Election 2016 looked on paper like the most sweeping Republican victory since the Jazz Age. Yet there was a hollowness to the Trump Republicans’ seeming ascendancy over the federal government and in so many of the states. The Republicans of the 1920s had drawn their strength from the country’s most economically and culturally dynamic places. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge won almost 56 percent of the vote in cosmopolitan New York State, 65 percent in mighty industrial Pennsylvania, 75 percent in Michigan, the hub of the new automotive economy.
Not so in 2016. Where technologies were invented and where styles were set, where diseases cured and innovations launched, where songs were composed and patents registered—there the GOP was weakest. Donald Trump won vast swathes of the nation’s landmass. Hillary Clinton won the counties that produced 64 percent of the nation’s wealth. Even in Trump states, Clinton won the knowledge centers, places like the Research Triangle of North Carolina.
The Trump presidency only accelerated the divorce of political power from cultural power. Business leaders quit Trump’s advisory boards lest his racist outbursts sully their brands. Companies like Facebook and Microsoft denounced his immigration policies. Popular singers refused invitations to his White House; great athletes boycotted his events. By the summer of 2017, Trump’s approval among those under thirty had dipped to 20 percent.
And this was before Trump’s corruption and collusion scandals begin to bite.
Whatever Trump’s personal fate, his Republican Party seems headed for electoral trouble—or worse. Yet it will require much more than Republican congressional defeats in 2018 to halt Trumpocracy. Indeed, such defeats may well perversely strengthen President Trump. Congressional defeats will weaken alternative power centers within the Republican Party. If they lose the House or the Senate or many governorships—or some combination of those defeats—then Republicans may feel all the more compelled to defend their president. The party faithful may interpret any internal criticism of Trump as a treasonable surrender to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. As the next presidential race nears, it will become ever more imperative to rally around Trump. The more isolated Trump becomes within the American political system as a whole, the more he will dominate whatever remains of the conservative portion of that system. He will devour his party from within.
Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy. The stability of American society depends on conservatives’ ability to find a way forward from the Trump dead end, toward a conservatism that cannot only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible, that upholds markets at home and U.S. leadership internationally.
In the most immediate sense, that means accepting that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, and to work to reform it so that it costs less and protects middle-class families more. That means slowing the pace of immigration so that the existing population of the country does not feel it is being displaced and replaced. Economists will argue that a country with a slow-growing population needs more immigrants to sustain the growth of its labor force. But a population is a citizenry as well as a labor force, and when it grows slowly, it can less easily assimilate newcomers. Immigration is to natural population increase as wine is to food: a good complement, a bad substitute.
“The divide is not between the left and right anymore, but between patriots and globalists,” declared Marine Le Pen, announcing her candidacy for the president of France in February 2017. Those words sat ill in the mouth of a candidate funded by secret Russian money, but they contained at least this much truth: The old ideological compass did not provide a very accurate guide to the new political map.
Trump polled better among workers earning between $50,000 and $99,999 than with those earning over $100,000, a freakish outcome for a Republican. He posted the best showing among union households by any Republican since 1984. He performed surprisingly well among Latino and black men, boosting his share in those two demographics above the level of Mitt Romney’s in 2012.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton—excoriated by the right-wing media as a radical and a socialist—scored exceptionally well among the richest Americans, winning almost exactly half the votes of those who earn more than $250,000 per year. She did extraordinarily badly among white women without a college degree, losing that group to Donald Trump by the staggering margin of 27 points. How could this be? In the fall of 2016, New York magazine interviewed six women who had decided not to cast a vote in the Clinton-Trump election. One, identified as a thirty-year-old teacher, had this to say:
I do not believe that feminism can “trickle down”—that having more women on corporate boards will make life better for working-class women. If your primary concern is creating gender parity within the upper class, it’s rational to support Hillary Clinton. If you are a working woman, things aren’t so clear.
Throughout most of their lives, members of the postwar baby boom generation (those born between 1945 and 1960) held views considerably more liberal than those of the generation before them (born between 1930 and 1945). As late as the year 2000, only 35 percent of baby boomers described themselves as “conservative.”
Then struck the financial crisis, followed by the presidency of Barack Obama. The proportion of baby boomers who called themselves “angry with government” surged from 15 percent before 2008 to 26 percent the next year. By 2011, 42 percent of baby boomers were labeling themselves “conservative,” the same percentage as the next generation up.
It’s important to understand what right-leaning baby boomers mean by the word “conservative.” On social issues such as gay rights and the role of women, boomers, like all Americans, continued to evolve in liberal directions in the Obama years. Nor did aging boomers adopt a more pro-business outlook. On the contrary, boomers in the 2010s expressed much more suspicion of business than the same demographic cohort did in the 1990s, when they were younger and otherwise more liberal. Boomer conservatives exhibited little enthusiasm for the “on your own” ideology of the mainstream GOP. In fact, 64 percent of boomers complained in a 2011 poll that the government didn’t do enough to help older people, a much higher proportion than in any other age group, including their elders.
Boomers adamantly rejected any cuts to entitlement programs—and by larger margins than their elders of the 1930 to 1945 cohort. If necessary to protect those programs, a majority of boomers would breach the ultimate conservative taboo: They would accept tax increases on high earners. Paul Ryan conservatives they were not.
Here’s what those right-leaning boomers did mean by “conservatism.” If read a list of scally liberal statements like, “It is the responsibility of government to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves,” boomers became increasingly likely to deliver a stern no over the 20 years between the 1990s and the 2010s. In fact, by 2010, they had become the age cohort most likely to answer no, more so than either their elders or juniors. They were the cohort most likely to attribute individual economic troubles to those individuals’ own personal failings, rather than to ill fortune, racism, or any other systemic cause.
