Make no mistake: Donald Trump’s victory last week was a white nationalist coup.
After the 2012 election, the Republican Party released a much-discussed “autopsy” report that concluded that the country is changing—becoming less white, less Christian, and more tolerant toward gays and lesbians—and that the party had to adapt to this emerging electorate to remain viable. Donald Trump’s election was driven by those who flatly—and angrily—rejected that conclusion.
It was the last gasp of a coalition in decline, and it was only possible due to interventions by the FBI, unknown hackers, and Wikileaks—and a fourth estate that was incapable of enforcing long-established norms of American democracy on a celebrity demagogue whose greatest gift is an intimate understanding of how to dominate the news cycle.
For years, conservatives had embraced the idea that they were losing “their” country—to immigrants, hyper-PC college kids, and liberal coastal elites who hated them—and Republicans promised that they could turn back the clock and “take it back.” It primed the pump for Trump’s promise to “make America great again.”
But the base that message appealed to was shrinking. Emory University political scientist Alan Abromowitz identified the most loyal Republicans as married white people who identify as Christian. “In American politics today,” he wrote in 2008, “whether you are a married white Christian is a much stronger predictor of your political preferences than your gender or your class—the two demographic characteristics that dominate much of the debate on contemporary American politics.” In the 1950s, white married Christians made up around 80 percent of the American electorate, but by 2004 that core group of the Republican base had fallen to just 40 percent of voters. They will continue to decline; fewer than one-in-five young voters are married white Christians.
It was that shrinking base that wouldn’t allow their party to evolve. As the country became more diverse, Republican congressional districts actually became whiter in 2012, and more conservative. Ryan Lizza identified 80 districts, representing about 12 percent of the voting population, that he called the “Suicide Caucus” because of their ability to “push the Republican Party into a strategic course that is condemned by the party’s top strategists” on issues like LGBT rights and immigration. In these districts, Barack Obama lost to Mitt Romney by an average of 23 points, and Republican representatives beat their Democratic opponents by an average of 34 points. They were insulated from the rest of the country. With a base riled up by conservative media and more fear of a Tea Party primary challenger than a general election defeat, the Suicide Caucus rendered the GOP’s autopsy report a mere footnote to the 2012 election.