The political developments in the Republican Party this election cycle have defied even radical projections. A bombastic real-estate mogul has dominated the primary contest by tapping into a deep disillusionment among the Republican primary electorate that few political analysts fully understood. Mr. Trump has thrived by scathingly criticizing his rivals and offering vague and facile solutions to the portion of America that has felt disenfranchised by social and political change in this country.
It was quite clear from the beginning of his campaign that Mr. Trump cares little for civil discussion of the issues. In his campaign announcement speech, he disparaged Mexican immigrants as criminals despite the fact that they are statistically no more prone to commit crimes than the general population. He has questioned the efficacy of vaccines and, most famously, asserted that he could force Mexico to build and fund a wall along its U.S. border. Political analysts, mainstream news media organizations, and a substantial number of political figures both inside and outside the Republican Party have denounced these assertions as incorrect. However, Trump’s momentum has not wavered.
There are several major drivers of support for the Trump campaign. One is general intolerance. Surveys have shown Trump supporters are much more likely to support policies against Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, racial minorities, and women. Another is opposition to globalization, with many blue-collar workers facing employment pressures in the modern economy. These workers form an important segment of Trump’s base, and with stagnating wages and high unemployment, it is no wonder that they are attracted to a candidate who boasts that he will be “the greatest jobs president that God ever created.” But while it is clear that Mr. Trump is skilled at exploiting these issues, one may wonder why he has been able to build a viable campaign when previous candidates with broadly similar messages, such as Herman Cain or Rick Santorum, had unsuccessful presidential bids.
The answer is that Trump presents a different style. He scorns the type of principled discourse that used to form the bedrock of the party and has instead presented a new tone founded on baseless claims and ad hominem attacks. In response to his rise, many Republican politicians have pleaded with the electorate to reject Trump and embrace the “Republican values” that once supported the party. However, these entreaties miss a fundamental point: that the Republican Party’s abandonment of its own values facilitated the rise of Trump to begin with.
Although true partisan civility has been in decline in the Republican Party since, at latest, the Clinton Administration, the most precipitous decline has occurred since the 2008 election of Barack Obama. Republican leaders such as congressional representative Steve King of Iowa have questioned President Obama’s place of birth and his religion. Other leaders doubted his patriotism. Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, stated, “I do not believe that the president loves America.” Even when discussing policy, Republican Party leaders have digressed into personal attacks on the president. For example, in response to an executive order by Obama on gun control, the speaker of the house, Paul Ryan, stated that Obama’s real objective was to offer “distractions from his failed record.”
This is how the Republicans established their primary mode of interparty political discourse. The Republican Party used the anger and discontent of the Republican electorate to galvanize opposition to the president. However, implicit in these increasingly vitriolic assaults on President Obama and the Democratic Party was a dichotomy: although civil discourse had been abandoned in interparty conflict, the establishment still wanted to maintain civility in intraparty interactions. However, Republican voters could not maintain the cognitive dissonance. When the Republican primary electorate began to feel disenchanted with the state of the party, and the party’s inability to defeat a number of President Obama’s major policy initiatives, they turned their anger on the Republican Party itself. They responded in exactly the way the Republican Party had conditioned them to respond to the Democrats. This led to the rise of Trump, who offers harsh unfounded criticism of the Republican establishment in the same style as the Republican’s criticism of the Democrats. Trump’s strategy did not “deviate from the party,” but it actually emulated its own techniques.
In a perfect example of contrapasso, the Republican strategy of baseless attacks backfired. Trump’s strategy has spread and now even formerly well-mannered Republican politicians, such as Marco Rubio, have been reduced to ridiculing Trump’s “hands.” The few remaining civilized and principled conservatives, such as presidential candidate John Kasich, are now finding it difficult to convey their message to voters. The party that claims the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most eloquent man ever to hold the nation’s highest office, is now finding the voices of the heirs to that legacy drowned out by the unintelligible yelling of their peers.