Trump and the New 2016 Republican Game of Musical Chairs: What is this, really, all about? Part I
The Conservative movement in the United States consists of distinct, overlapping social groups, once politely comfortable with one another's presence under the tent of the Republican Party, but today engaged in a nasty power struggle to define an agenda of "true" Conservative action, or inaction, for the future. The Trump phenomenon has highlighted the most important fault lines emerging inside the Republican Party (there is very little meaningful difference between the terms Republican and Conservative in US politics today), threatening the election chances of the GOP in 2016. This is the first in a series of articles about what the Trump phenomenon means for American politics today. First, let's make sure we understand just what we are talking about when we say "Republican" or "Conservative." While the list below is not definitive, it is a rough approximation of what US Conservatism/Republicanism consists of on the ground.
1. The "Old Guard." This faction consists of moneyed interests identifying with the Republican Party since 1890. Members of this group used to be called "Rockefeller Republicans," including well-heeled elites from traditional sectors of "Wall Street." Less operationally influential in the past two decades, this faction nevertheless is a heavy lifter in the all-important funding sweepstakes of presidential politics.
2. Main Street: a large portion of small business owners, small town bankers, franchise owners, small-scale entrepreneurs, who enjoy folkloric status as the attractive backbone of the party. It is an America composed of these stalwart, well-intentioned citizens that Republicans point to when seeking presidential votes. Since Ronald Reagan, however, the "city on the hill" image he evoked to sell Conservatism has grown stale, and new groups of Republicans, less comfortable in the world, have been banging on the Republican door for attention.
3. Regional Elites, in places like Arizona and the Midwest, who never accepted the Roosevelt welfare state, and who would like to reduce its scale. These groups have become more rhetorically active on such subjects as gun control and immigration, abortion, and have formed powerful alliances with largely Protestant church-goers in what has come to be known as The Religious Right.
4. Southern Whites: these are formerly Democrats, attracted to traditional family values, law and order, state's rights, patriotism, and the like, but whose underlying appeal is (a) to negate government efforts to address the legacies of inequality and poverty and (b) reject some of the postulates of Neoliberalism. The Republican Party has become a national party in great part because of the success of Republican operatives in creating a mass migration of Southern Whites to the Republican Party. On the other hand, neoliberal national policies (see below), implemented by both parties, have eliminated many high paying jobs in the South, leaving Southern Whites politically stranded, competing in Republican circles with other newly emerging voices, and ever more prone to joining up with the Religious Right and other angry elements in the population.
5. Neoliberals: a dominant, bipartisan faction in Congress during the 80s and 90s, stressing free trade, shifting resources to help what is called the New Economy based on technology rather than industrial strength. Little operational strength, but influential among Conservative policy think tanks
6. Neoconservatives: A small faction, powerful during the Post-Cold War period, emphasizing an aggressive, sometimes openly imperial, foreign policy. Structurally, neoconservatives played an important role in channeling anger among Southern Whites and Regional elites into an aggressive anti-terrorist national policy, particularly under George Bush.
7. Libertarians, who hope to unify the various component elements of the Republican Party behind a well developed purist ideology of small government with an added component of reversing the centralization of power through oppressive institutions infringing on civil liberties, and the bipartisan failures of and activist American Foreign policy since the Gulf War. Almost the polar opposite of Neoconservatism.
8. The failure of Republican leaders during moments they held power, to satisfy the inclinations of Southern Whites, regional elites, and libertarians, has given rise to an anti-establishment backlash within the Republican Party, known as the Tea Party, bent on lowering taxes cutting government spending, often in a style emphasizing highly authoritarian outlooks on life.
So there you have it. As you might imagine, tensions have been increasing between these groups, as newer groups of Conservatives have gained more adherents within the Republican Party. But as the pre-presidential election year of 2015 began, the stage was set for what appeared to be an interesting, but predictable pre-primary season. The Tea Party, flaunting its electoral gains in the past five years, would enforce rhetorical compliance among establishment candidates for a deeply anti-government doctrine. The mood of the Republican electorate would determine whether immigration, law and order, foreign policy, or other themes would gain traction, but in the end Jeb Bush, with access to most of the above factions, and with tons of money, would prevail to take on Hillary and probably win the election. Three unexpected things upset this apple cart: The dramatic increase in systemic violence in the Middle East and at home; the improbable candidacy of Donald Trump, and, to a lesser extent, the popularity of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. Part II will focus on these issues.