Most political scientists and journalists got the rise of Donald Trump all wrong. I confidently told friends that political parties don’t commit suicide (how could I have forgotten the Whigs in the 1850s?); I get reminded of that line a lot. But it’s worth reflecting on what went wrong and to turn to one political scientist who saw the danger of Trump all along: Norman Ornstein of American Enterprise Institute, recently interviewed by Andrew Prokop of Vox.
Many of us fell into promoting the thesis of The Party Decides, the book that argues that party “intense policy demanders” in office and out govern the nomination process. It’s an excellent book and folks like me might have relied on the thesis too much, without giving sufficient attention to the entirety of a sophisticated work. For instance, the party will ordinarily decide if the intense policy demanders can agree on a candidate, and if the party is not too weak to stop an undesirable candidate. Neither of those things happened this year. The party never coalesced around a candidate to stop Trump, and the national Republican Party is in disarray.
There was group think involved, and I was part of it. You’d think someone who experienced the Black Swan that was Scott Brown in 2010 would have had more respect for improbable but not impossible events, but I didn’t.
Saying the party didn’t coalesce and was weak isn’t enough though, and Ornstein was unusually well-positioned to explain the GOP’s debility. Along with Thomas Mann of Brookings, he is co-author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, the fascinating book on the extremism that has come to dominate the Republican Party nationally. So he’s been carefully studying the descent of the GOP.
The largest element in the collapse of the establishment and rise of Trump, Ornstein contends, is: “[I}f you forced me to pick one factor explaining what's happened, I would say this is a self-inflicted wound by Republican leaders.”
The GOP leadership has delegitimized government, played to the nativist element, and catered to the fringe elements of talk radio and cable television. They’ve characterized Democrats not just as opponents but as subversives and corrupt. They’ve attacked President Obama relentlessly but failed to keep promises made to Tea Partiers, while slavishly attending to the needs of their wealthy patrons. Trump has taken advantage of all of this – exploiting nativist sentiment against immigrants, Latinos and Muslims, while promising to restore working class prosperity. Newt Gingrich, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, take your pick – they all thought they could bait this tiger and ride it, and they are all being consumed by it. Of the recruits to the Gingrich Revolution of 1994, Ornstein says “The problem is that all the people he recruited to come in really believed that shit. They all came in believing that Washington was a cesspool. So what followed has been a very deliberate attempt to blow up and delegitimize government . . . .”
That is no way to govern and government has failed. So why not Trump instead of these idiots?
Ornstein says Trump has less policy knowledge about domestic and international affairs than any candidate of the past fifty years, including the comedian Pat Paulsen. But Trump could win the General Election. Ornstein puts that at twenty percent odds – not a great chance, but not insignificant.
Whatever happens it won’t be easy to put the GOP back together again. Ornstein sees three components to the party: a populist anti-establishment and anti-leadership component represented by Trump. Then there is the radical and irresponsible part represented by Ted Cruz and the Freedom Caucus. Finally, establishment leadership like Ryan and McConnell, deeply conservative but also ruthlessly pragmatic about getting and keeping power.
I know I’ll be paying more attention to Ornstein this election season.