Rebranding the right: Republicans, and the republic, post-election

The Tea Party is dead, long live the “T” Party. That’s T, as in Trump.

Anti-immigration protesters in Texas, 2010

Anti-immigration protesters in Texas, 2010

Win or lose, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has served up a new blend of right-wing populism, strained through the alt-right fever swamps and repackaged under the Trump brand. Whether or not his name ever adorns the North Portico, Trumpism may well have secured its place as a force in U.S. political life.

“It’s a different branch of American populism than the Tea Party was,” says Lawrence Rosenthal, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies. The GOP nominee, he says, “got that things had become irreconcilable between that base and the Republican establishment. And he got it that this is the biggest voting bloc in the primaries,” a constituency for whom immigration is a “do-or-die issue.”

“He came out so overwhelmingly on the side of the populists,” says Rosenthal, a frequent blogger for the Huffington Post and co-editor of Steep, a 2012 book on the rise of the Tea Party. “He saw them and raised them— ‘I’m gonna build a wall.’ He began saying things that people weren’t even saying on the Tea Party blogs. And he electrified them.”

Trump “probably was aware of the likes of the alt-right people,” he says, referring to the Internet-savvy movement Media Matters calls “a rebranding of classic white nationalism for the 21st century,” and whose prominent promoters — in addition to Donald Trump Jr., a regular retweeter of alt-right memes — include Trump campaign CEO Stephen Bannon, late of the fiercely fringe-right Breitbart News. “But the Tea Party, to its credit, didn’t allow them to take over. And they tried. But Trump has successfully appended that to the populism of the Tea Party.”

And there’s still another important way in which Trump has put his stamp on right-wing populism, Rosenthal says.

“Populism of the right has been about culture,” he says. “He has managed to hold onto that”— see, for example, the recurring attacks on “political correctness” from Trump, Ben Carson, et al. — “and at the same time talk to financial and economic issues, which are historically the province of populism of the left.” (See: Sanders, Bernie.)

Notwithstanding some overlap on issues like trade agreements and Wall Street clout, he doubts Trump can capture many of Sanders’ primary-season supporters, for whom “the idea of somebody running against Mexicans just doesn’t compute.”

The possibility that they simply won’t vote, on the other hand, might help explain why Trump has doubled down on nativist rhetoric just when, in the view of the pundit class, he should be making his message more palatable to undecided voters. Rather than expand his own support, the strategy may be to shrink his opponent’s.

“How do you defeat Hillary? You make her people stay home. You make her toxic.”

‘A struggle among warlords’

On that front, Trump has had plenty of help from his alt-right boosters, some of whose hostility to Mexican immigrants, especially, runs counter to the consensus among GOP leaders — as expressed in the Growth and Opportunity Project report, better known as “the autopsy,” following Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss to Barack Obama — that shifting U.S. demographics demanded the party “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” if it hopes ever to regain the White House. While Trump rails at “Crooked Hillary” — and supporters shout “Lock her up!” — his “America first” campaign has only bolstered a reputation for intolerance his party’s elders were hoping to shed.

Lawrence Rosenthal

Lawrence Rosenthal

Had there been any doubt about leaders’ unhappiness with their party’s direction, a recent story in BuzzFeed, headlined “Republicans Privately Panic at ‘Terrifying’ Prospect of Trump Win,” conveyed party regulars’ horror in the face of their nominee’s rising poll numbers, and their dread of poking the populist bear. Most spoke anonymously.

Some things, at least, never change. Trumpism may be new, but the awkward dance between party elites and ultraconservative, often unruly factions is not, notes Rosenthal. “First it was the Moral Majority, then it was the Christian right, and then it was the Tea Party.” Party leaders, he says, “kind of made their accommodations with them, and now the gig is up. They’ve been riding a tiger, and” — should Trump prevail on Nov. 8 — “they will finally have been eaten by the tiger.”

“If Trump wins, it’s his party,” he says. “You will get the Republican Party having been transformed into a xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-free-trade party” akin to the National Front in France, “all these parties that have developed on the far right in Europe, and have always been fringe, but less so than here.”

He expects that even Republicans who may be privately terrified— or publicly vilified — by Trump and his devotees are likely to adjust to the amped-up, ascendant populism personified by the man who would be not just the nation’s commander-in-chief, but the GOP’s new chief honcho.

“For the most part, history tells us, they will try to make their accommodations,” says Rosenthal. “More will stick with Trump than go away.

“There may be some who leave, but the Republican leadership I don’t think will cut out. I think they’ll tell themselves, ‘We’ll show him how to do this. He doesn’t know how to run the country, and he’ll listen to us.’”

And if Trump fails in his bid for the White House?

“If he loses, the Republican Party is going to turn into something like a struggle among warlords,” Rosenthal predicts.

“There will be the Trump branch, now invigorated. I think the Tea Party per se is finished. It will break into libertarians, the particular right-wing populists who have clung to the Tea Party all along, and the free-market absolutists.” There are also “constitutional conservatives” like Ted Cruz, who Rosenthal insists, notwithstanding his contentious appearance at July’s GOP convention, will be heard from again.

As for who would dominate the Republican Party in the event of a Trump loss, “I put my money on the free-market absolutists, and in particular on the Koch brothers” — who are not, he points out, allies of Trump. “And the reason is that they have been building a parallel structure for years, and they have more money than everybody else.

“They represent a kind of corporate conservatism, extreme conservatism, that has direct connection to the corporate conservatives who wailed about the New Deal in the 1930s — what FDR called the ‘economic royalists.’ And they were the people who, behind closed doors, would call him ‘Franklin Delano Rosenberg.’ You know, those guys. They’ve had the project of taking over the Republican Party forever. And this is their opportunity.”

Whoever comes out on top, though, it’s likely to be a bumpy ride.

“The fight will resemble, I think, the battle that gave rise to the Republican Party in the 1850s, and the collapse of the Whig Party,” which made the fatal mistake of nominating Zachary Taylor, a slaveholding hero of the Mexican-American War now widely considered among the nation’s worst presidents. “It will be that ugly.”

On the other hand, the death of the Whigs gave birth to the party that became what today’s conservatives are fond of calling “the party of Lincoln.”

“The Republican Party gets founded in 1854,” observes Rosenthal, “and they win the presidency six years later.”