Monday marks the first night of the Republican National Convention, and things could certainly be going better for President Trump.
He is trailing Joe Biden in the national polls as well as in several key swing states. And FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast currently says Biden — not Trump — is favored to win the election. In fact, circumstances seem so dire for the GOP that election handicappers like the Cook Political Report think the Democrats — once underdogs — are slightly favored to take back the GOP-controlled Senate, too.
So if Republicans were to lose on that scale — the House, the Senate and the presidency — that raises the question: Would the GOP change course?
This is a question I’ve thought about a lot, and it’s one of the reasons why I argue in my book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop,” that America’s two-party system is failing us. With the two parties now fully nationalized, deeply sorted by geography and culture, and locked in a tightly contested, zero-sum battle over “the soul of the nation” and the “American way of life,” it’s nearly impossible to break that cycle. And so I think it’s unlikely that Republicans will become more moderate even if they were to take the shellacking I’ve outlined above.
The problem is that political parties are not singular entities capable of easily changing course. They are, instead, a loose coalition of office-holders, interest groups, donors, activists, media personalities and many others, all jockeying and competing for power. Think of a giant tug of war in which all the tugs have been toward more extreme and more confrontational versions of the party.
In the GOP’s internal rope pull, this has meant that over the past few decades, and particularly since 2010, almost all the would-be moderates have either gravitated toward Trump to stay relevant or simply broken away altogether. And all that momentum in the Republican party is pulling toward a more confrontational, Trumpian direction — even if he is no longer at the helm.
Moderate Republicans are few and far between
Back in March 2019, FiveThirtyEight’s Perry Bacon Jr. described five wings of the Republican Party from most to least Trumpian. The takeaway was clear. The fortunes of those who were the most solidly aligned with Trump (Bacon listed Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina as prominent examples; I’d add Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley) were rising within the party, while the fortunes of the so-called Trump skeptics were falling. Some, like Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, have left the party. Others, like Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, are retiring. And then there are the anti-Trumpers, like former Ohio Gov. and 2016 presidential contender John Kasich, who are now endorsing Biden.
Anybody with any ambitions within the party has, in other words, embraced Trump and Trumpism.
These recent shifts aren’t entirely new, either. They are the latest iteration of a decades-long transformation of the GOP. In short, moderates have been bowing out. And more conservative, more combative, more evangelical, and now more Trumpian Republicans have been stepping up.
In the 2018 midterms, for example, congressional Republicans’ biggest losses came among their most moderate members. The same could happen again in 2020. Not to mention, a good chunk of this cycle’s retiring Republicans are leaving because they not only are tired of Trump and Trumpism but also anticipate being in the House minority again, where they would be powerless.
As political scientist Danielle Thomsen has shown, more and more would-be moderates are opting out of Congress altogether, choosing not to run because they no longer see a place for themselves. This is true in both parties, Thomsen found — but especially among Republicans. Moderates increasingly feel as if they just don’t “fit.”
And that feeling of not belonging may stem in part from party leaders and party activists who want more extreme candidates to run. (It also helps that more partisan candidates are the ones who are naturally drawn to politics.) In a survey of party chairs at the county-level (or equivalent) branch of government in 2013 — well before Trump became president — local party leaders said they preferred more extreme candidates to more centrist candidates. This finding was true especially among Republicans, who preferred extreme candidates by a 10-to-1 margin. (Democrats preferred more extreme candidates just 2 to 1.) If anything, this ratio may be even more lopsided among Republicans. One of the underappreciated changes in the past few years is the extent to which Trump-styled Republicans have taken over the machinery of state and local parties, which means they’ll be able to shape the GOP well beyond 2020, too.
This swing toward more radical candidates may sound surprising — after all, shouldn’t party leaders want to nominate moderates to win? But considering that the overwhelming majority of legislative elections are now safe for one party, most parties can win regardless of who they nominate. In fact, there’s even evidence that the long-standing electoral price of extremism has all but vanished.
These patterns are all part of a vicious cycle that has been feeding on itself for decades. The more extreme the Republican Party has become, the more moderates have opted out or just been passed over. The more moderates have opted out or been passed over, the more extreme the party has become. And the more the Republican Party recedes to just elected officials in solidly conservative states and districts, the more they define the party.
Extreme right-wing media, activists and donors are increasingly influential
Of course, it’s not just elected officials in the Republican Party who are becoming more extreme. Conservative media is part of this trend as well, as it has long played a central role in shaping the GOP. On some days, it’s hard to tell who’s running the country — Trump, or the Fox News hosts who give him many of his ideas (not to mention the rotating cast of characters who have jumped between the administration and the network).
But, at its core, right-wing media is opposition media, built around rejecting liberalism. It is a business driven by outrage and anger. And in its increasingly prominent role in the GOP, it has helped set the tone for the GOP’s existential struggle against liberals’ so-called plans to control everything — media, culture, college campuses. So if Republicans were to go back to being the opposition party because of massive losses in November, right-wing media in its current form would also make it difficult for any would-be moderate Republicans to break through.
