(Note: This article was written before the election and almost published then, but then I went to sleep. I have now made just some minor adjustments to reflect that Trump won the election and then added sections to talk about the results after the fact.)
The 2016 US presidential election — no matter who you ask — has been an unprecedented affair.
The candidate at the top of the Republican ticket, who won the presidency, has no background in government. He’s also the first billionaire to become president.
That candidate — Donald Trump — absolutely pounded, bullied, and embarrassed the Republican establishment, top Republican politicians past & present, war heros, and all of his competitors for the nomination — yet, most of the party still got behind him once he won the nomination. Many did so begrudgingly, or to try to not lose their spots in Congress, or out of fear of criticism. Some didn’t back him at all, and former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush said they didn’t vote for him. Our most recent Republican presidents didn’t vote for the person who headed their party in 2016. I’m going to guess this is a first.
No matter what a political expert’s party stripes are, the result is that pundits and politicians have been talking about a Republican civil war. Before the election upset and the GOP taking full control of the federal government (barring Democrats using the same filibuster obstructionism the GOP of the last 6 years has used obsessively), I thought there was a good chance it would continue. Now, I’m convinced it will.
Donald Trump also broke many rules of decency and competitive strategy for a politician. He used language (repeatedly) that had not been used before in order to emotionally criticize his competitors. He created nicknames for them that you’d expect from a 5th grade bully, not a serious presidential candidate. This included top primary competitors “Little Marco,” “Low-Energy Jeb,” and “Lyin’ Ted,” as well as for later enemies in the Democratic Party. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz eventually came out in support of Trump anyway (after quite a long wait) — because he’s the Republican. It’s unclear who Jeb Bush voted for, but I’d bet money it wasn’t Trump.
Another competitor for the Republican presidential nomination and a leading Republican Congressperson, Lindsey Graham, indicated that he didn’t vote for Trump but for Independent Evan McMullin. I think he’ll stay as far away from the West Wing as possible.
Donald Trump had a very hard time finding policy experts to serve on his advisory team, as well as experienced (but not completely outsider) campaign team members. Many top government officials from former Republican administrations also explicitly advised not voting for Trump and even in some cases advised voting for Hillary Clinton.
At several points in the campaign, top Republicans suggested contesting Trump’s nomination as the GOP presidential candidate, removing him from the ticket for one absurdity or another and replacing him with Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, or someone else in the party — or running against him as an Independent (as ex-CIA officer Evan McMullin eventually did).
All of this is to say: The Republican Party had a wild ride in 2015 and 2016.
But the question is: Where does it go from there?
But wait a second, who voted for Trump? Who put him into office? And how will Republican Party leaders who stuck with Trump but despise him view the populations he won in order to get into the White House?
For the most part, voters voted their party affiliation across the country. Despite claiming that he sexually assaults women — bragging about it even, despite saying that we should commit war crimes, despite asking foreign policy experts why we can’t use nuclear weapons if we have them, despite calling Mexicans “rapists and murders,” despite praising Vladimir Putin and encouraging Russia to hack his opponents’ email, and despite all of that and more, most of the Republicans who voted did vote for him. As Trump himself noted at one point in the primaries, he could stand in the middle of a busy street and shoot someone and his supporters would still vote for him. (If that doesn’t make you pause and question the thoughtfulness of said supporters, maybe you should take a moment to do so.)
While many Republican elites couldn’t support Trump for quite obvious and logical reasons, Republican voters (and most Republicans in Congress) stuck with him. Possible reasons why include: 1) he doesn’t really diverge from the party on many popular topics (he just talks more loudly and in a cruder fashion), 2) people are really that tribalistic, 3) the Republican echo chamber is so effective that people are convinced (for no good reason) that Hillary Clinton (who has spent a career trying to help families, children, the middle class, the poor, and disadvantaged people) is some kind of devil woman, 4) he’s a celebrity, or 5) some combination of those things.
When we get down to a closer look (now that the election is over), there are a couple of key points aside from people voting the party line.
First of all, Democrats didn’t get out of their houses and vote for Clinton. Neither did moderates for that matter. As one of our commenters just noted, 26% of the voting public voted for Trump. This was an obvious concern in the Democratic Party, and it was a concern for many liberals/progressives the moment Hillary was deemed the most likely person to win the Democratic nomination. I will go into the Democrats in another article, so I’ll leave it at that for now, but needless to say, people who didn’t want Trump still didn’t get out and vote for Clinton — despite the pleading of people like me, Jay Z, Lebron James, Louis CK, Lewis Black, and so many others. If an Obama had been running, Trump would have been crushed. If a Bernie Sanders had been running, many people believe he would have won. Again, approximately 26% of the voting public directly put Trump in office. And depending how you count, 48–74% of the voting public indirectly elected him.
