Image credit: Javier Zarracina / Vox
Will the GOP remain the party of Trump post-2016?
You may think the Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war.
You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
If Donald Trump loses the election next week, “there will be a lot of blood left on the floor between November and the 2020 primaries,” predicts GOP consultant John Weaver, who advised John Kasich’s campaign.
For all the attention on the fights between Trump and a faction of Republicans who have refused to support him, most GOP elected officials have so far taken the path of least resistance. They’ve supported their party’s nominee, even if they’re not thrilled about him.
These Republicans — from Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Reince Priebus to Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and many others — have calculated that since Trump was the nominee chosen by Republican voters, and the only person standing in between Hillary Clinton and the presidency, they should stand by him.
Should Trump lose on Election Day, though, many Republicans will want to say “I told you so” and turn the page on the Trump experiment, returning to a more generic Republicanism that they see as a better vote-getter and a more substantively defensible ideology. And to discredit Trumpism, they’ll make the case that Trump is to blame for his defeat — that he blew what should have been a winnable election for Republicans.
Many of Trump’s most passionate supporters won’t see it that way at all, though. They’re being primed to see a candidate betrayed by an out-of-touch establishment that is compromised by its social and economic ties to a cosmopolitan elite. So if Trump loses, his backers will try to turn grassroots disappointment at his defeat into grassroots rage against Republicans who were insufficiently supportive, thus leveraging their own way into power. (If he wins, the party will face a whole different set of issues.)
Before the next presidential cycle, this war will be fought in the media, in Congress, in primaries, and for the hearts and minds of Republican politicians. And strikingly, even many Trump critics in the GOP are already concluding that the party had previously failed to satisfy the concerns of his strongest supporters, who aren’t going anywhere and must therefore be accommodated somehow — for primary politics if for no other reason.
But others are sounding the alarm that if Republicans continue down the path of white identity politics, they’ll drive nonwhite voters and young voters away from the party for decades to come — and put a presidential election victory even further out of reach.
“That is the existential threat to the party,” says Tim Miller, a former Jeb Bush staffer and a fierce critic of Trump. “Some candidates and elected officials will want to go down the Trump path, in ways that viscerally turn off young voters and minorities, because there would be short-term gain.”
“And if that faction wins out,” Miller continues, “the party is going to die.”
Battleground No. 1: The media (or, the “conservative entertainment complex”)
Stephen Bannon, Trump campaign CEO, currently on leave from running Breitbart. Paul Marotta/Getty Images for SiriusXM
When you ask around about who should get the blame for Trump’s rise, the media is usually high on the list. And while many conservatives like to gripe about the endless coverage the mainstream media gave to Trump, others tend to acknowledge that a more serious problem lies within their own shop.
“There is no autopsy this year that does not include dealing with the right-wing media,” conservative talk radio host Charlie Sykes, a Trump critic, told Business Insider’s Oliver Darcy and Pamela Engel. “There is none.”
The problem, as establishment-oriented and even some staunchly conservative Republicans see it, goes beyond Trump. Right-wing media outlets have grown increasingly willing to whip the GOP base into a frenzy with fact-free nonsense — and even mainstream Republican politicians have often been unable or unwilling to resist their demands.
Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s 2008 campaign, dubs this “the conservative entertainment complex.” It “has become the tail that wags the dog that Washington leaders, policymakers, and conservative leaders are terrified of,” he says.
The complex’s leading members include many Fox News commentators (especially Sean Hannity), talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, and leading online outlets like the Drudge Report and Breitbart. And it soon may include Donald Trump himself, if reports that he’s looking to participate in a post-election media venture of some kind pan out.
For years, commentators and media outlets like these have loomed large over the Republican Party’s messaging and policy priorities. “I’ve seen with my own eyes conservative leaders alter their message and public priorities in response to Fox’s demands,” David French writes at National Review. Talk radio hosts and outlets like Breitbart would frequently give Republican leaders heartburn by denouncing them as not conservative enough, or as unwilling to truly fight against Obama.
