran culture warriors were passing, young people were turning liberal, and disquieted leaders “weary of spectacles and wary of stereotypes” were busy disentangling evangelicalism “from the very culture that had given it resonance.” As a result, evangelicalism hardly mattered at the polls. Despite the outspokenness of its hard-core base, and desperate maneuvering for a leader that will stand up for its values, the movement remains strong enough to dictate the primaries but too fractured and weak to determine the next election’s outcome.15
Barring a massive evangelical Republican revival, then, it is two other groups—Latinos and women—that represent the GOP’s next frontier. This is well documented, of course, and a running theme in the Republicans’ lead-up to 2016. And this is why Trump-mania has been as frustrating to Republican stalwarts such as Lindsey Graham as it has been a window onto the troubles unsettling his political home. Since his spat with Trump began, Graham has made it clear that any marriage with the billionaire will put the GOP’s future in question. “We have two problems: we’ve got a problem with Hispanics, and we’ve got a problem with women,” he has insisted. And because of Trump, “I think we’re digging a hole for both.”
As evidenced in the second Republican debate in mid-September, Graham’s fellow Republicans seemed to be getting the message. While ganging up on Trump, the GOP’s most direct links to its targeted frontiers—Carly Fiorina to women, Marco Rubio to Latinos— also shined on their own as possible leading lights in the campaign’s next cycle. Occupying space in the “Establishment” loop of the GOP’s “five-ring circus,” closest to the borders of Libertarian, Tea Party, and even Christian Conservative camps, it could be that these two candidates, Rubio especially, hold the trump cards, and the keys to any step forward for the GOP, if not entirely out of its vexing and lingering quagmire, then at least to competitive standing in the 2016 polls.16
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.
- Maggie Haberman, “In Exchange of Fire, Donald Trump Has Lindsey Graham’s Number,” New York Times, July 21, 2015, available at www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/07/21/ in-exchange-of-fire-donald-trump-has-lindsey-grahams-number/?_r=0; Jennifer Jacobs, “Graham: How Trump’s ‘Eventual Undoing’ Will Play Out,” The Des Moines Register, August 18, 2015, available at www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/elections/presidential/ caucus/2015/08/18/graham-how-trumps-eventual-undoing-play-out/31878831/; Reid J. Epstein, “Donald Trump Laps Rivals in South Carolina Poll, Mocks Lindsey Graham,” The Wall Street Journal, August 25, 2015, available at blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2015/08/25/ donald-trump-laps-rivals-in-south-carolinapoll-mocks-lindsey-graham/.
- Bob Cesca, “Donald Trump Is about to Prove What a Joke the Republican Primary Is,” Salon, June 16, 2015, available at www.salon. com/2015/06/16/donald_trump_is_about_to_ prove_what_a_joke_the_republican_primary_is/.+
- John Dickerson, “Donald Trump Isn’t Another Ross Perot,” Slate, September 9, 2015, available at www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2015/09/donald_trump_isn_t_another_ross_ perot_the_two_billionaires_are_actually.html.
- Aaron Bycoffe, “The Endorsement Primary,” FiveThirtyEight, October 7, 2015, available at http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/2016endorsement-primary/; Chris Cillizza, “Kevin McCarthy’s Implosion Signals a Full-Blown Republican Revolution,” Washington Post, October 8, 2015, available at www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/10/08/ kevin-mccarthys-implosion-signals-thatrepublicans-have-a-revolution-on-their-hands/; Cesca, “Donald Trump Is about to Prove.”
- Heather Cox Richardson, To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party (New York: Basic Books, 2014), x-xi, xviii, 340-41.
- Larry Gordon, “A Conservative’s Mother Lode,” Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2007, available at http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jul/07/ local/me-koenig7.
- Matt Viser, “Harvard Law Outsider Became Tea Party Hero,” Boston Globe, November 10, 2013; Sopan Deb, Marco Rubio: “We Need a New President for a New Age,” CBS News, July 7, 2015, available at www.cbsnews.com/ news/marco-rubio-we-need-a-new-presidentfor-a-new-age/; George F. Will, “The Havoc that Trump Wreaks,” National Post, August 27, 2015, available at www.washingtonpost.com/ opinions/the-havoc-that-donald-trump-wreaks-on-his-own-party/2015/08/26/7418c2c8-4b4c11e5-84df-923b3ef1a64b_story.html.
- Daniel T. Rodgers, Age of Fracture (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011), 2-3, 10. Richardson, To Make Men Free, 301.
- Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 1-2.
- Hartman, A War for the Soul of America, 28990; Harry Bruinius, “Millennial Evangelicals Push for Full Inclusion of LGBT Christians,” Christian Science Monitor, February 20, 2015, available at www.csmonitor.com/ USA/2015/0220/Millennial-Evangelicals-pushfor-full-inclusion-of-LGBT-Christians.
- Jeremy W. Peters, “Carly Fiorina Gains Traction in Debate, Helping G.O.P. Reach Out to Women,” New York Times, September 17, 2015, available at www.nytimes.com/2015/09/18/us/ politics/carly-fiorina-gains-traction-in-debateand-republicans-may-seize-on-her-appeal.html.
- Cillizza, “Kevin McCarthy’s Implosion”; Nate Silver, “Romney and the GOP’s Five-Ring Circus,” FiveThirtyEight, January 12, 2015, Available at http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/ romney-and-the-gops-five-ring-circus/.
- Michael Barone, “Republicans Act Like an Unruly Mob, Democrats Like a Regimented Army,” National Review, July 31, 2015, available at www.washingtonexaminer.com/asymmetrical-politics-republicans-act-like-an-unrulymob-democrats-like-a-regimented-army/ article/2569198.
- Richardson, To Make Men Free, 1.
- Steven Miller, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 162-63.
- Jacobs, “Graham”; Silver, “Romney”; David A. Fahrenthold, “Lindsey Graham Tops the Undercard Debate, but Donald Trump Dominates,” Washington Post, September 17, 2015, available at www.washingtonpost.com/ politics/lindsey-graham-tops-the-undercarddebate-but-donald-trump-dominates/2015/09/ 16/7d7cc84c-5c8f-11e5-8e9e-dce8a2a2a679_ story.html.