In early 2015, well before Donald Trump was a blip on the radar screen, a friend asked me to contribute an article to a Constitution Party newsletter, so I happily obliged. The article was entitled “Needed: a Real Country Party,” but because of the nature of the venue it was never made available for wide public viewing. I am currently working on an update of that article because I believe it helps explain why Donald Trump and Trumpism have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams (or nightmares) of the political and pundit class.
Because of the momentous nature of the Trump nomination and the resonance of his acceptance speech with much of the Republican base, I wanted to respond to the moment and briefly explain my thesis while I work on updating the larger article.
America is not a two party system (at the national level) by design. In fact, the Framers were very leery of parties, but despite their leeriness, almost from the start two party politics became the rule and has remained so, with few exceptions, until today. While the Framers didn’t intend a two party system, our general system of first past the goal post winner take all, as opposed to the proportional representation of parliamentary systems, for example, lends itself to the formation of two broad coalition parties. Much has changed in America since the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, but the dominance of two political parties has remained very stable, and since the election of Lincoln in 1860, those two parties have been, for better or for worse, the Democrat and Republican Parties.
Today, while we generally view our modern two parties along a left right spectrum with a liberal party and a conservative party, this has not always been the dominant way the two sides were conceived. The modern popular conceptualization of a liberal party vs. a conservative party became a greater part of the public consciousness post WWII and had a lot to do with the right framing itself in opposition to global Communism and Socialism. While there is clearly some utility in this framing, and I don’t deny that left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative is an important political dimension, especially after years of catechization by the media, politicians and the commentariate, it starts to break down under closer scrutiny. Much of the rhetoric and policy goals of what today constitutes conservatism is not actually all that conservative, and even less right-wing, by philosophical and historical standards, but that is for another day.
It is perhaps more useful to view modern American politics along a different axis. Historically the two broad coalition parties can be conceived of as a Country Party and a Court Party or City Party if you prefer linguistic balance. Since it first came to prominence and inherited the mantel of the Whig Party and for most of its history, the Republican Party has been the Court Party and in the same time frame the Democrat Party has been the Country Party. These parties were not so much ideological parties as they were broad coalition parties of different regions, groups and factions that had overlapping interests.
I’ll leave it to my longer article to expound on this more, but what has happened since the 1960’s, give or take, is that the demographic bases of the two parties have to a large degree switched. Demographically speaking, the Democrat Party is now the City Party and the Republican Party is now the Country Party. The Blue cities and Red country maps that make the rounds after every Presidential election illustrate this perfectly.
The Democrat Party has adapted to its new reality much better than has the GOP and to a greater degree advocates for policies that are broadly supported by its voter base. The chronic problem the Republican Party has had since this shift in its demographic bases came about, is that it, at the organizational level, has failed (or refused) to understand and adapt to the reality of its new voter base. Surveys consistently show that while identification with either party is declining, that self-identified Democrats are happier with their party than are self-identified Republicans.
While some getting used to this change is to be expected, the Republican Party is unmistakably now the Country Party and has been for many cycles, but the Establishment of the Republican Party still acts as if it is the Court Party. Whether they are oblivious to the mismatch or just don’t want to admit it, is an interesting question. I suspect it is some of both, but the gaping divide between the country base of the GOP and the court pretensions of its Establishment is precisely what Donald Trump has been able to exploit.
This mismatch has long been most obvious on the issues of immigration and trade. Immigration does not benefit the average Flyover Country resident who faces greater competition for jobs, witnesses the character of his neighborhood change, deals with increased levels of crime, and foots the bill for increased utilization of social welfare services. But it does benefit the Court class, who happen to live in toney zip codes shielded from the effects, in the form of cheap and easily exploited labor. On trade, survey data has long revealed that self-identified Republicans are more skeptical of trade deals than are self-identified Democrats despite the characterization of the GOP as the party of business and free-trade and the Democrat Party as the party of labor and the working man. This has been true since at least NAFTA in the early 90’s.
There are more issues that separate the GOP’s court establishment from its country base and there is more to the Trump phenomenon than just issues, but it is the issues of immigration and trade and an overall vibe of looking out for Middle America that allowed Trump to so clearly separate himself from the pack.
What makes Trump’s ascendance so remarkable is that it has transformed in one fell swoop the institutional Republican Party, much to the dismay of the Court and their ideological enablers in Conservative Inc., into the Country Party that it has long been based on the demographics of those who actually vote for it. Trump’s acceptance speech was full of red meat on immigration and trade with a heavy helping of law and order and had very little of the familiar Court Party calls for cutting the capital gains tax rate or marginal rates for the wealthy and boilerplate about “energizing” the economy, all of which ring hollow to folks in Flyover Country who are struggling paycheck to paycheck and worrying about their jobs. Trump spoke to their concerns by speaking in terms of protecting the economy from predation and restoring it to its former glory, not happy talk about a rising tide floating all boats.
There is no guarantee that this transformation is going to entirely stick, especially if Trump loses in November, but this dynamic was already starting to manifest independent of Trump and looks to continue into the future. Dave Brat’s stunning defeat of Eric Cantor was based largely on capitalizing on this court vs country disconnect, and Court Party representative extraordinaire, House Speaker Paul Ryan, is facing a very serious primary challenge from a candidate who is running hard against the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and immigration. During the presidential primary race, Ted Cruz, among others, renounced their previous support for Fast Track and TPP as they picked up on how toxic those issues were with the base. Cruz even threw in some red meat on trade in his Convention speech. This from a guy who once co-authored with Paul Ryan a Wall Street Journal editorial in favor of Fast Track.
Whether the transformation of the GOP into the Country Party is complete remains to be seen, but to at least some degree, I don’t think there is any going back. The full blown Court Party is no more. Trump’s acceptance speech drove a stake into its heart.