After Trump, the Republican Party May Become More Extreme

If Biden wins, Democrats will face a harsh political landscape.

Getty / The Atlantic

The numbers give Joe Biden ample reason for confidence about the election. Only 42 percent of voters, according to polling averages published by FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics, currently support the Republican incumbent’s reelection. When asked, “Do you approve or disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing as president?”—the wording used by many polling organizations—only about 43 percent of Americans say they approve.

Although only about 2 percent of voters are still undecided, Trump stands before a nearly insurmountable wall. America has never had a president whose disapproval rating, since the first month of his presidency, has been higher than his approval rating. Two weeks before the election, more than 50 percent of voters think he is doing a bad job and plan to vote for his opponent. Many already have. As a Democratic pollster, I am delighted by all the evidence that most of the country will reject Trump, his racism, his values, his policies, and his vision for America.

Even so, 43 percent of Americans approve of how Trump is doing. Consider the implications for both parties and the nation. These voters approve after 215,000 people have died from the coronavirus; after 25 million ended up on unemployment insurance; after The New York Times found that Trump had paid only $750 in taxes in his first year as president and owes hundreds of millions of dollars to his creditors; after The Atlantic reported that he called American soldiers who died in battle “suckers” and “losers.”

Yet if Democrats win the presidency—and even both houses of Congress—their difficulties will burgeon the day Trump leaves office. Not only must they hold their own coalition together as they contend with the coronavirus and the economic crisis that it created, but they will face fierce opposition from the voters who support Trump despite everything. Far from being chastened into moderating the GOP’s rhetoric and cooperating with a new administration, the remaining elements of a vanquished Republican Party will likely become more extreme. It’s happened before.

During the primaries, Democrats were unified by their loathing of Trump: About 85 percent strongly disapproved of his performance in office, and a majority voted with laser focus for the candidate who could best defeat him. During the general-election campaign, Biden has gotten 95 percent of Democrats behind him, and gained the support of independents and Republicans alarmed by the incumbent.

If victorious, Democrats will be united around an agenda that includes defeating the coronavirus; providing economic relief to states, cities, and individuals, prioritizing the neediest Americans; large-scale infrastructure investment; a new Medicare-type public option for health insurance; a new research-centered Manhattan Project to address climate change; and much more. The demands of this moment will bring them together—even more so if the United States Supreme Court declares the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional.

But some divisions already are evident. Democrats supporting other candidates were slow to get behind Biden in the general election, according to my polls for Democracy Corps, the Center for Voter Information, and the American Federation of Teachers. Supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders did not fully embrace Biden until after the selection of Senator Kamala Harris as the vice-presidential nominee and the Democratic National Convention that featured Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren. Those supporting other candidates fully rallied to Biden only amid Trump’s ugly effort to jam a socially conservative justice into Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat.

You don’t have to dig very deep to expose the Democrats’ fissures. They are split fairly evenly between liberals to one side and moderates and conservatives to the other. The growing Millennial and Gen Z bloc will steer the party in a more liberal direction in the future, but Sanders won less than 30 percent of the primary vote. Justice Democrats, a progressive PAC founded by former Sanders campaign leaders, defeated some prominent Democrats in House primaries but fell short in others. At the moment, Republican defectors are decidedly more moderate. And the surging support for Democrats in the suburbs has swelled the centrist New Democrat Coalition in Congress, now larger than the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But the Democrats’ divisions all look quite civil compared with the problems post-Trump Republicans will face. Trump built his base in the insurgent anti-government, anti-immigrant movement that, during the last recession, came to prominence as the Tea Party. Then he forged a pact with evangelical Christians, to whom he promised a steady supply of socially conservative federal judges, including on the Supreme Court. He also built a strong alliance with his party’s anti-abortion-rights observant Catholics—a constituency epitomized by Attorney General William Barr. So Trump campaigns unbowed atop a coalition that, by my estimate, constitutes 65 percent of his party. He has lost swing voters but kept his most avid fans. Among the voters who approve of Trump’s job performance, about 70 percent do so strongly.

