Election 2016 looked on paper like the most sweeping Republican victory since the Jazz Age. Yet there was a hollowness to the Trump Republicans’ seeming ascendancy over the federal government and in so many of the states. The Republicans of the 1920s had drawn their strength from the country’s most economically and culturally dynamic places. In 1924, Calvin Coolidge won almost 56 percent of the vote in cosmopolitan New York State, 65 percent in mighty industrial Pennsylvania, 75 percent in Michigan, the hub of the new automotive economy.
Not so in 2016. Where technologies were invented and where styles were set, where diseases cured and innovations launched, where songs were composed and patents registered-there the GOP was weakest. Donald Trump won vast swathes of the nation’s landmass. Hillary Clinton won the counties that produced 64 percent of the nation’s wealth. Even in Trump states, Clinton won the knowledge centers, places like the Research Triangle of North Carolina.
The Trump presidency only accelerated the divorce of political power from cultural power. Business leaders quit Trump’s advisory boards lest his racist outbursts sully their brands. Companies like Facebook and Microsoft denounced his immigration policies. Popular singers refused invitations to his White House; great athletes boycotted his events. By the summer of 2017, Trump’s approval among those under thirty had dipped to 20 percent.
And this was before Trump’s corruption and collusion scandals begin to bite.
Whatever Trump’s personal fate, his Republican Party seems headed for electoral trouble-or worse. Yet it will require much more than Republican congressional defeats in 2018 to halt Trumpocracy. Indeed, such defeats may well perversely strengthen President Trump. Congressional defeats will weaken alternative power centers within the Republican Party. If they lose the House or the Senate or many governorships-or some combination of those defeats-then Republicans may feel all the more compelled to defend their president. The party faithful may interpret any internal criticism of Trump as a treasonable surrender to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. As the next presidential race nears, it will become ever more imperative to rally around Trump. The more isolated Trump becomes within the American political system as a whole, the more he will dominate whatever remains of the conservative portion of that system. He will devour his party from within.
Maybe you do not much care about the future of the Republican Party. You should. Conservatives will always be with us. If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy. The stability of American society depends on conservatives’ ability to find a way forward from the Trump dead end, toward a conservatism that cannot only win elections but also govern responsibly, a conservatism that is culturally modern, economically inclusive, and environmentally responsible, that upholds markets at home and U.S. leadership internationally.