The Death of Establishment Politics

donald-trumpDuring the primary battles Donald Trump made his attack on the Republican establishment a central feature of his campaign. With his strong populist message, he ultimately triumphed over all of his primary contenders and decisively clinched the Republican nomination.

Yet Donald Trump was a contentious figure from the very beginning.  Many prominent Republicans saw him as being so objectionable and abrasive that they could not support him.  Some claimed he was not a “true” Republican, citing the many years that Trump was a registered Democrat supporting Democratic candidates and policies, before becoming an Independent, and only a few years ago joining the Republican Party.

Establishment Republicans, incensed that Trump was taking the Party away from its traditional ideals, fought back.  They mounted a vigorous “Never Trump” campaign which, for a time, seemed to be gaining steam.  By the final weeks of the presidential campaign 275 prominent Republicans either currently or previously serving in federal state and party administrations had gone on record saying they could not in good conscience vote for Donald Trump.  Another 55 conservative academics, journalists and commentators had also declared their opposition to Trump.

bernie-sandersOn the other side of the fence, Bernie Sanders mounted a vigorous populist campaign from the left during the primary season against the favored establishment candidate of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton.  The Sanders campaign strongly criticized the Democratic National Committee for siding with Clinton and working behind the scenes to ensure her nomination.  In the end, despite summoning large enthusiastic crowds wherever he went and winning 22 state primaries, Bernie Sanders had to yield to Clinton as the Democratic nominee.

Despite Hillary Clinton’s embrace of some of Sander’s progressive language, most observers were convinced that she actually represented the party’s establishment center and would remain faithful to its ideals if elected.

trumpclintonThe resulting contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the official candidates of the two parties quickly devolved into a mudslinging match over personalities and trustworthiness rather than policy issues.  Americans as a whole were disappointed with both candidates.  In the tallying of last Tuesday’s vote it was discovered that many people had left the top of their ballots blank, voting for neither presidential candidate, while filling in the remainder of the ballot largely along party lines.

After all the votes have been counted (they are still being tabulated) Hillary Clinton, the Democratic establishment candidate, is expected to win the popular vote by some 2 million votes. However, Donald Trump has chalked up the most Electoral College votes, and in the early hours of Wednesday morning was proclaimed as the President-elect.

Laying a New Course

Donald Trump’s victory leaves a divided party in its wake.  Populism triumphed over conservative ideology, leaving many party conservatives on the outside looking in.  Commentators have noted Trump’s long record of vindictiveness toward those who publicly oppose him.  The experienced establishment old-hands within the party who had opposed him will have no place in his administration.

This divide extends to sitting members of Congress.  Following the shift in conservative ideology in Congress with the rise of the Tea Party in 2010 (typified by Ted Cruz and others), Speaker of the House Paul Ryan is seen by many as the last prominent torchbearer of Reaganite Republicanism.  But now that too is in jeopardy.

paul-ryan-800x430On the night of the election, as Paul Ryan was back in his home state of Wisconsin with his supporters celebrating his re-election victory (with Fox News coverage of the election playing in the background), Sean Hannity came on the TV saying that Paul Ryan should not remain Speaker of the House since he had not supported Donald Trump during the campaign.

This past weekend Donald Trump announced that Steve Bannon would serve as the chief strategist in his administration working on par with (rather than under) Reince Priebus who will be Trump’s Chief of Staff.  Bannon, who was senior editor of Breitbart News before becoming the head of Trump’s campaign team, has targeted Paul Ryan as the “the enemy” – the very epitome of establishment Republicanism. He called on his staff at Breitbart to destroy Ryan, pledging that he would be gone as Speaker by this spring.”

A battle for control of the House and Senate looms as Donald Trump and his administrative team prepare to take charge.  It is not the traditional battle between Democrats and Republicans – Republicans have a safe majority in both Houses following the election – but between sitting establishment Republicans and the Trump Administration.

A cardinal feature of traditional Republican ideology has been a commitment to small government and balanced budgets.  Yet Donald Trump has promised to repeal Obamacare and replace it with a comprehensive system of coverage that is “even better,” to launch a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure renewal program, and to end sequestering and dramatically increase military expenditures, all while reducing taxes.

David Frum. (CHUCK KENNEDY)The conservative critic David Frum has stated that Donald Trump is bringing the same business plan to government that he has used so successfully in his own business empire, namely, borrow as much money as you can from other people and never pay it back.

Will conservatives in Congress go along with Trump’s return to “big government” (Keynesian-styled) expenditures to expand the economy with its resulting huge deficits, or will they balk?  The next vote on the Debt Ceiling comes up in mid-March, shortly after Congress resumes sitting, so we shall soon see.

Members of Congress must choose their sides carefully.  Donald Trump has displayed a well-established pattern of retaliating against all those who publicly oppose or criticize him.  If members don’t side with Trump, will their access to campaign funds be cut when they seek re-election?  Will they be primaried out of the nomination?  The pressure on them to back Trump’s agenda will be immense – even if it flies in the face of traditional conservative Republican values.

On the other hand, if the Republican members of Congress closely align themselves with the Trump administration and the economy tanks, or inflation spikes, or the anticipated job numbers don’t improve, or the US becomes mired down in another war, or Trump is brought down in a major scandal – in short, if the Trump revolution falls apart for any of a variety of reasons – will voters blame his supporters in Congress for the mess?  Will these Republicans be able to survive the next election referendum?

The Challenge for Democrats

Democrats also face a number of challenges in the days and months ahead.  In backing the widely disliked establishment candidate from their own party in the 2016 election, they have not only forfeited the presidency, but also both houses of Congress.

Just as the Republican Party did after their 2012 election loss to Barack Obama, they will need to conduct a thorough post mortem to determine why they lost this election so unexpectedly and decisively.  They will need to identify their own winning coalition of voters for the next election and decide how they can best appeal to them.

bernie-crowdIf they are wise, they will revisit the Bernie Sanders phenomenon of the primary season and identify the factors that so enthused his base (Hillary had her loyalists, but she never succeeded in enthusing the masses).  One basic factor is already evident: Bernie excited younger voters; they turned out for him in huge numbers.  They identified with him in a way that they never did with Hillary Clinton.  Polls show that if Bernie Sanders had been on the ticket opposite Donald Trump he would have won the election handily.

The nation’s demographics are changing.  The baby boomer generation is retiring and will soon be dropping in numbers while the millennial generation continues to grow in size and influence. One remarkable map drawn up after the election shows how the electoral college vote would have gone if one only counted the votes cast by 18 – 25 year olds.  It would have generated an enormous landslide of 504 votes for the Democratic candidate to just 23 for Donald Trump.

youth-vote-2016The Sanders faction is not waiting around for the next election.  They have launched campaigns to replace party officials in many states and are actively lobbying for the selection of a new Chair of the Democratic National Committee who will be more supportive of their concerns.  And they are already lining up progressive candidates for the next presidential election in 2020.

The 2016 election marked a remarkable sea change in American politics.  In a very real sense, the primary division is no longer between conservatives and liberals but between establishment and populist candidates.  In this election the establishment candidates – on both sides of the aisle – lost out, while voters rallied around their populist choices.

In the coming months we will witness parallel contests within the Republican and the Democratic camps for control of the party machinery moving forward to the next election.  Will the establishment forces be able to wrestle control back from the populist insurgents?  Or will the populists – on both the left and right – become the new face of both parties?

Photo credits: APP/Getty Images; Jim Watson/AFP; Chuck Kennedy; AP