Donald Trump’s defeat and his contesting the results raise many questions about the Republican Party and its future. How will the party adapt to demographic changes in the United States and the complexities of an electorate influenced by social changes? Despite his defeat, why did Trump receive so much voter support? Why did he increase his support within some sectors of the working class and among people of color?
The Republican Party’s situation today is contradictory. The party is viewed as an archaic apparatus that can win a national election only based on the Electoral College while continually losing the popular vote. So, on the one hand, Trump was categorically defeated, becoming one of the few incumbent presidents in U.S. history to lose an election. But on the other hand, his campaign turned some new sectors into Republican voters, and he won the second-most votes of any presidential candidate ever.
In the 1830s, the Democratic Party was based mainly in the South, and it strongly supported slavery. Its Northern base split away to form the Whig Party, mostly over disagreements with Andrew Jackson, a slaveowner and the seventh U.S. president. Eventually, most of the Whigs merged into a new Republican Party, founded in 1854 by opponents of legislation that permitted the expansion of slavery into the western territories of the growing United States. Its first presidential candidate, John C. Fremont, won 11 of the 16 Northern states in 1856. The next time around, in 1860, the first Republican president was elected — Abraham Lincoln, who confronted the secessionist Confederacy in a Civil War over slavery that killed hundreds of thousands. With the defeat of the slave states, the Republican Party, which had also won both houses of Congress, used its power in 1865 to push through the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned slavery. During the postwar Reconstruction era, the Republican Party gave Black people the legal right to vote. In fact, Southern state delegations to Republican national conventions were largely Black until the beginning of the 20th century.
The origins of the party are thus firmly rooted in opposition to America’s “peculiar institution.” So how did the party that fought for the abolition of slavery get to where it is today? The shift to today’s Republican Party began in the late 19th century, when the party shifted its focus to fiscal policy, making itself a friend to big business. Republican Herbert Hoover was in the White House when the Depression hit. Black people in the South had already begun to shift away from the Republican Party after Reconstruction, and by the time Franklin Roosevelt was elected in 1932, they were mostly voting Democratic up north, where tens of millions of Black southerners had migrated. In the South, though, Black disenfranchisement had become institutionalized under the Jim Crow regime.
In the run-up to World War II, the Republican Party was strongly isolationist, anti–New Deal, and passionate about limited government and the free market. After the war the party embraced the Cold War, driven by strong anti-communism. By 1964, the party’s presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, had solidified the party’s right-wing, libertarian-oriented base.
Southern Democrats, meanwhile, solidified their opposition to desegregation and the civil rights movement, which began after the war and exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. When Black Southerners regained the right to vote through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they began to shift again to the Democratic Party, clashing with the segregationists still in control. This created an opportunity for Republicans in the South. Goldwater had opposed the Civil Rights Act in his earlier campaign; in 1968, Richard Nixon unveiled the “Southern strategy” in his presidential campaign. The essence of this strategy was to appeal to the racism of Southern white Democrats, or “Dixiecrats,” who felt the Democratic Party was being taken over by Black voters. Since then, the Southern states have been a reliably monolithic Republican source of Electoral College votes — although until the late 1980s there were still some “liberal” Republican voters, primarily in New England, who had been among the bourgeois voices against the Vietnam War.
From the Southern strategy onward, the shift among Republicans began to spread nationally. While maintaining its fiscal conservatism, the party embraced culture wars and any reactionary mass of voters looking for a home — including single-issue voters, such as anti-abortionists and homophobic evangelicals. With U.S. demographics changing, Republicans saw this as a way to remain viable.
In mid-March 2013, after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election against Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee released its “Growth and Opportunity Project,” the so-called “autopsy report.” It was an extensive self-examination of how the party had failed so profoundly with its campaign messaging, and it aimed to set a course for the future. Its authors engaged tens of thousands of voters through interviews, online surveys, and polls — including many people of color. The conclusion: the party was filled with “stuffy old men,” had become “out of touch,” and was busy “talking to itself.” Voters saw the Republicans as a party that did not “care about people.”
One key recommendation was that the Republican Party “must embrace and champion comprehensive-immigration reform,” or it would continue to shrink. Romney had advocated the crazy idea of “self-deportation”; exit polls said he won only 27 percent of the Latino vote.
Trump, a couple of years ahead of announcing his run for president with a racist appeal to keep Mexican “murderers” and “rapists” out of the United States, tweeted: “New @RNC report calls for embracing ‘comprehensive immigration reform.’ Does @RNC have a death wish?”
The autopsy was embraced in principle but rejected in practice. Instead, the Republicans nominated a candidate with a scorched-earth policy of racism and xenophobia. Trump pulled out a win in the primaries despite doing the exact opposite of what the autopsy called for, and despite opposition across the board from the party’s establishment, which never expected him to triumph. He won a narrow victory in 2016, thanks to the Electoral College system, and he has led what is now his party to where it is today.
