The Keynote Speaker at the 2016 Republican Convention was Willie Robertson, star of Duck Dynasty, a reality TV show about his duck-call business. His selection tells us a lot about the Republican Party’s transformation since the year 2000 when the Keynote Speakers were John McCain and Colin Powell. Rudy Giuliani was given the honor of personifying the GOP in 2008. In 2012, Chris Christie was the chosen one. The demographic data of Trump voters were used, in the manner of TV ratings, to identify a public figure who most precisely matched the characteristics of Republicans who voted for Trump in the Primaries. And so it was that that a bush-bearded avid hunter and outspoken Christian foe of federal government from rural Louisiana was selected to represent the GOP.
I was heartened by this morning’s poll numbers, which make Hillary Clinton a 3 to 1 favorite to win the election. If these predictions prove accurate, the fallout from the election, the implosion of the Republican Party, will influence our politics long after Election Day. With luck, Donald Trump’s candidacy will be relegated to that special place called the trash bin of history. But the story by no means ends with this election. Many Americans who identified themselves as Republicans before 2016 will struggle to feel at home in Willie Robertson’s GOP, but there probably aren’t enough of them to be the foundation of a viable national party. Nor are there enough Trumpists like Willie Robertson to win a national election. If Republicans can’t establish a workable coalition, and given the increasing electoral clout of everyone other than people like Willie Robertson, the GOP’s future as a national party is bleak.
In some respects, the disintegration of the Republican Party is a good thing, an example of democracy in action. As the country changes, so too must the two political parties. Apparently, the Republican Establishment lost touch with ordinary white folk who rejected their leadership and voted for an anti-Establishment candidate. That’s how the system’s supposed to work. But we are looking at the prospect of one-party rule in a two-party system, and that’s not how the system’s supposed to work. Even after the Civil War, we had two effective national Parties.
Optimistically, a more effective Republican Party will somehow emerge from the rubble. Intelligent Republicans like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and John McCain are not supporting Trump because they want him to be President. Their lukewarm endorsements are meant to ensure that they will still have standing in the Party after the predicted 2016 disaster. They survived the 2010 Tea Party insurgency by allowing the nativist right-wing to block all Democratic legislation while holding onto their elected offices. They might attempt a similar strategy with the even more vociferous Trumpists. They might see no other option but to try, even if their majority in the House is diminished by 2016 down-ballot losses.
The Republican Establishment will tell the Party, “You didn’t listen to us in 2016, so you’d be well advised to heed our counsel in 2020.” But what will they counsel? What ideas do they have to offer alienated people whose political identities are so specifically cultural? Can such voters be wooed by a message of multi-cultural centrism?
One possibility, in the aftermath, might be abandonment of legislative obstructionism as a political strategy. The Republican Establishment might conclude that they lost the loyalty of many rank and file voters in spite of the fact that McConnell, Boehner and Ryan were able to block Democratic legislation. Their strategy encouraged the un-white Democratic President to use Executive powers, further demonstrating the ineffectual character of the Republican Establishment. I hope that they will counsel a different, more cooperative legislative strategy, one that would demonstrate to the disaffected Trumpists that they have some value. A working Congress would come as a very welcome change. It might be the only way to save the Republican Party.
I believe that the Republican Party’s response to this election, should they lose, will be as significant as the Democratic victory. I am concerned that the defeated party will try to survive by more Congressional obstructionism. And I worry that an angry Trump fringe might forsake elections for insurrections. It’s a fear based on the depth of feeling and the extent to which the love of guns, as personified by Willie Robertson, has taken hold among so many alienated white people. He opened his brief speech to the Republican Convention with a prayer to Jesus to keep his family safe in troubling times. If I was the praying sort, I’d ask for the blessing of wisdom to be bestowed upon the leadership of the Republican Party.