Maybe Ted Cruz and John Kasich looked at the numbers and just gave up. Or more likely, Republican grandees decided that short-circuiting the final primaries would deprive Donald Trump of the oxygen of campaigning, thus buying a few quiet weeks to regroup. Instead, the party’s slowly widening fracture is now a gaping, unbridgeable chasm. The Bushes, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Lindsey Graham can hold their collective breath until they pass out; their condemnations only strengthen Trump’s grip on the news cycle and further embolden his most ardent supporters. This is a candidate who understands only one language: brute animal dominance. Trump has won. A generation of unimaginative and entitled Republican careerists have lost. Period. It’s Trump’s campaign, Trump’s nominating convention, and—for now at least—Trump’s Republican Party.
That makes it all the more important to recognize that, while Trump is a captivating celebrity, his electoral appeal—at least thus far—remains narrow. His support cannot be called a movement; he merely stretches the edges of the permanent resentment faction—mostly white, mostly male—that has figured continuously in our political scene, in various guises, since the George Wallace campaign of 1968. Often, the resentment faction votes Republican, egged on by Roger Ailes’s Fox News and smart GOP operatives of the Lee Atwater/Roger Stone school, backed up by enthusiastic dog-whistle politicking from mainstream Republican officeholders like Reagan and the Bushes. Sometimes, if the dog whistles aren’t loud enough, the resentment faction stays home, as it largely did in 2012. Occasionally, it aligns with a protest candidate like Ross Perot. But it’s always with us.
To begin thinking sensibly about the campaign to come, take a close look at Trump’s numbers in the final primaries—not the percentages for each candidate, but the raw vote. One of the most salient facts of American politics—so easy to forget in these emotionally charged days—is that primaries are nearly always spectacularly low-turnout events. Most Americans wait them out, and this year is no different. Trump’s victory in my own state, Connecticut, on April 26, for example, was widely described as overwhelming, since he crushed Cruz and Kasich on the percentages. But that is only because, even in the highest-profile GOP primary in decades, the overwhelming majority of Connecticut Republicans stayed home. Out of 429,000 registered Republicans, in a state with 2.1 million registered voters overall, Trump won Connecticut with just 123,000 votes. In other words he secured what he is now claiming as a “mandate from the voters” from less than 6 percent of the Connecticut electorate. (Yes, Trump motivated 60,000 more Connecticut Republicans than Mitt Romney did four years ago, but that only speaks to Romney’s weakness late in the uninspiring 2012 primary, not to the breadth of Trump’s support.) The same pattern held for the final showdown in Indiana: Trump persuaded 590,000 Hoosiers to pull the lever for him, more than Romney garnered four years ago. But is that really a lot of votes when there are 4.6 million registered voters in the state, any of whom could have declared themselves Republican on primary day under the state’s rules? Trump’s knockout blow in Indiana came from just 13 percent of the eligible primary electorate.
Is it alarming that Trump’s openly xenophobic and race-baiting campaign has inspired more voters to support him than the career Republicans dancing a bit more politely at the edge of these same resentments? Of course. But Trump’s primary victory doesn’t represent the tyranny of the majority; instead, it’s the heckler’s veto. If the question is whether the future of American democracy hangs in the balance, that makes all the difference.
At the same time, it would certainly be foolish to insist, in this year of political surprises, that Trump can’t win. He could—especially if, as Thomas Edsall suggested in a carefully reasoned May 11 column, more white voters are keen to pull the lever for Trump than will admit it to pollsters. Trump’s unlikely but conceivable route to victory lies in only one direction: in the same low turnouts that powered his standing as the presumptive Republican nominee. In other words, by turning the general election into a primary. Trump wins only through psychological voter suppression: a protracted campaign of such ugliness, directed at a Democratic nominee already widely disliked and mistrusted, that vast numbers of voters in key electoral college states become even more alienated from politics than they are now and stay home in November, as they did in March and April. Trump’s road to the White House is therefore through what Jesse Jackson, describing how low Democratic and African-American turnout helped elect Nixon and Reagan, used to call “the margin of our despair.”
