After Mitt Romney failed to beat a vulnerable Barack Obama in 2012, a chastened Republican Party arrived pretty quickly at the answer to their electability problem.
They were the party of old angry, white men, and in a much-heralded Washington DC press conference in March 2013, senior officials released an “autopsy report” concluding that to win back the White House, the party needed to appeal to young voters, women and minorities.
Three years later, Donald Trump, who is historically unpopular among every one of those demographics, is the frontrunner for the party’s nomination. To paraphrase David Byrne, how did the Republican Party get here?
In a series of interviews with party insiders, operatives and elected officials, the party’s predicament is clear – Trump is on the verge of completing a hostile takeover – but as top Republican consultant John Brabender said: “Everybody may have a small piece of the answer, but I’m not sure if anyone has the answer.”
With the next primary contest looming in Wisconsin on Tuesday, the two most plausible scenarios for the Republican convention in July are either that Trump is the nominee or that complete and total anarchy ensues – and no one knows which option will be more damaging at the general election in November or to the future of the party.
The reasons are complex, but the grassroots rage against the machine was clearly evident. Brabender, like many others, saw dissatisfaction with Barack Obama as a key impetus for the rise of Trump. Obama has long been a hate figure on the right and Trump’s coalition includes both diehard conservatives and disaffected blue collar Democrats.
Talented, electable Republicans were pushed aside in the midst of the Tea Party furor
But he also saw “an incredible distaste for Washington DC” going back to 2010 when the Republican grassroots responded strongly to right wing candidates who were prone to outrageous statements. Talented, electable Republicans were pushed aside in the midst of the Tea Party furor which had been touched off by rage at Obama’s economic stimulus and his ‘socialist’ health insurance reforms.
The anti-Washington fever within the party base wasn’t diminished when Republicans regained control of the House in 2010. Instead, it was only further increased as Tea Partiers, anxious to undo key Obama initiatives, were dissatisfied with the pace of progress.
In 2012, Rick Santorum, whom Brabender worked for, was able to tap into some of the same reservoir of discontent that now fuels Trump.
“Mitt Romney should have won that [primary] going away,” Brabender said. Instead, Santorum won 11 states and, since then, Brabender said “a lot of fuel has been added to that fire” as discontent grew with a Republican congress.
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Congressman Tom Massie, an ardent libertarian from Kentucky, argued that voters who hated “Big Government” were frustrated that “the Republican Party has been feckless at the job of stopping the expansion of government with Obama in office”.
Republicans in the congressional leadership had also totally ignored the signs of discontent in the party’s base. After Eric Cantor, the house majority leader, lost his 2014 primary in perhaps the most shocking upset in modern American political history, Massie said the growing anger was simply never talked about. He recalled that Cantor ran the weekly, members-only meeting of the Republican caucus. Then, after his primary loss, the Virginia Republican just wasn’t there anymore. “Nobody ever talked about Cantor not being there. It was like he had a heart attack,” Massie said.
After Mitt Romney failed to beat a vulnerable Barack Obama in 2012, the Republican Party concluded that it needed to appeal to young voters, women and minorities. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
For party grandees, sticking their heads in the sand left them unable to cope with the tempest whipping up dissent. Rick Wilson, a prominent Republican consultant who has become a vocal Trump opponent, argued that much of the New York tycoon’s outrage towards Washington was stoked by what he called “the entertainment wing of the Republican Party”.
The trouble with Obama was that they couldn’t defeat him, so they went after congressional Republicans
This group, which he described as consisting of “certain parts of the Fox News evening line up, talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin … and the fever swamp of the conservative message machine had spent years looking for the perfect villain”.
The trouble with identifying Obama as that villain was that they couldn’t defeat him, so they turned upon their own and went after congressional Republicans in Washington because “they won’t do everything perfect and won’t commit to burning down the village”, Wilson said. The problem wasn’t that congressional Republicans were ignoring the grassroots, it was that the Republican base had been “primed” to demand the impossible.
Wilson, however, has no love for the establishment and expressed frustration that the party needed to present a “forward-looking agenda that isn’t the same old tax cuts and trade deals and all the official bullshit of official Washington”.
‘A candidate of grievances’
But the increase in populist unrest within the Republican base isn’t the only reason for Trump’s rise. As Stuart Stevens, top strategist for Mitt Romney in 2012 said, there is also “the Guns of August theory” referencing the chain of events that led to the start of World War I. As he described it, “a theory of unintended consequences by miscalculations, cowardice and ineptitude”.
