“Do you miss me yet? Do you miss me?”
After a five-week hiatus, the 45th President of the United States announced his presence at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to thunderous applause on March 3. Emphasizing his control over his party, Trump declared, “We’re not starting new parties…We have the Republican party.”
Yet, virtually every Republican value is compromised by Trump’s political ideology. Traditional sentiments such as supporting law enforcement and personal responsibility are inconsistent with Trump’s beliefs. Other traditionally Republican ideals, from free trade to immigration reform, have been completely left by the wayside. Consequently, groups that rallied behind Republican values found themselves to be in an uncomfortable position under the Trump administration. For example, big business associations and industry groups — historically Republican-voting groups — were suddenly confronted with tariffs and restrictive trade policies that could badly damage the economy.
Why did House Republicans politicize a bill meant to award Congressional Gold Medals to the Capitol Police? Moreover, why were all but a handful of now-sidelined Republicans so quick to dismiss the idea that Trump’s rhetoric led to the capital insurrection?
Perhaps the only aspects of the Republican platform that haven’t changed are the strict interpretation of the Second Amendment and opposition to abortion. The durability of these two issues for Republicans is telling: both are social questions driven by niche vocal groups. Both issues are a major part of grievance politics, or the conservative version of identity politics. It is rooted in the Southern strategy, a conservative, Civil Rights-era electoral playbook that focused on the votes of Southern whites made uncomfortable by racial equity and inclusion.
Today, the Southern strategy taps into general discontent with divisive issues such as feminism, immigration, globalization and LGBTQ+ recognition. Through the lens of both the Southern strategy and grievance politics, such issues are attacks against America. While American conservatives have practiced grievance politics, often to great success, no national politician before Trump has successfully channeled the phenomenon.
While Nixon made appeals to the “silent majority,” Trump went a step further by granting legitimacy to ostracized extremist groups. Where Reagan preached distrust of institutions, Trump brought conspiratorial rants against a supposed deep state into the mainstream. Similar to the racial rhetoric from the Jim Crow era, Trump drew a firm line between True Americans who he believes belong in the U.S. and those who don’t.
In 2016, Trump’s grievance politics ran contrary to the Republican Party’s attempts to rebrand itself. For example, a 2012 report by the Republican National Convention bluntly stated, “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.” However, since Trump, immigration has become a bipartisan nonstarter.
This is in line with long-term trends. Every time Republicans have sought to reinvent themselves, the Southern strategy acted as a winning formula from which the GOP has been unable to divorce itself. 2016 proved to be no exception. Trump’s genius didn’t lie in using grievance politics to continue the Southern strategy, but rather his understanding of its true appeal.
While his predecessors couched their rhetoric in terms of economics and opportunity, Trump tapped into pure resentment. He sparked resentment in the policies he ran on, that were less focused on producing positive outcomes for Americans as they were on redirecting blame. This is underscored by Trump entering a trade war with China without any real endgame. Under Trump, Republicans finally took grievance politics to its natural conclusion: standing for no meaningful policy and having no real vision for their constituents other than resentment.
Interestingly enough, this puts Republicans in a comfortable position for the next couple of years. For Republicans, issues such as abortion and gun rights are useful because they galvanize their base. If their constituents truly had their way, Republicans would lose some of their most devout and active supporters. Currently, Republicans are an opposition party, meaning they can continue to put Democrats at the heart of America’s problems rather than implement their own substantive policy. In this position, Republicans can maximize the political utility of abortion, gun rights and other grievance politics.
Post-Trump, Republicans lost any opportunity for change. Those Republicans who spoke at CPAC weren’t emulating Trump out of love, but out of the pervasiveness of his political beliefs. Furthermore, no real opposition to Trump’s continued influence developed within the Republican Party, with prominent moderates and detractors in fact being shunned from CPAC.
Trump was the culmination of the Southern strategy and grievance politics, the likes of which are now consuming the Republican party. For the foreseeable future, grievance politics will likely bring Republican victories. Across the country, Republican-controlled state legislatures are set to continue the Southern strategy, preserving the strength of white turnout through restrictive voting procedures that disproportionately affect minority voters. The Republican Party understands that these practices remain unsustainable in the long run. With their official commitment to grievance politics and their inability to articulate a well-defined vision for America, the question isn’t whether or not the Republican party will survive, but for how long.
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Email Jack Li at [email protected]