Republicans and the Neoliberal Order
Over time, the Republican Party has adopted extreme opposition to government interference in the economy — even going so far as to use the reactionary rhetoric of the Cold War, such as “statism” and “socialism,” to challenge the Democrats. In short, the Republican Party took on the mantle of neoliberalism after the defeat of the world revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s and 1970s, in the context of a reaction against the anti-war and civil rights movements in the United States, and with the “Thirty Glorious Years” of postwar capitalist boom at an end. Ronald Reagan led, together with his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, the neoliberal offensive that left a world order solidified by the political, economic, and ideological domination of the United States. Tax cuts were considered key to energizing the economy. The migration of capital to exploit cheap labor (especially to China and the former USSR, which experienced capitalist restoration), military aggressiveness, financial deregulation, and attacks on the entire working class gave rise to a highly polarized society with a concentration of wealth never before seen — a gap that has only grown wider in the 21st century thanks to the revolutions in technology and communications.
Reagan formally advocated reducing government, but the truth is that under his administration the state intervened a lot in the economy — not to develop the welfare state but to enrich the capitalist elites and ensure U.S. hegemony in the world arena. Reagan did not halt government spending but used it strategically, in part, to divide the working class and contain rebellions against impoverishment. Democrats played a key role in developing the neoliberal state, too; during Bill Clinton’s two presidential terms, public spending was cut, predatory trade agreements (e.g., NAFTA) were approved, and living and working conditions were deregulated — leading to greater precariousness.
The catastrophic crisis of 2008 gave rise to widespread hatred of the establishment, especially Wall Street. Combative movements such as Occupy arose in response to the exhaustion of the neoliberal order. At the same time, without a working-class alternative, there also emerged a right-wing response, the Tea Party. It gave rise to Trump, who has long used protectionist rhetoric, called for eliminating taxes (which he himself does not pay), and attacked the existing minimal social benefits, such as Obamacare.
Under Trump, the U.S. government has intervened with market stimuli and tax cuts favoring the wealthiest in the country, leading to the obscene category of “centibillionaire” — those whose wealth exceeds $100 billion. In these respects, Trump’s actions are no different than those of Obama and Joe Biden, who bailed out the banks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. In short, the two parties of the regime — as they adapt their rhetoric to changes in the relationship of forces between classes — maintain the neoliberal order, against which there are rebellions from the Left and the Right.
This helps explain why Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric found an echo among some sectors of the working class and middle class. In some respects, Trump’s message is the right-wing expression of the anti-establishment sentiment at the other end of the spectrum, in the form of Bernie Sanders — whose pro-working-class rhetoric and advocacy for reforming the social safety net helped give rise to a new progressive movement. Both phenomena expressed the decline of the neoliberal consensus, with two stable poles of an “extreme center,” as Tariq Ali defined it.1Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Warning (London: Verso Books, 2015). Thus far, the bipartisan system has successfully contained both wings within the traditional electoral system.
Some 70 million U.S. citizens voted for Trump in November, raising more questions about the GOP’s future. Many GOP representatives point out that Trump succeeded in broadening the party along a more multiracial, working-class spectrum. In a recent interview, Senator Marco Rubio spoke of this sector as the party’s future — people who work hard every day and are concerned about the safety and economic well-being of their families. But it’s more complex than that: while Trump seems to have won more votes from people of color than expected — especially middle-aged male owners of small businesses — the Republican strategy going forward is clearly to restrict people’s democratic right to vote even further.
The media and much of the regime point to Trump’s challenging an election he clearly lost as a danger to democracy. The president’s insistence that only “legal” votes be counted and his claim that all mail-in votes are fraudulent are an effort to disenfranchise tens of millions of people who exercised their right to vote. Trump’s efforts have resulted in not a single significant legal victory in any of the swing states where he needed to reverse the outcome and gain electoral votes. Given this, what is the objective of refusing to concede? There are several. One is to keep the Trump base mobilized, with its morale maintained in the face of defeat, and to capitalize on the substantial political support Trump still enjoys. It is useful to continue exploiting the “anti-establishment” sentiment that has won Trump much of his support, and it also helps deepen undemocratic legal restrictions in places where the Republicans are electorally weak — especially the urban centers. Finally, it undermines the legitimacy of the incoming Biden administration, which faces the prospect of a Republican-controlled Senate. Biden is already weakened by Trump’s having received so many votes and by the important role that lesser evilism played in his victory.
Meanwhile, few Republicans have condemned Trump’s refusal to concede, demonstrating not only his importance to the party but also that there’s no clear alternative to his leadership.