Trump clearly understands all of this. While he may be the most profoundly anti-intellectual candidate ever to seize the nomination of a major American political party, his is in fact a campaign of ideas. He knows that Reagan conservatism—the three-way union of free-market economics, cultural conservatism, and muscular military unilateralism—isn’t an eternal Republican ideal but rather a product of the last five minutes of history, secured in the early ’80s by Reagan operatives purging pro-choice, moderate, and otherwise diverse officeholders from the party. Those five minutes are over now, and every one of this year’s pols who hitched a ride on the Reagan ideological bandwagon is sitting forlorn by the roadside. In 2016, a Republican other than Trump might have won if she or he had had the good sense to notice that on cultural issues, corporate globalization, and militarism alike, the ground beneath Reaganism has long since eroded. For all of his narcissism, Trump understands what Cruz, Kasich, and 14 other candidates refused to reckon with: A Republican wins in this era of painful, unprecedented economic inequality by effectively taking everything else—abortion, gay rights, military expansion, and global free trade—off the GOP menu. The problem, of course, is that without those classic conservative issues, all the GOP would have left is racism, anti-immigrant panic, misogyny, and the generalized resentment so often mobilized on conservatism’s behalf. This formula is what Trump has been ready and willing to exploit.
Trump’s triumph and the GOP identity crisis is also a decisive moment for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party of Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Old-fashioned Democrats like the Clintons (even back when they called themselves New Democrats) like to win the old-fashioned way—with voter organizations they can control, closely tied to state-party machinery. It’s not exactly voter suppression, but it’s not exactly embracing new grassroots constituencies and voter-registration campaigns either. That’s why the Democratic Party made the early tactical error of scheduling its presidential debates on low-audience weekend nights. (Why would you want millions of American voters to watch your candidates, for heaven’s sake? They might make up their own minds!) That’s why Bill Clinton could, just weeks ago, roll his eyes and speak of Bernie Sanders’s young supporters with unconcealed contempt, even though his wife now needs them in November. This year, that kind of traditional Democratic operation just won’t cut it. In the face of a weary and skeptical public, it will take high turnout across a potent and diverse combination of highly motivated constituencies—and across the generational divide—to ensure Clinton’s majority in the electoral college if she is the nominee. Today’s Democratic Party, built primarily to raise money for incumbents, can’t deliver that on its own.
Unfortunately, the Republican crack-up also lands Hillary squarely in the Clinton comfort zone: campaigning for the Republican, or Republican-leaning, votes. “Let’s get off the red or the blue team. Let’s get on the American team,” she said within days of the Indiana primary. Zigzagging to the right was the key to Bill Clinton’s electoral success in 1992 against the unpopular incumbent George H.W. Bush. It is an understandably tempting playbook. But this year, it would also be a grave error that would suck the Democratic Party and the country into what is now a Republican crisis.
Hillary and Bill Clinton long ago defined their politics by their own fears: post-McGovern, Reagan-era fears of being seen as too dovish, too squishy on welfare, too far out in front on gay rights, or simply too bold in advancing a social vision. It was that sort of fear that led Bill Clinton’s administration to fold its cards on one civil-rights issue after the other in the 1990s and to consolidate rather than challenge market deregulation; that drove Senator Hillary Clinton to vote for the Iraq War; and that motivated her, as secretary of state, to resist rapprochement with Iran rather than change the game like her successor, John Kerry. President Obama, whatever his flaws, has led the country for eight years with a different style—so often showing steely resolve to change the terms of debate on key issues, originating in what is clearly a series of personal moral commitments to the American social contract. That is a powerful example, very different from anything on the menu at Camp Clinton.
Here’s the reality: Republican voters uncomfortable with Trump may stay home altogether, or vote the undercard and leave the presidential line blank. A few may even vote for Hillary. But hatred of the Clintons runs deep, rooted equally in unfair Republican smears like Benghazi and in the Clintons’ own self-inflicted history of unprincipled entitlement, from the 1994 Crime Bill through Hillary’s Wall Street speeches. Republicans and Republican-leaning unaffiliated voters will not carry Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders, for that matter) to the White House, or secure a Democratic congressional majority.
If Candidate Clinton wants to become President Clinton—and wants to secure the congressional support to govern—she needs to start by recognizing the central difference between 1992 and this year. In 2016, the core message among both Democratic and Republican voters is “It’s the inequality, stupid.” Deft turns to the right can’t address that central reality. Trump’s victory only escalates the stakes in the argument represented by, but not limited to, Bernie Sanders’s insurgency.