Barring an unprecedented collapse at the finish line, Hillary Clinton is about to make history as the next President of the United States. Democrats are a better-than-even bet to take the Senate and have a small outside shot at the heavily-gerrymandered House. Even deep-red states like Arizona and Utah are in play.
After this wretched 18-month root canal of a campaign, during which the terms of our national civic dialogue were set mainly by Donald Trump’s toxic Twitter feed, there is a certain grim satisfaction in watching the GOP dramatically implode. Never has a party more richly earned and deserved defeat, and Democrats can be forgiven a little gleeful anticipation in the home stretch.
But we are wrong to take pleasure or solace in the Republican collapse, because the GOP’s grave illness will continue posing a frightening risk to American institutions long after November 8th. When one of America’s two major political parties rejects the norms of liberal democracy, then liberal democracy itself is threatened.
The origins of the GOP’s illness are no mystery. For two generations, the Republican elite treated their alt-right, white nationalist supporters like a restive racehorse to be ridden to victory and then sent to munch on oats in the stable between elections. Meanwhile, the jockey enjoyed cocktails in the clubhouse. If you spend years stoking racial populism to scare up votes, while simultaneously pursuing high-end tax cuts, free trade agreements, and entitlement reductions, don’t be surprised when your political coalition turns angry and unstable.
Trump has been a catalyzing agent. Upending this whole cynical game in spectacular fashion, he exposed the agenda of the Republican elite as completely lacking mass support and exposed the Republican elites themselves as outnumbered by (and politically non-competitive without) their white nationalist base. Indeed, more than just exposing, Trump has inverted the relationship. The horse has become the rider. This fully explains the neutered paralysis of top GOP officeholders, who privately acknowledge that Trump is an unqualified monster, yet cannot disengage from him.
By openly presenting to the world a face that repels a whole lot of people in the political middle, Republicans squandered their chance to win the Presidency this year, and they will remain a debilitated party going forward. But here’s what’s important: they are not fatally debilitated.
In a two-party political system like ours, a major party nominee is never out of contention. That’s the unmistakable lesson of this election, in which strong partisan loyalty has kept things close for the most flagrantly unfit candidate in history.
Moreover, nearly every Presidential election comes down to a contest of “Change” vs. “More-of-the-Same,” meaning that the party of “Change,” even if hobbled, is always just a single bad recession or a single lurid scandal away from victory. If the present contest were unfolding in the midst of a deep economic downturn, or if President Obama’s approval rating were in the 30s instead of the 50s, it seems likely that Trump would be leading.
Finally, in future elections, it is entirely possible that the alt-right, white nationalist plurality within the Republican Party will find a more appealing delivery vehicle for its views: a strong-fisted champion of the Fortress America entho-state, but without any of the unpleasant groping and grifting of You-Know-Who.
So don’t believe for a second that this new incarnation of the GOP can’t win a national election. It can win, and given enough time and enough rolls of the historical/economic dice, it eventually will win.
This makes the Republican Party, in its current injured, squalid form, the most dangerous political organization on Earth ― not, to be clear, because it somehow rivals ISIS, or Hamas, or the North Korean regime, or other such murderous entities in the malevolence of its intent; rather, because its sheer proximity to power gives it vastly greater capacity to inflict harm. No other group on the planet is a single election away from controlling the world’s largest economy, strongest military, and loudest megaphone. No other group could plausibly usher in a dark age on a global scale.
Prior Republican leaders may have advocated and implemented lousy and cruel public policy, but at least they believed in the fundamental norms of democratic governance, frowned upon overt racism and misogyny, and proved capable of peacefully, even graciously, transferring power. It was all crudely comforting, because as long as the white nationalists never had any chance of directly calling the shots - as long as the horse and rider maintained their positions - there wasn’t any real threat to the essential fabric of America’s institutions.
That’s over. And now for however long one of our major parties is dominated by white nationalism, every Presidential election will be an existential crisis for democracy. It will be 2016, over and over and over again.
Diagnosis is often easier than treatment, and there’s no obvious cure for this patient. It is wishful thinking to believe that Trump is a one-off who won his nomination primarily because of a fractured field. Combine the dwindling band of Republican main street moderates, national security realists, and boardroom free marketeers, and they still don’t add up to a viable, competitive party - not without the alt-right. They can’t put enough troops in the field; there’s not a big enough traditional-right and center-right constituency in America. That’s why the Republican political calculus depended on alt-right, white nationalist support in the first place.
But those who care about the health and endurance of American democracy, including Democrats with a partisan interest in weak opposition, should still earnestly pray for the success of capable, sane GOP leadership. The GOP needs to be healed.
To a degree that may be galling for the triumphant Democrats and unprecedented in our history, it is the losing party that holds the future in its hands. The fate of the Republic and the fate of the Republicans have become one and the same.
For the sake of America, work to beat the GOP on November 8th, then work to save the GOP on November 9th.