So, in a stressful economic time, Trump has emerged as “a candidate of grievances” and managed to slip through the many pitfalls and traps laid for outsider candidates in the Republican primary process.
The rules were specifically designed to aid an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush in 2016, but without the fundraising and political infrastructure normally required for a successful candidate, Trump’s celebrity has overcome all obstacles. In fact, some of the changes, like the front-loading of earlier primary contests have rebounded to Trump’s benefit, as the frontrunner has been able to escape prolonged scrutiny of political gaffes due to the constant churn of election nights.
To Stevens, people aren’t “really focused on what Trump is saying except on a couple of issues”. For example, he didn’t think “it’s Trump’s stance on immigration that is drawing voters with a lot of fervor, it’s Trump’s racist language”.
Brabender saw Trump as running ‘a protest campaign’ … ‘people want radical change in some capacity’
Among his base constituency of older, less-educated and predominantly white voters, Trump has become a vehicle for a broader discontent with the vast economic changes over the past few decades that have seen the US shift from an industrial economy to a service-based economy.
Brabender saw Trump as running “a protest campaign”. He said “people have got to the point that they want radical change in some capacity and not even sure they know what those changes are, but they want them, and are willing to sacrifice their votes to make things happen.”
Supporters listen as Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Wisconsin. Wisconsin voters go to the polls for the state’s primary on April 5. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images
But the protest candidate is increasingly looking like the nominee. Stevens didn’t think Republican leaders had “a strategy to survive as a party with Trump” and noted the frontrunner’s calamitous week where he veered first from “full throated defense of violence against women” in the case of a reporter manhandled by his chief of staff, to an extreme call for punishing women who have abortions.
In Stevens’ eyes, “there’s not a national party that exists in America, not a regional party” that could support that platform, adding “you couldn’t get elected in Mississippi articulating that”. The native Mississippian then added: “You couldn’t get out of a bar defending violence against women.”
For some conservatives, the remark about abortion was not only damaging, it was exasperating proof that Trump was an imposter pretending to be a conservative, playing to the gallery with no grasp of what ardent pro-life campaigners really stood for.
For many top Republicans, the White House has already been written off for another four years. The goal now is to limit the damage.
Republican strategists privately fear that both the Senate and perhaps even the House could be lost if Trump is the Republican nominee. Swing voters and suburbanites and women will run away from the party, while Latino and African-American voters who may be unexcited by Hillary Clinton will be motivated to turn out and vote against a candidate whom they perceive to be a racist.
The question is what alternative is there to Trump? And even if he can be stopped from getting the majority of delegates he needs, the damage to the Republicans could be even worse than if he was the nominee. As the strategist Brabender noted “even non-Trump supporters will find it offensive” if there is “too much of an effort to prevent him from getting the nomination”. Congressman Massie used more blunt terms and described the scenario as “completely apocalyptic”.
Not all Republicans see doom and gloom if Trump is the nominee. Grover Norquist, the head of the influential conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, notes “the presidency is nice and important if you want to make progress” but it’s not essential. The veteran Republican operative sees a party still dominant in state legislatures and says “the people who focus only on presidential elections are getting distracted”.
Congressman Massie used more blunt terms and described the scenario as ‘completely apocalyptic’
“I am very happy with the cards that we have,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade this for the presidency.” Although Norquist added: “I’d like to have both.”
Republicans can also take some comfort from the cyclical nature of politics. In 1974, Democrats won big majorities in both houses of Congress against a Republican party dejected after the Watergate scandal. Yet, just six years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president.
There is still the possibility that Trump could win in November. Massie, a former Rand Paul supporter, is convinced that Trump, along with either of the two candidates still running, could beat Hillary Clinton.
Further, in some districts, the New York real estate mogul’s presence on the ballot could boost other Republicans. Stewart Mills, the Republican nominee in a blue collar corner of Minnesota near the Canadian border, didn’t see “any turmoil” among Republicans in his moderate district. Instead, he saw “a lot of energy” and felt confident in his message.
But not all Republicans are running in districts like Mills. Already, one incumbent Republican congressman, Carlos Curbelo, a conservative rising star from south Florida, has suggested he would vote for Hillary Clinton over Trump.
Wilson, the consultant, would also prefer President Clinton to Trump, though he would not vote for either. If the Republicans must lose, he sees the process as akin to “cutting off a gangrenous limb … it’s going to hurt, take a long time to recover” but, if you do not act, it will kill you.