But when Trump rose, most of these personalities either enabled him or actively promoted him, despite his lack of conventional conservative credentials. Some, like Hannity, have become particularly fawning backers. As in the Republican Party writ large, some of these commentators will likely turn against Trump if he does lose big to Clinton.
Others won’t. If Clinton wins, Hannity has said, he will try to make sure that conservative critics of Trump would get the blame. And Breitbart in particular has positioned itself as not just a pro-Trump website, but as one that will continue to stand up against “globalism,” offer friendly coverage of the “alt-right,” and denounce Republican leaders it deems to be sellouts — like Paul Ryan — after the election. (Not-so-coincidentally, Breitbart chief Steve Bannon became the Trump campaign’s CEO in August.)
There’s a fundamental discrepancy in incentives between Republican leaders, who want to win the presidency and need to win over swing voters to do so, and the right-wing media, which wants to stoke outrage and appeal primarily to the faithful.
“We’ve got this online media where the profits are driven by controversy and clicks,” says Sarah Rumpf, a former Breitbart contributing writer who’s joined Evan McMullin’s presidential campaign this year out of disgust for Trump. “It’s just an activism problem in general, where it’s easier to fundraise and easier to get members when you can declare an emergency, when you can declare a crisis, when you can identity an enemy.”
So there’s a growing sense among anti-Trump Republicans that, in some way, the power of these media outlets must be challenged — that their incentives have developed in a way that’s fundamentally incompatible with the Republican Party’s electoral success in presidential years. “I think there will be some effort with certain elements of the conservative media, with the talk radio folks, that there will be some effort to at least try to come to terms with that, and to try to some extent reduce that influence,” says GOP consultant Patrick Ruffini.
How would this happen? “You can put pressure on advertisers and corporations that run them,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak said to Darcy and Engel. “Someone needs to be making sure that if you want to go open $50,000 [in ads] on Breitbart … that you get a phone call that follows that up and makes clear you’re not helping.” And Ruffini mused to me, speaking hypothetically, that perhaps conservative institutions and organizations like CPAC might end up trying to disassociate themselves from media outlets like Breitbart.
Still, the problem here is that these commentators and media outlets get their influence because they can get ratings and clicks — and behind those ratings and clicks are actual people attracted to that content. Breitbart has set traffic records this year as it’s championed Trump when other conservative websites wouldn’t. Hannity recently bragged that his show “pays the bills” for Fox.
In many cases, these hosts are deliberately delivering what their viewers want, as Robert Draper recently concluded in a New York Times magazine feature. And when some big-name conservative commentators have ended up criticizing Trump, they’ve been subjected to intense backlash from his fans, as Fox’s Megyn Kelly and Redstate’s Erick Erickson were.
“There’s clearly a market for Trumpism,” says Schmidt. “So anywhere there’s opportunity to communicate to a sizable market, there’s gonna be people doing it.” Indeed, even if the biggest names abandon Trump, he could still have conspiracy theorist Alex Jones in his corner, plus the newly-minted pundits have sprung up supporting Trump this year and the legions of websites that post false pro-Trump content optimized to go viral on Facebook.
Breitbart in particular seems set on establishing itself as the home for Trumpism after the election, whether Bannon and Trump end up going into business together or not. “I think what you’re gonna see,” Schmidt predicted to me, “is Steve Bannon monetizing 30 percent of the electorate into a UKIP-style movement and a billion-dollar media business.”
Bannon himself was nearly as blunt to Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Green and Sasha Issenberg, saying the Trump campaign had built “the underlying apparatus for a political movement that’s going to propel us to victory on Nov. 8 and dominate Republican politics after that.”
We’ll see about the “victory” part in a week, but Bannon is suggesting that his post-election ambitions will be very big indeed — and that he doesn’t want to stop with merely getting more clicks and making more money. He wants to transform the GOP.
Battleground No. 2: Congress (and Paul Ryan’s future)
Photo Desk / AFP / Getty
Except for the 2016 presidential primary, the most vicious internecine Republican Party fights in the past few years have been fought in Congress — and, in particular, in the House of Representatives.
And the rising bad blood between Speaker Paul Ryan and Trump’s biggest supporters suggests many more of these fights are still to come.