Today’s Republican Party dominates all branches of government in about 15 states that will keep sending successful political leaders to the U.S. House and Senate to fight against immigration, social liberalism, multiculturalism, and equal voting rights. But the party is battling to hold on to states—such as North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—that have large metropolitan areas, growing populations of immigrants and college graduates, and greater political engagement among Black and Latino citizens. And Republican leaders in those states appear poised to follow the self-destructive lead of their California counterparts a generation ago.

California Republicans were the first to act on the economic and cultural fears raised by immigration. As the Latino population grew, state Republicans put Proposition 187 on the ballot in 1994. It barred undocumented immigrants from attending public schools or using public hospitals and required cooperation with federal immigration officials. Its passage had a huge negative impact on Black and Latino support for Republicans, but more important, it led to immigration crowding out other issues. Republicans became a predominantly white, socially conservative, anti-immigration party with little interest in education, the environment, and other issues of interest to moderate voters. Before Proposition 187, Democrats and Republicans were both competitive in races for president and governor and evenly split the state’s seats in the House of Representatives. But in 2010, Democrats won every statewide office.

What’s instructive is how Republican leaders reacted as their party fell further and further behind. Each year, they fielded fewer moderate candidates; in the 2018 midterm, a Democratic-wave election, California Republicans were annihilated. The Trump-supported gubernatorial candidate got only 38 percent of the vote. In Orange County, once Ronald Reagan’s suburban heartland, every GOP member of Congress lost. Republicans held on to only seven congressional seats in the whole state of California.

Even as Trump’s chances of victory appear to shrink, the GOP is still his party, one that he can rally from outside the White House. That’s why the 43 percent of voters who still think Trump is doing a good job pose such an immense challenge to the country. They—along with like-minded Republicans in Congress, the federal judiciary, and state governments—will have countless opportunities in the months ahead to thwart Democratic efforts to fight the pandemic and repair its economic damage.

Much more dangerous is a new unity and fervor among Trump’s devoted supporters, who believe it unacceptable that abortion is legal in America, according to a values survey I conducted last year for Democracy Corps. They cheer the National Rifle Association and the Second Amendment and hold to an extreme individualism and hatred of government. They side with the militias and the anti-lockdown protesters who menacingly wave their assault weapons and threaten elected officials.

And above all, they are exercised by racial resentments and the idea that America will have a reckoning with its history of racial injustice. They remain inflamed by President Barack Obama and “Obamacare”—the remaining legacy of the first Black president. They believe it was created to make millions of nonwhite people dependent on the government and vote for Democrats, keeping the party in power forever. These same resentments explain Texas state leaders’ decision to allow only one drop-off box per county, a policy with no purpose beyond keeping Black and Latino citizens from voting and putting Democrats in office.

Three-quarters of those who approve of Trump believe that the difficulty Black people face in getting ahead is their “own fault,” not because of “discrimination”—not because of America’s history of systemic racism. Trump’s acolytes are encamped to block any further progress toward equality.

Unfortunately, political parties do not change course quickly. After being crushed in 1980, Democrats needed three presidential elections from 1984 to 1992 to modernize and become a sustainable national party that could carry states in the South and win back working-class suburbs in the North. Joining the fight for the presidency is what draws new voters to a party. In 1984, the reformer Gary Hart attacked the special interests who controlled the party and championed new industries over old. He had at least had a constituency to build on; he won nearly as many primary votes as the eventual nominee, the establishment favorite Walter Mondale. Hart and the third-place candidate, Jesse Jackson, together won more than half of that year’s Democratic primary electorate. The anti-Trump reformers in the GOP begin with, at best, a third of their party.

If Trump is repudiated on Election Day, as now seems likely, I will join millions of Americans in feeling liberated from a disturbing period in our history. Yet I also know the election will leave a major American party in greater turmoil about abortion, a supposed deep state, immigration, and the growing electoral power of a multicultural America committed to racial equality. Democrats and Republican reformers are right to feel hopeful about this post-Trump era, but they must be resolute in their goals and well prepared for the difficulties that await in the harsh political landscape that Trump leaves behind.