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In a bind? The Republicans, the Democrats and the Trump Effect

Super Tuesday, March 1, was Terrible Tuesday for the Republican Party. The increasing certainty of Donald Trump’s nomination as the party’s presidential candidate is likely to end the American party system, a system that developed in the early nineteenth century and is over two hundred years old. That in turn means that the US political system as a whole will be terrifyingly lop-sided and vulnerable; and the new political discussion will have repercussions all over the world.

Trump has shown that he can build a convincing coalition across the geographically and socially disparate United States. It would be wrong to interpret the appeal as just a triumph of glitzy showmanship, virtual reality stardom, and media celebrity. His support is based on a solid logic of rejection of the whole process of globalization. He challenges the openness of the US to both migration and trade flows. His support is the result of the belief that middle America has suffered from the loss of jobs, the erosion of pay, while an elite had profited. Trumpism combines economic isolationism with a return to political isolationism, the belief that foreign engagement has been costly, counter-productive, and that like globalization it only benefits a corrupt global elite of which the American elite is for him a constitutive and non-patriotic element. ‘Why are we always at the forefront of everything?’ Trump asks.

Trumpism is a quite different phenomenon to the traditional core of Republican concerns, on all three axes of foreign policy, social policy and economic philosophy. There is no social conservatism, and all the old and deeply divisive debates about abortion are side-stepped. There is not much economic conservatism either, no direct criticism of the Obama healthcare plans but rather a promise to extend healthcare coverage. All the Trump messages are probably more capable of capturing a majority of American votes than old-style Republicanism.

The Trump platform also looks like some successful European political movements – Fidesz in Hungary or Law and Justice in Poland – with a combination of government handouts, anti-bank populism, and radical nationalism that is not afraid to flirt with old political emotions, anti-Semitism in Europe, racism in the US. Like these new European movements, nationalism is used as a way of pushing a redistributive leftism.

One model is Ronald Reagan, who took a substantial blue collar vote that was disenchanted with Carter. But Reagan continued to have a global view of the United States and its responsibilities. Trump is going much much further in his appeal to disillusioned Democrats. There are some points where Bernie Sanders’ campaign has parallels with Trump. The likelihood of Hilary Clinton’s nomination will make it easier for Trump to push the message of opposing the Washington insiders.

A substantial part of the Republican elite has already signaled that it would rather support Hilary Clinton than go with the risks of Trump. Super Tuesday has been followed by the attempt to mobilize a massive wall of money and intellect against Trump. But both efforts are likely to be counter-productive. A mobilization of Wall Street against Trump will only show how the opposition is driven by financial interests. When the neo-conservative policy stars Robert Zoellick and Elliott Abraham sign letters denouncing Trump, they are only likely to increase the support of Trump for being a genuine alternative to the failed engagements of the Bush-Obama-Clinton era, from Iraq to Libya and Syria. Mitt Romney’s description of Trump as a phony and a fraud is not likely to have any more impact than the (left wing) actor George Clooney calling Trump a fascist from the comfort of a Berlin luxury hotel. The more obvious the Republican civil war is, the stronger the appeal of Trump as a convincing alternative.

Republicans are in a bind. They will find it hard to win Congressional races with Trump on the presidential ticket. But if Trump is not the candidate, they will find it impossible to build a winning coalition for the presidency. Either way, the party is over, and America’s Grand Old Party, the GOP is history.

Today looks like other great moments in the American past when the American Republic turned or nearly turned: Andrew Jackson’s populist revolt in the 1830s against the financial interests of the North-East, William Jennings Bryan’s campaign in the 1890s for an end to the gold standard and for inflation that would relieve workers and farmers, or Robert Taft who in the 1950s spoke out against America’s new global role and a foreign policy that ‘gives away the people’s earnings.’ The twentieth century re-inventers of politics, Bryan and Taft were both political failures, left behind as the US embarked on a global role. Bryan, like Trump, was widely derided as a fraud. Taft was more of an intellectual. But these previous American anti-globalizers were making their cases at a time when the US was much more dynamic, in an international comparison, than it is now. As a result the trumpery of the modern anti-globalization message is more alluring.

If Trump is successful in November, the victory will split the Democrats in the same way as the Republicans are currently dividing. Hilary Clinton will be blamed for not having gone far enough along the Bernie Sanders route, for being too dependent on Big Money and Old Ideas. The screenwriter of the successful movie Big Short, Adam McKay, for instance is vigorously attacking presidential candidates who ‘take money from big banks,’ and this was of course also the major theme of the Sanders campaign.

And if Trump is successful, he will need to think about how to take the country along an entirely new route and he will try to build a new political movement.

Sometime old-entrenched parties disappear: in 1990s Italy, the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communists all faded, for different reasons; in most of Europe both Christian Democracy and Social Democracy is looking very weak. Inner-party conflicts are likely to weaken the Republicans in the Senate and House elections. The feud for the heart of Republicanism in the United States may be a warning for other center-right parties, including the British Conservatives who are facing their own war over Brexit. For people who want to create new politics, Trump will be an example. For people who are worried about the proliferation of shocks, he is a terror.


Professor Harold James

Harold James is the Claude and Lore Kelly Professor in European Studies and a Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University, specialising in modern German, economic and financial history. He was was appointed an International Monetary Fund Historian in 2016. His publications include Making a Modern Central Bank:The Bank of England 1979-2003 (2020), The Euro and the Battle of Economic Ideas (with Markus K. Brunnermeier and Jean-Pierre Landau, Princeton University Press, 2016) and Making the European Monetary Union (Harvard University Press, 2012), while his Politeia publications include Crisis Managed: Monetary and Fiscal Frameworks for the Future (2011).

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