It would be easy to caricature these views as the politics of “I’ve got mine.” But look again at the contrasting generational experiences: People born between 1930 and 1945 entered the workforce just in time to ride the longest boom in middle-class living standards from beginning to end. They bought their first houses when housing was cheap and sold their empty nests in the real-estate bubble of the 2000s. The youngest of them had qualified for Medicare before the Republicans took control of Congress in 2010, and all of them were exempted from the cost cutting projected by Paul Ryan. The boomers had faced more competition for everything, from jobs to housing, and now faced an ominous retirement environment. If they acted like shipwreck survivors in an already overcrowded lifeboat … well, the boat really was jammed awfully tight.
“Seventy-five percent of Americans nearing retirement age in 2010 had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts,” reported Teresa Ghilarducci of The New York Times. They would need their federal retirement benefits much more than they had anticipated back when they were younger and more liberal. The slogan “Keep the Government’s Hands Off My Medicare” was easily mocked, but it actually stated a perfectly plausible position: Who else but the government could lay hands on your Medicare? Among Americans aged 50 to 64, agreement with the sentiment “government has become too involved in health care” rose 16 points between 2009 and 2013. (Among Americans over 65, by contrast, agreement with that sentiment rose only eight points over the same period.) These Americans were not ignorantly denying that the government paid for Medicare. They were indignantly objecting lest government pay for anything else. As when they had resisted the draft in the 1960s, so now when they refused changes to Medicare, the politics of the baby boom generation were the politics of generational self-defense.
In a close and careful 2011 study of the politics of the Tea Party, three Harvard scholars, Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, remarked, “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients.” Tea Partiers differentiated between those who worked (or who had worked) and those who sought something for nothing—in other words, between people as they imagined themselves and the people they imagined competing against them.
The Tea Party was often described as a libertarian movement, opposed to big spending and big deficits. And certainly those were themes often sounded by Republican candidates in the 2010 primaries and elections. But that’s not what Tea Party voters and rally attenders cared about. Here’s a piece of oratory from the TV star made by the Tea Party movement, Glenn Beck, then on Fox News:
Do you watch the direction that America is being taken in and feel powerless to stop it? Do you believe that your voice isn’t loud enough to be heard above the noise anymore? Do you read the headlines every day and feel an empty pit in your stomach … as if you’re completely alone? If so, then you’ve fallen for the Wizard of Oz lie. While the voices you hear in the distance may sound intimidating, as if they surround us from all sides—the reality is very different. Once you pull the curtain away you realize that there are only a few people pressing the buttons, and their voices are weak. The truth is that they don’t surround us at all. We surround them.
We versus them. Not state versus society. Certainly not revenues versus expenditures. We versus them.
In a multiethnic society, economic redistribution inescapably implies ethnic redistribution. I wrote those words after the 2012 election, and they apply even more forcefully after 2016. Of the U.S. residents who lacked health insurance prior to the 2008 financial crisis, 27 percent were foreign born. As the Obama administration squeezed Medicare to fund the Affordable Care Act, it’s not surprising that many white boomers perceived Obamacare as a transfer of health care resources from “us” to “them”—by a president who identified with “them” and not with “us.”
The social scientist Robert Putnam observed with dismay in 2007 that “new evidence from the U.S. suggests that in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” Projects of social and economic reform crash into the reality that human beings most willingly cooperate when they feel common identity. In a society undergoing rapid demographic change, loyalties narrow.
Republican politicians since the 1980s had spoken a language of “hope” and “opportunity.” They repeated the performance in 2015. “We will lift our sights again, make opportunity common again, get events in the world moving our way again,” declared Jeb Bush in his presidential announcement address. “I want to talk to you this morning about reigniting the promise of America,” said Ted Cruz in his, and Marco Rubio likewise hailed “our nation’s identity as a land of opportunity.”
“Believe in America!” “A new American century!” What are they talking about? wondered voters battered and bruised by the previous American century. Donald Trump, the oldest candidate on the Republican stage, was also the first to discern that the political language of the 1980s had lost its power. The most common age for white Americans in 2015 was 55. These older white voters were more eager to protect what they had than to hustle for more. They wanted less change, not more. They cared about security, not opportunity. Protection of the status quo was what candidate Trump offered.
Donald Trump created in effect a three-party system in the United States, by building a new Trump Party in between the Democratic and Republican Parties. In the decisive state of Pennsylvania, for example, Trump and the successful Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Pat Toomey, won almost exactly equal numbers of votes: 2.97 million for Trump; 2.95 million for Toomey. But Trump and Toomey won their votes in very different places. In Pennsylvania’s four richest counties—Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, and Delaware—Toomey received altogether 177,000 more votes than Trump. In all the rest of the state, Toomey ran well behind Trump.
One poll found that nearly half of all white working-class voters agreed with the statement, “Things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country.” As America has become more diverse, tribalism has intensified. The Left’s hopes for a social democratic politics founded on class without regard to race look only slightly less moribund than the think-tank conservatism of low taxes and open borders.
Perhaps the very darkness of the Trump experience can summon the nation to its senses and jolt Americans to a new politics of commonality, a new politics in which the Trump experience is remembered as the end of something bad, and not the beginning of something worse. Trump appealed to what was mean and cruel and shameful. The power of that appeal should never be underestimated. But once its power fades, even those who have succumbed will feel regret.
Those who have expressed regret will need some kind of exit from Trumpocracy, some reintegration into a politics again founded on decency. The best justice is reconciliation, urged Desmond Tutu as he chaired South Africa’s inquiry into its past. That was also the teaching of America’s greatest president too in the country’s most searing agony of trial. If Lincoln could say it then, we can in this so much less harrowing passage surely repeat:
Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.
This article has been adapted from David Frum’s recently released book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.