Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight offers some thoughts on why the GOP went for Trump.
To me, the most surprising part of Trump’s nomination — which is to say, the part I think I got wrongest — is that Trump won the nomination despite having all types of deviations from conservative orthodoxy. He seemed wobbly on all parts of Reagan’s three-legged stool: economic policy (he largely opposes free trade and once advocated for a wealth tax and single-payer health care), social policy (consider his constant flip-flopping over abortion) and foreign policy (he openly mocked the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War, which is still fairly popular among Republicans).
Previous insurgent Republicans, such as the tea party candidates of 2010 and 2012, had run both as “anti-establishment” candidates and as more conservative than their rivals. Trump kept the anti-establishment branding, although this was also a selling point for Cruz, who often ran neck-and-neck with Trump among voters who said they felt “betrayed” by the Republican Party in exit polls.
But whereas Cruz offered a mix of anti-establishmentism and movement conservatism — and whereas Marco Rubio offered movement conservatism plus a strong claim to electability — Trump’s main differentiator was to double-down on cultural grievance: grievances against immigrants, against Muslims, against political correctness, against the media, and sometimes against blacks and women. And the strategy worked. It’s a point in favor of those who see politics as being governed by cultural identity — a matter of seeking out one’s “tribe” and fitting in with it — as opposed to carefully calibrating one’s position on a left-right spectrum.
What’s much harder to say is whether Trump is a one-off — someone who defied the odds because a lot of things broke in his favor, and whose success will be hard to repeat — or if he signifies a fundamental change in American politics. Trump hasn’t brought a wave of tea party candidates success in gubernatorial and senate primaries; in Indiana, in fact, the same voters who elected Trump also gave establishment-friendly U.S. Representative Todd Young a 67-33 victory in the state’s senate primary over the tea-party-aligned Marlin Stutzman. And the Democrats have had a relatively orderly nomination process. Still, it’s hard to imagine that American politics will ever be quite the same after this.
There’s any number of blog posts and pundits who are seeing this as the end of the Republican party as we’ve known it for the last 100 years. I don’t know if it’s really dead or not; they’ve come back from debacles such as Goldwater ’64 and Watergate, so I wouldn’t count them out completely if — and given the way the world has worked in the last year I’m saying if — they lose in November.
The problem this time is that in order for them to recover, or at the least remain viable until the next election cycle, they have to completely abandon a lot of the orthodoxy that has been the GOP liturgy for the last forty years: interventionist military, social prudery, and economic elitism. That’s an awfully hard hill to climb for them, and even if they tough it up, suck it up, and say Okay, we’re with Trump now, if he leads them over the cliff, it’s hard to imaging that there will be other candidates who come along who can pick up his gilded paper-mache torch and run with it.
And if there are more Trumps out there in the weeds who will take this as a cue that racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are the wave of the future for American politics, then coastal flooding, massive earthquakes and plagues of locusts can’t come soon enough.