The Next Major Ideological Realignment Since 1980
In the previous installment, I covered how the Republican Party, for the longest time, was always a more moderate – if not liberal – party on the social front. Social conservatism only arose as a major faction of the GOP after World War II and finally became the dominant wing of the party with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Since then, the party has been defined by social conservatism on top of its long-standing economic conservatism. Even as the country and the Democratic Party have shifted further to the left with this past decade, the Republican Party has not only owned its social conservatism, but indeed, has doubled down on it with the rise of the Tea Party.
Enter Donald J. Trump.
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mr. Trump is running on a cult of personality – he himself is the issue above all else, not his policy stances. Both his critics and his fans can agree with this. Through his masterful persuasion and perceptiveness – as brilliantly outlined by the comic strip artist-turned-political commentator Scott Adams – he has been able to barnstorm the Republican Party in a manner quite unlike anything else in our history. Quite frankly, the media narratives were at the mercy of whatever Mr. Trump decided.
And, as it just so happens, Mr. Trump is more of a libertarian than we would expect. He is fairly lax on abortion (though his views have changed over time), completely libertarian on drugs (correctly calling the War on Drugs a failure), and strongly skeptical of foreign entanglements (repeatedly vowing to end the “nation-building” and “regime-changing” era of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama).
At the same time, he affirms positions that please traditional Republicans just as much as libertarians: He is strongly pro-Second Amendment (being one of the only candidates in the crowded field of 17 GOP candidates to actually have a license to carry), he is firmly in support of religious freedom – even vowing to repeal the “Johnson Amendment” that prevents churches from endorsing political causes or candidates – and he is a fierce defender of veterans, having raised over $6 million in a charity event for veterans’ groups during one of the primary debates.
Let us not forget, of course, his stances which draw popular support from the traditionally Democratic base, and even appeal to those further to the left: His support of all possible options in energy policy (thus pleasing the coal miners and blue-collar workers that normally vote Democratic due to union involvement), his opposition to free-trade agreements that damage economic sovereignty (his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership being the one major area of agreement with Senator Bernie Sanders, an outspoken socialist), and his firm support for gay rights and the LGBTQ community (from being pro-gay back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, long before it was popular, to his famous vow to protect the LGBTQ community in his acceptance speech).
And just like that, Trump has been giving speeches – from his acceptance speech at the convention to his daily speeches on the economy and inner cities – that explicitly call for lending a helping hand to impoverished African-American and Latino communities. He repeatedly promises to protect the well-being of the LGBTQ community. And he delivers these lines to thunderous applause and cheers from his Republican audiences. Can you imagine such a scene taking place just four years ago?
Therefore, Mr. Trump strikes a perfect balance that satisfies some libertarians, most Republicans, and even a sizeable portion of Democrats. He strikes a balance, and is primarily able to do so with charisma. This is where other past moderate candidates, like Governor Mitt Romney, failed miserably. On policy and substance, Romney was a far superior candidate and would have made a wonderful president. His fatal flaw was that he couldn’t properly establish a clear personality before he was labeled by the opposition – attacked as a “flip-flopper” and ostracized for his “unusual” religion of Mormonism. He certainly didn’t carry the level of bombast and passion necessary to make him stand out as an exceptional candidate.
That, again, is where Mr. Trump wins. Through his personality, bombast, and charisma, he dominated the primaries – consequently, he and his policy stances have become the new face of the Republican Party. As always, the party must get behind the nominee – and, God willing, if he wins, the party will have no choice but to shift further to the center and once and for all abandon the dominance of social conservatism and heavy religious overtones.
This shift could not come at a more crucial time for the party, and indeed, the country. As the country and the Democratic Party both shifted further to the left at the start of the decade, the Republican Party sought a strategy of doubling down in order to counter this leftward shift. Hence the rise of the Tea Party, with the reluctant acknowledgement of – but lack of cooperation from – the establishment. Although this strategy worked quite well for winning midterm elections in 2010 and 2014, this same strategy and conservative base clearly could not sway the overall national vote in 2012, and only allowed the party to be further demonized as radical by its critics.
With Trump, the party is finally acknowledging that the only way to win more than a few congressional seats is to nominate someone who is more moderate than the Tea Party, but in a way that is perceived as modernizing the party rather than conveniently flip-flopping in order to appease both the conservatives and the moderates. This shift to the center, while firmly holding onto the necessary conservative positions, promises to make new inroads for the party’s base and an appeal to demographics never thought possible back in 2012.
The Overton Window has shifted once more.
In the upcoming conclusion to this series, I will explain that even though Trump’s rise is likely to displace social conservatives from their seat of power in the GOP, they should still be willing – if not eager – to support him in 2016 over Hillary Clinton.`
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