By Keith Naughton, Ph. D. Co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies/*
The invasion of the Capitol was undeniably a disaster for Trump and the Republican Party. But Democrats should be careful about celebrating. Both parties are facing increasingly fractious politics, and the party that figures out how to walk through the minefield will win in the end.
No chance for a third party
Our electoral system is set up, if inadvertently, for a two-party system. When every office is winner-take-all with no proportionate representation, any third party will find it nearly impossible to win more than a handful of seats. Faced with permanent impotence, their supporters look for a home in one of the major parties.
Neither the populists, the progressives nor Ross Perot’s Reform Party were able to stay independent – and none ever will. The Republican Party only exists due to the collapse of the Whig Party and general pre-Civil War political meltdown.
In Europe, where all governments have parliamentary democracies with proportionate representation (except France and Britain), fringe parties stay independent and collect a share of seats. They bargain for power in coalition with the major parties. Every government in western Europe (again, except France and Britain) has a coalition government.
In Europe the radicals are outside the main parties, in the U.S. they are inside, which means that the Republicans and Democrats will always be fractious coalitions subject to constant internal ideological power struggles.
How we got here
Political systems in all western countries are still grappling with the fallout from the financial collapse in 2008 (and major financial crises always lead to political crises). Populist parties sprang up all across Europe, notably Podemos and Vox in Spain), Five Star in Italy) and AFD in Germany. The left-populist party Syrizia took control of Greece, and right-populist Fidesz runs Hungary. Populists have had success in Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, and India.
The rise of populism in the U.S. is part of a global phenomenon – and the American political leadership has dealt with it very badly.
Barack Obama seemed tailor-made for 2008 – charismatic and intellectual, claiming to identify with the working class. But it turned out to be a lot of talk. Obama is a timid incrementalist, a man aspiring to be the establishment, not fix it. At the heart of the 2008 financial crisis was massive and pervasive fraud. Yet, while millions were losing their homes, the Obama Justice Department prosecuted exactly no one. The recovery was the slowest in modern American history.
Even Obamacare was a financial flop. While Obama touted the reduction in the uninsured (not too tough when you make it illegal), health care costs spiraled upward. After factoring in rising health care premiums and deductibles, median income grew a mere 3 percent from 2009 to 2017.
Obama did nothing substantive to tackle problems of racial inequality, income inequality, confront China or engage in a re-assessment of America’s laundry list of foreign entanglements (arguably, he expanded them).
Obama’s failure to recognize and address rising populism fractured his own party and put Trump on the path to the White House. That Bernie Sanders nearly wrested the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton was a clear rebuke of Obama’s policies.
Obama’s big sweep in 2008 is long, long in the past.
The Democratic Party is a squabbling coalition saturated with poisonous identity politics, conflicting economic visions and in thrall to unpopular tech billionaires. The contradictions barely hold together – and only because of hatred for Trump. Biden’s ascendancy is not an endorsement of the politics of Obama – he was the only candidate barely acceptable to the nation at large.
The Democrats should be concerned. In spite of Trump’s unpopularity and his constant fumbling, he still collected over 75 million votes. Biden didn’t win so much as Trump blew it. Democrats lost seats in the House and only won control (barely) of the Senate by squeaking past two lackluster candidates tarred with insider trading allegations while Trump suppressed the GOP vote.
Republican path forward
As gloomy as things look now, Republicans have a simpler path to winning – but not necessarily easier. The GOP needs to come to grips with its new voter base and jettison Trump.
Trump can’t win back the presidency now: The invasion of the Capitol is just a bridge too far.
Trump had some establishment Republican support, but that is now completely gone. Polling shows independents have turned against Trump. Bans by Twitter and Facebook amputate Trump’s ability to directly communicate not only with his base, but with potential swing voters he would need to win.
Trump could still win the Republican nomination in 2024. The GOP primary system awards early primary winners an outsized proportion of delegates. While this helps force an early decision, it also helps a candidate with hardcore minority support to build a big delegate advantage – perfect for Trump. With alternate online platforms like Parler and Rumble, he could ride victimhood to the nomination – and no one plays a better victim than Trump.
Along the way, expect Trump to wage a scorched earth campaign. For Trump, if he can’t win, then he wants everyone else to lose – even if it would pave the way for a crushing Democratic victory.
Republicans have no choice: They have to do everything possible to disqualify Trump from any future ballot.
Job number one for Mitch McConnell should be to find the 17 votes necessary to convict Trump in the Senate on Impeachment.
In addition, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley need to get it through their heads that there is no sharing with Trump. If they think pandering to hardcore MAGA voters is going to work without knocking Trump out of the box, they are wrong.
The second task for Republicans is understanding that they have a new base that can propel them to victory: working class have-nots. Trump rode a wave of economic resentment and even managed to break through to Hispanics and African-Americans (mostly men).
This means Republicans need to take income inequality seriously. No longer can the party just cut taxes and “let the chips fall where they may” – since mostly the chips have fallen into Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The GOP has to put together a program that is not big government but goes big on cash for the masses. Republicans must become pro-consumer, pro-competition and anti-trust, not pro-business and hands-off on big business.
If Republicans return to being a bunch of flinty Rotarians with a side of Arthur Laffer, they will walk away from their new supporters and hand the Democrats a real majority.
* Keith Naughton, Ph.D. is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Dr. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. He is an Opinion Contributor for the Hill.