Secondly, there are a lot of ways to look at who voted for Trump, but two ways dramatically stand out. Before getting to those two, though, here are some charts from The Washington Post:
Several of those are simply descriptors that are largely detached from place, though.
Somewhat culturally, moderates in the suburbs somewhat swung toward Trump — a key decider. More expectedly, religious conservatives in rural areas were Trump’s core base — and this is one of the dramatic ways in which to look at the results. I implore you to read this article on that topic. And look at this county-level voting map:
When you really want to motivate somebody, you talk to their core identity and their strongest cultural values, and focus on their most powerful cultural symbols.
Again, this article did a better job of explaining how Trump did that than I will here, but some of the bullet points are highlights regarding:
- the Washington insiders
- outsiders (Mexicans, Muslims, the rich, people in the inner cities)
A key alliance in the Republican Party for decades has been rich people/corporations who want less government regulation and very religious Christians. As Bill Maher points out, Trump is probably the most hypocritical Christian choice imaginable for the Christian wing:
That is surely part of the reason Ted Cruz and his wing of the party so vehemently opposed Trump. But Trump still beat Cruz and still won the general election. Frankly, despite not really representing their values, Trump was able to convince this base that he (a billionaire from New York who was born rich, divorced three times, lives in a gold-plated condo, brands hotels and casinos, and has worked in Hollywood) was more one of them than anyone else. The hat certainly didn’t hurt. The straight-talk style and foul mouth certainly didn’t hurt.
This large base, plus a ridiculously smeared (over 25 years) and tainted Democratic candidate who couldn’t loosen up and inspire the crowds, a complete media #fail, an anti-establishment trend in the USA and abroad (I’ll get to that later), the power of celebrity (especially celebrity that is totally focused on the branding of “success”), and an uninformed electorate eked out a win for Trump and the GOP. As many in the Democratic Party will tell you, Trump didn’t even win the popular vote, Clinton did.
The problem for the Republican Party is that some of these segments of the population are shrinking in size. It’s hard to pull together other groups without disenfranchising one of these. There’s been a move to bring in more Hispanic Americans, just as there’s been a move to deport them — all basically in the name of trying to gain a Republican majority for the matters Republican leaders really care about (lower taxes on the rich, less regulation for big corporations that harm society, and making certain Christian beliefs part of governmental law). Like I said, Trump won by appealing to his base (it was in the rhetoric as well as the hat and the issues) and pulling in more working class whites from the Rust Belt while progressives stayed home.
No matter how you look at it, the “racist white people” wing of the Republican Party doesn’t seem particularly keen on bringing the critical Hispanic demographic into the arms of the party — no matter how pretty Marco Rubio is. But let’s take a moment to consider how the rural base, Rust Belt, and moderates will respond to a Trump presidency, and what that means for a potential Republican civil war.
Real quickly first: yet another highlight of the Republican primary drama is one I’ve yet to see a prominent Republican admit but is obvious to anyone who can objectively look at the matter: Republican Party leadership and its media arms have set up an extreme camp of hatred toward “others,” denial of facts and science, demonizing of their opponents, and unwillingness to compromise or act civil in a political system that relies on doing so. Republican elites have done this so much that they have enabled the rise of people like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and perhaps even worse. They are basically just reaping the harvest they sowed. Right now, it looks like the reaped a HUGE harvest, but it may end up the harvest is infested with bugs and disease.
In calls this morning, many Rs privately want to defect from Trump. But they say the debate gave them pause since he roused their base.
— Robert Costa (@costareports) October 10, 2016
He roused their base indeed. Unfortunately, that means preying on the tough economic conditions and growing anger of rural whites and “down on their luck” working class families in the Rust Belt.
A strong investment in infrastructure and energy (especially clean energy) is one of the best ways to give these people jobs. That’s exactly what Obama focused on, with quite a bit of success. Trump probably knows this is what he has to do, but his bias against clean energy could mute water down the results. Coal and oil’s growing lack of competitiveness won’t help. Muslim oil countries that are disgusted by Trump can continue to flood the global oil market.
The other problem is that Trump’s economic plan involves massive tax cuts for the rich. This won’t do much of anything for the middle and working class, and will drain government funds that are dedicated to the social safety net, education, and some of the infrastructure projects mentioned above. This will hurt the base that Trump got all riled up. Trump can massively, massively, hugely grow the deficit to do all of the above — it’ll be interesting to see if Republicans will allow that and engage in insane hypocrisy after years of obsession with the deficit. I wouldn’t put it past them, but we’ll see. This is one area where Republican civil war could heat up, but I don’t think there a core Republican reason why they oppose national debt — it’s mostly a tool to scare monger and hate on the left.
