A few weeks ago, I wrote about the big story of 2020, the creation of America’s 7th party system, in which I argued that the GOP had chosen a Trumpist future, while the Democrats were engaged in a civil war between the left and the center. I still think that is likely the path we are on, but the impeachment explosion has added a new variable: what happens if Republicans actually turn on Trump?
Before digging deeper into this scenario, it is important to understand the various elements that make up a political party. At the top you have the elites; the elected officials, party leaders, and big donors. The next level down is made up of activists. These are the folks willing to attend conventions and party meetings and serve as officers in the local party structure. Finally, you have the real decision makers, the base. The base is made up of primary voters and small donors. Ultimately, they decide the direction of a party.
The elites and activists lost control of the GOP in 2016, and the same nearly happened in the Democratic party. To quote my earlier article:
The election of 2016 started, or perhaps accelerated, the movement towards a seventh party system. Reaganite elites lost touch with the Republican base, and lost control over their party. Republican base voters support Trump because they agree with him. They are instinctively protectionist and isolationist. And their nativist passion to restrict immigration is now the driving force of the new “conservative movement.”
The Democratic Party was nearly also transformed in 2016, but Clinton/Obama elites held off the rise of Bernie Sanders and Democratic Socialism. But that battle continues. 2020 will likely settle things.
I still think the future of the Democratic Party is going to be decided in about six months, in Iowa, New Hampshire, and the Super Tuesday states (Washington’s primary is the week after Super Tuesday). But now there exists the still-slim chance that Republican elites will support impeachment and oust Trump. That would split the Republican Party and create tectonic shifts in the emerging new party system.
Republican elites and even most activists opposed Trump in 2016, and still don’t like him. They remain loyal because they fear the base. Today if you are a Republican elected official or party officer and you dare to oppose Trump, you lose your job. Period.
But what happens if support for impeachment grows to the point among independents and soft Republicans that Republican office holders begin to fear for their own reelections if they don’t abandon Trump? At that point conviction in the Senate becomes possible, and the Republican party and the 2020 election are blown sky high.
If Trump is removed from office a savage Republican civil war will erupt as the base will demand the heads of all who turned and demand the nomination of a new Trump in the race for President. The populist movement Trump has ignited is not going to fade away any time soon. The establishment wing of the party, now forced into open combat, will have to fight for their lives, and will support an anti-Trump for President, such as Mitt Romney. Republican primary races will erupt across the nation. This time, the losing side will not meekly fall in line. The Republican party would split, perhaps even into two separate parties.
There were two possible forms the new party system could take. Either dominance by a centrist Democratic party, or the emergence of a third major party that would stand between the newly socialist Democrats and Nationalist/Populist Republicans. But if this unlikely — but now possible — scenario plays out and at the same time the GOP fractures, the picture gets more complicated.
Perhaps the two parties both fall back under the control of their centrist elites, while the Trumpists bolt the GOP to create a new nationalist party. In that case, at what point do Democratic-Socialists try to form something new? Could we have four parties? On the other hand, if Warren or Sanders is the nominee will Democratic moderates remain loyal, or do they join forces with centrist Republicans?
The nomination, election, and now probable impeachment of Donald Trump has shattered the sixth party system. Our parties are changing and realigning. For the first time since 1912, a three-party system is a realistic possibility.
Who knows where we will be in three more weeks?
Photo by John Bakator on Unsplash
This is very thoughtful piece and there will be much more for people to say. For now I would just observe that the application of the word populist either to Trump or to a future Republican party is fanciful. The true word populist has to do with certain behaviors that have been foreign to both. Populism has nothing to do with tax bills that comfort the comfortable.
Two more thoughts on Chris Vance’s very useful meditations.
First, we need to have more consideration of the reasons why the two party system survives even in the face of the huge pressures that Chris outlines. Of course it is that in the absence of a parliamentary system being one of two parties is the only way to get elected. The third party can’t hope to get to a majority without taking on the structure of the party it is changing. That’s what happened with the Reagan revolution and then again with the Tea Party. And it would have happened with Democrats if Sanders had won the nomination in 2016, which wasn’t even close to transpiring.
Chris talks about the slim chance that Republican elites and electeds could get so troubled by Trump taking other candidates down that they could revolt, causing a Republican civil war. I think the civil war is exactly why there is no chance this could happen. If Trump were deposed, enough of his supporters would walk away in 2020 that the chances of Republican senatorial candidates would be further worsened, rather than improved. This is no path at all.
Instead their only shot would be to get Trump’s full agreement to walk away. It would be threading the needle, because President Pence would have to pardon Trump. After that, even Nikki Haley at the top of the ticket wouldn’t save them. Or would it?