Especially in the wake of the president’s impeachment, observers on both sides of the Great Trump Divide are asking themselves, “How did we get here?” or “How did it come to this?” It's an appropriate topic for a semester-long course.
Hyper-partisanship and tribalism are two-way streets, but more attention now is focused rightly on the Republican side, given the enormous changes within the once-hidebound GOP. President Trump routinely gets approval ratings among Republicans in the 85-to-90-percent range; in fact, many have far more allegiance to him, a relative newcomer to the GOP, than to the party itself. When registered voters who were either Republicans or GOP-leaning independents were asked in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll whether they were supporters more of Donald Trump or of the Republican Party, 48 percent said they were more aligned with Trump, while 40 percent said the Republican Party. For many, this is his party. What's more remarkable is that until six or seven years ago, Trump was never seen as particularly conservative, or even Republican; he was a regular donor to many New York Democrats and had reportedly changed party affiliations five times over the years, most recently becoming a Republican in 2009.
The roots of this metamorphosis go back decades. We first saw a gradual pivot within the GOP in Ronald Reagan’s challenge to President Ford in 1976, as conservative outsiders challenged the reigning—and far more centrist—party elites. In the late 1980s and early 1990s we saw Rush Limbaugh and a parade of Limbaugh wannabes take over the radio from coast to coast. These were a new form of powerful political brokers, not in back rooms but on the airwaves. While certainly conservative, this new anti-Washington, anti-business-as-usual movement didn’t spare conventional Republicans from criticism. Indeed, the GOP power brokers of old often became useful foils. Old-time Republican congressional leaders who worked with Democrats were seen as collaborating with the enemy, akin to how the Vichy government was seen by the Free French in World War II. It had been a party of rule followers, but now conservatives were beginning to reject their traditional leaders and go the opposite direction.
A young Republican House member, Newt Gingrich, led an ethics attack on Democratic Speaker Jim Wright, and by inference, a generation of established Republican leaders who belonged to the get-along-go-along club. The fire lit by Gingrich found an accelerant in twin House Bank and House Post Office scandals, ensnaring members of Congress in both parties and ending plenty of careers. Gingrich’s destabilization of the entrenched old guard ultimately led to the 1994 Republican takeover of the House, which had been under Democratic control for 40 years.
Bill Clinton’s election to the White House gave these firebrands another round of kindling, with the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals, leading to the last House impeachment of a president pushed largely by one party. This rising movement was not afraid of a fight.
It was this antiestablishment movement among conservatives that later morphed into the tea party and ultimately led into the rise of Trump, who vanquished not only traditional Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, but also those with impeccable conservative credentials like Ted Cruz. Some kind of animosity had been created within the GOP against its establishment, something far beyond anything that Reagan would have recognized.
Though Reagan became the biggest hero for the Republican Party and the conservative movement in the second half of the 20th century, his record was far from everything conservatives wanted.
Many conservatives had low expectations for George H.W. Bush. They sensed that he was not really one of them; his addition to the 1980 ticket was a concession Reagan had made to win the election. And though his son George W. Bush was also from a conventional, Brahmin Republican family, many conservative ideologues had more hope for him, but there seemed to be a creeping disillusionment among them during 43’s eight years, particularly over mounting deficits and the size of government. In some cases, the Iraq War fed into this disfavor, creating a growing isolationism within the GOP that ended up helping Trump and his America First agenda.
What will the Republican Party look like five years after Trump leaves Washington—whether that meter starts in January 2021 or 2025? The old Republican Party was based in the suburbs, with a college-educated base. But the heart of the GOP right now, as both polls and actual election results attest, is moving to small towns and rural areas, toward working-class whites, those who feel they have been left behind—previously arguments that Democrats had made. It would be inaccurate to say that there is a struggle for the heart and soul of the GOP, because any such conflict, to the extent it exists, is below the surface—far below. We will be watching this for years to come, as it will affect what the Democratic Party looks like as well.