However, even with all the cards playing for Trump and economic improvement, there are still a few problems:
- The economic challenges in facing rural areas are diverse, distributed, and aren’t going away (e.g., lower and lower wages relative to inflation and overall economic growth, migration into the cities, rising healthcare costs from financial abuse and lack of regulation in the industry, a relatively weakened social safety net that makes healthcare more expensive and gives less help for those who can’t get by, globalization that weakens the value of homegrown goods and the incomes of people producing them, and a rising expectation of what a satisfactory lifestyle and home entertainment supply entails). Most of these things are actually fueled by key Republican stances and obstructionism whenever Democrats try to improve the situation.
- The economic challenges facing the Rust Belt aren’t going away (e.g., manufacturing automation; globalization; the growth of emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil; poor city planning/design; inadequate transportation and social support; rising healthcare and education costs; more of the growing wealth flowing toward billionaires like Donald Trump and millionaires like members of his family and social network). Again, in fact, many of the problems worse if Republicans implement their tax cuts for the rich and deregulation of polluting and financially risky industries.
Will Trump fight his own party like they fought in the primaries in order to spend more, grow the deficit more, and stimulate more renewable energy? Or will the GOP-led country implement its proposals like wildfire, burning up the lives of its voting base in the process? Based on who Trump appears likely to appoint to head the Department of Energy, the Department of the Treasury, and the EPA.
In other words, the voting base that elected Trump and a GOP Congress are going to get burned. Also, many of them will die … from old age, lack of healthcare, and pollution. Symbolism only goes so far.
That brings me to the second key point on who elected Donald Trump. It was people who wanted change.
I wrote about this earlier today when explaining (I hope) the media’s role in that. But it offers some more things to consider:
- The Republican base is going to be really pissed when they don’t get what they want from their Republican president, Republican House, and Republican Senate. Obama’s base was disillusioned too despite the fact that he brought us out of an economic recession, delivered on several key promises, and then got completely obstructed by Congress after two years. The core issue was partly the same, though — the president can’t turn the country into a magical kingdom, and simplistic idealism wins elections but also leads to disillusion.
- If the base doesn’t come out in hoards and the moderates swing back to the “change vote,” even a campaigner like Hillary Clinton could win the election. With an exciting candidate that rallies the Democratic base and inspires the moderates, it could be a landslide that swings the whole ship in the opposite direction. As I encouraged progressives to do yesterday, now is the time to get involved in your democracy. Get the most progressive candidates on the ballot — maybe even yourself!
But, back to the question in the headline: How will Republican politicians proceed following the election?
For the moderate Republican leaders who can see the forest for the trees, which of the following will they do?
- Allow/implement an economic plan that blows up the deficit and hurts their base when they have 100% control?
- Push through extreme measures on immigration and health care that rip our country apart?
- Develop a strong interest in job-creating, economy-boost renewable energy and electric vehicles? (This would be a massive flip for the party, but the voters would surely support it and it would help Republicans look a lot better.)
There have been rumors that large portions of Republicans would split off to focus on more scientifically correct and culturally acceptable stances on global warming, immigration, government obstructionism, and clean energy following the GOP civil war in the primaries. But now the GOP is running the show. I doubt they’ll split off right now. But I also have a hard time seeing them survive a long marriage. Getting married is exciting, the honeymoon is often fun, but then things get real. When one part of the GOP wants one thing and another part wants something very different, will they finally learn to compromise or will they fight themselves? When things start to fall apart — or, at the least, don’t improve — and the voters turn on them, who will stick around and who will bail?
I think moderate GOP politicians will slowly migrate to become Independents or Democrats if their party continues to be led by the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, Rick Scott, and Fox News … if Democratic leaders can find a way to appeal to them without disenfranchising their more progressive arms.
In the end, I think that basically means a relatively slow weakening of power in the Republican Party, rather than a quick split to escape the legacy of Donald Trump.
But I am not a political historian. I’m just speculating. Your thoughts?
Naturally, this is all very important for cleantech, a livable climate, and clean air and water since the extremist Republican Party described above has been absurdly opposed to cutting pollution, stopping global warming, and unleashing economy-boosting leadership in clean energy and electric vehicles.
Photos by Gage Skidmore (some rights reserved), Gage Skidmore (some rights reserved), DonkeyHotey (some rights reserved), and DonkeyHotey (some rights reserved); Charts by The Washington Post and University of Michigan
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