Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is on life support after a barrage of damaging personal revelations last week sparked an unprecedented stampede of defections from Republican leaders.
But, ironically, if that sequence of events proves the fatal blow to Trump’s tumultuous candidacy, it may help the ideas and animosities powering his campaign to live on inside the GOP. In other words, the manner of Trump’s political demise may extend the life of Trumpism.
That’s a sobering prospect for the many Republican leaders and strategists who believed Trump was marching the GOP into a demographic dead end even before his campaign skidded entirely off the road—before his stumbling first debate; before The New York Times published a report detailing how he may not have paid personal federal-income taxes for two decades; and before the disclosure of a devastating Access Hollywood video on Friday, in which Trump boasted of groping women without their consent. “I don’t think [his supporters] will see a repudiation of him as a repudiation of [his] agenda because they will start talking about the establishment refusing to allow the will of the people to be expressed,” says Lanhee Chen, Mitt Romney’s chief policy adviser in 2012 and a frequent Trump critic.
It’s true that even before the video’s release, an unprecedented array of party leaders had repudiated Trump. The list of names included 50 former senior Republican national-security officials (who declared he lacks “the character, values, and experience to be president”), assorted senators and governors, and even former President George H.W. Bush.
But after the Access Hollywood video surfaced, that flow became a torrent. On Saturday alone, more Republican leaders had renounced their party’s nominee than in any 24-hour period since the day in June 1912 when Theodore Roosevelt’s supporters bolted from the GOP convention after the re-nomination of President William Howard Taft. By Saturday’s end, nearly one-third of Republican senators and almost one-third of Republican governors had declared they would not vote for Trump. So did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. House Speaker Paul Ryan only made the rubble bounce on Monday when he announced he would no longer defend or campaign for the nominee.
By comparison, only a handful of GOP senators rejected Barry Goldwater in 1964; former President Dwight Eisenhower, despite private doubts, publicly campaigned for him. Even in 1912, when Roosevelt launched an independent candidacy, the Republican leadership remained more unified behind Taft than their modern-day counterparts are behind Trump. University of Southern California communications professor Geoffrey Cowan, author of a rollicking recent book on the 1912 race, Let the People Rule, says only about a half-dozen GOP senators backed Roosevelt, and less than 15 percent of the convention delegates bolted with him. While some Progressive Party leaders joined Roosevelt’s insurgency, “the Progressives who controlled the Republican Party in their home states generally did not want to abandon the party,” Cowan says.
So there’s no question Trump is facing unprecedented friendly fire. But he faced dim odds of victory even before that opposition peaked. In general-election polls all year, Trump has almost never pushed his support past 42 percent. Though he has generated a visceral connection with voters who feel economically and culturally marginalized—particularly non-college-educated, non-urban, and evangelical whites—he has provoked intense antipathy from voters of color and millennials, and is underperforming any previous Republican nominee among college-educated whites, especially women. Even if Trump’s dismal polling this week is a temporary trough, that wall of resistance still looms.
Minorities, millennials, and white-collar whites have been the most likely groups of voters to reject Trump personally as unqualified and temperamentally unfit for the presidency. But in polls they are also most resistant to his insular agenda. Those voters display particular opposition to Trump’s most racially barbed proposals—including his plans for a Mexican border wall and the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants, and his evolving proposals to bar Muslims from entering the United States—and are most inclined to view Trump as biased against women and minorities. As a new national survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows, they are also the most dubious about his protectionism on trade—and most likely to view greater global economic integration as benefiting both the country overall and their own living standards.
All of this signals that, even without his personal foibles, Trumpism alienates precisely the electorate’s fastest growing groups, which include minorities, millennials, and college-educated white women. That’s why so many Republican strategists have long feared he was steering the GOP to disaster by identifying it so explicitly with white backlash against demographic, cultural, and economic change.
The challenge those Trump critics face is that his bristling defensive nationalism has struck a powerful chord within the Republican coalition—primarily, but not exclusively, within its growing blue-collar wing. Chen, like many GOP thinkers, believes Republicans can’t simply revert to their old agenda of free trade and smaller government if Trump loses, but must find ways to address the white working-class anxieties that “Trump exposed” in ways that don’t alienate so many other voters.
That would be a difficult needle to thread under any circumstances: Long before Trump, the party was already relying on a “coalition of restoration” centered on the voters most uneasy about America’s growing racial and cultural diversity. But crafting a more inclusive agenda will only get tougher with Trump supporters like radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham preemptively attributing a possible defeat not to a rejection of his ideas, but to a stab in the back from the party’s “pro-globalization wing.” The nominee himself echoed that idea in a flurry of Tuesday-morning tweets criticizing Ryan. Even if an electoral deluge next month submerges Trump, the GOP may not find his polarizing agenda as easy to wash away.