As for the rest of the power players in the GOP coalition? They do not offer a moderating influence, either. Key GOP activist groups, including evangelical groups, anti-immigration groups, gun-rights groups, and billionaire donors are far more extreme than the rest of the party. For instance, the Koch brothers have organized something akin to a party within a party at the state level, where they have influenced Republicans to take unpopular positions on taxes, social benefits and climate policy. Libertarian megadonor Robert Mercer has also played an outsize role, funding a variety of conservative organizations that propelled Trump to power, including media outlets like Breitbart.
As a result of these groups’ efforts, elected Republicans are confronted with messaging and advocacy that paint the electorate as more conservative than it really is. This, too, has had the effect of moving the party further to the right. To be sure, the more libertarian business conservatives and more populist social conservatives maintain an uneasy partnership in forming this coalition, but the more they both occupy unpopular positions, the more they must stick together around the shared proposition that the biggest threat to their joint interests is the Democratic Party.
Voters are becoming more extreme
Finally, there are the Republican voters. The GOP is more and more a party of disaffected non-college-educated white people — especially men and those over age 50. And as the Republican Party has traded its younger, college-educated white people — especially women — for the Democrats’ non-college-educated, older white people — especially men — the Republican party’s primary electorate has shifted in ways that make anti-establishment, pro-Trump candidates more prevalent than they were even four years ago, and certainly eight years ago.
Consider, for example, fervently pro-Trump House candidates like Lauren Boebert, who won a surpising primary victory over five-term Republican Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado; Laura Loomer, whose anti-Muslim remarks got her banned from social media, running in Florida; or Marjorie Taylor Greene, the QAnon enthusiast running in Georgia. These candidates are very much products of the 2020 Republican Party.
It has also meant that Republican voters are more anti-establishment and pro-Trump. Political science shows us that voters follow cues from their parties, and are more likely to change their opinions on issues to align with their partisan identity than they are to change their partisan identity to fit with preexisting opinions. So by redefining what it means to be a Republican, Trump has moved opinions of many GOP voters over the past four years.
It is possible that another leader could emerge and reorient the Republican Party again, as Trump did. But many of these trends predate Trump. So it’s far more likely that ambitious politicians will try to work with, rather than against, the sentiments that Trump has kicked up. Case in point: Republican senators facing reelection this November continue to stick with Trump, and almost all 2024 presidential hopefuls are tacking in a very Trumpian direction.
Some may point to Maryland’s Larry Hogan, the popular moderate Republican governor who has also been rumored to have 2024 aspirations, as a potential future for the Republican Party (noting in the same breath, perhaps, two other popular Republican governors, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont). These three governors, however, don’t fit with the national Republican Party. They represent three of the four most highly educated states, where the last vestiges of socially liberal Yankee Republicanism still thrive, and state legislatures are so Democratic that voters like having a check on runaway spending. It’s hard to see Hogan, or a similar candidate, having much appeal to Republican voters outside the Northeast. And even as popular as Baker might be in liberal Massachusetts, he is more beloved by Democrats than Republicans.
Public opinion flips between two extremes
But wait, you say: Isn’t America moving in a much more liberal direction? And, if nothing else, won’t that put pressure on the GOP to moderate? It’s certainly easy to think America is moving in a much more liberal direction if you look at trends in public opinion over the past few years. Historically, though, public opinion is most liberal precisely when liberal policies are least likely to be enacted (like now, and especially in 2017 and 2018, when Republicans had unified control in Washington).
Once Democrats regain control, however, and then try to enact more liberal policies, public opinion will likely shift against them, in a more conservative direction — or at least this is how it has worked historically. Americans favor government until they get it. (Remember in 2009 when it was fashionable to proclaim a permanent Democratic majority?) This is the great irony of American public opinion: It mitigates against moderation because it tells the out-party that they don’t need to move to the middle — that public opinion is moving in their direction. That is, right until they win and start governing based on it.
To be sure, Democrats’ electoral fortunes have risen considerably since 2016, enough to take control of the U.S. House in 2018 and pick up seats across multiple state legislatures. The political “mood” of the country (based on aggregated polling) has moved left, to levels not seen since the early 1960s. But it’s a good bet that this shift, particularly on social issues, is partly anti-Trump backlash, which will dampen when Trump is no longer president.
Few forces of moderation remain
Political analysts will sometimes recount how the Democrats, after losing three consecutive presidential elections, nominated Bill Clinton in 1992 and moved in a more centrist direction. This might feel like a tempting comparison to make with the GOP now, but the key difference is that the Democrats of the early 1990s had a more diverse coalition to draw on that made that kind of pivot possible (even as late as the 1990s, the Democratic Party had plenty of rural and Southern supporters). By contrast, the Republican coalition of today lacks any significant liberal or moderate factions who might pull it back to a more centrist position.
The bottom line: American political parties are not top-down entities, capable of turning on a dime. They are loose networks and coalitions of many actors and groups. And because the Republican Party has been pulling in a more extreme direction for decades now, most Republican moderates have either quit the team or reoriented themselves in a more combative, Trumpian direction to stay alive. And these forces will most likely continue to tug at the party, leaving would-be moderates with the same choice they’ve faced for decades: Quit, or get on board.