Republicanism, Trumpism, and the Alt-Right
The GOP establishment is facing the Biden presidency with a mixture of alarm over its future. Many worry that Trump could end up liquidating the party, while others are optimistic that Trump might represent a “new future” for an archaic structure. The idea from the “autopsy” was to widen the party’s base among a more diverse electorate; paradoxically, this has been somewhat achieved by a president who has done more to enrich the “1 percent” than any other in a long time. This is the conclusion of the Republican Study Committee, which counts almost 150 members of Congress among its ranks. Its president, Jim Banks, said that “learning the lessons from Trump” will be key to the GOP’s electoral strategy in 2024. As he told The Hill,
If we’re learning the lessons that President Trump taught us, to appeal to the populace base and bring new voters into the Republican Party, we need to tackle a new subset of issues to the conservative movement. …
And that is this broader theme of appealing to working-class voters. It’s related to drawing from the lessons of the last four years: how you rebuild manufacturing jobs in America, putting American workers first in trade deals and immigration policy. Those are areas where the Republican Study Committee has not been as involved in before. And I want to lead us to take an active role and articulate where the conservative movement stands and where we go now after the 2020 election.
In fact, much of the “working class” claimed by the Republican party is actually middle class, and even with some increase of Republican voters among people of color, its base is primarily white. But we should not underestimate the Trump campaign’s capacity to reinvent itself and reach a broader electoral base.
Then there’s white supremacy, which sometimes can be seen as the same thing. But there is a real tension between these two components of the base. The radicalized white supremacist sector’s interest is in spreading a message of defending “traditional Western values.” That is quite a bit different than those who want to transform the Republican Party into a conservative “party for all” that could appeal more broadly to conservatives of color.
The receptivity of the traditionalist caucus — mainly those who represent the petty bourgeoisie, farmers, and domestic industry — shows how the movement for Trump has made its mark within the GOP through its right-wing populist rhetoric and demands. When the Tea Party threatened the Republican Party establishment, several studies — including Richard Elliott’s “It’s Just a Jump to the Right: How the Tea Party Has Affected Conservative Discourse” — emerged to explain how the GOP managed to absorb this centrifugal tendency by adopting important elements of its discourse, such as anti-immigrant rhetoric and the “war on terrorism” that dominated the agenda after the September 11 attacks and the immigration crisis. In their book on how the alt-right communicates, Xavier Peytibi and Sergio Pérez point out how neofascist movements and right-wing populists in the United States and Europe pressure traditional conservative parties to adopt agendas marked mainly by nationalist antagonism, under the banners of economic and territorial security.2Xavier Peytibi and Sergio Pérez, Cómo comunica la alt-right: De la rana Pepe al virus chino [How the alt-right communicates: From Pepe the Frog to the Chinese virus] (self-published, 2020). Their book shows that the alt-right and far-right movements have almost everything in common and only some differences, the main one being that extreme right-wing populist movements appeal mainly to economic antagonisms and still seek to win power through elections, while the more radicalized alt-right seeks a new order based openly on white supremacy and advocates a cultural war against progressivism. Even if we cannot always draw a clear line between these two openly reactionary groupings, the distinction may be useful in thinking about why Trump is so effective among some sectors of workers and people of color, even if his base is fundamentally composed of white, male small-business owners.
From this perspective we can understand Marco Rubio’s appeal to redefine the Republican Party as a multiethnic and multiracial working-class party. “What I mean by ‘working-class party,’” he told Sean Hannity on Fox News Channel, “is normal, everyday people who don’t want to live in a city where there is no police department, where people rampage through the streets every time they are upset about something.”
Trump has always given the nod to alt-right groups (overwhelmingly made up of young, middle-class whites, many — other than their leaders — with no college education). Powered by think tanks and fake news plants, and helped along by Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign manager and a white supremacist, this sector contributed to his victory in 2016. Today, this group — once absent from electoral politics — has found a place in the GOP, including among some of its new leaders, such as the youngest elected member of Congress in U.S. history, Madison Cawthorn — an open neo-Nazi sympathizer.
Meanwhile, advocates for a more modern and moderate Republican Party — embodied by the “Never Trumpers” who refused to support him in 2016 and turned to Biden this time around — suffered an embarrassing defeat. The Lincoln Project, which spent millions on ads admonishing Republicans to vote for Biden, failed to split the Republican vote or bring any new voters to Biden from the party. Like the Democratic establishment, the Lincoln Project represents the elites and showed its own lack of connection and appeal to voters exasperated by the neoliberal establishment.
The conservative, reactionary agenda has gained enormous weight in recent years as a result of neoliberalism’s decline, in part as a reaction to the progressive movements that have been unfolding — socialist youth, the massive anti-racist mobilizations, and the struggles of a precarious and nonunionized working class that led to rebellions in their workplaces, especially in the first months of the pandemic. To use the words of the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, what emerged as an “aberrant phenomenon” in the heat of the 2008 crisis and continued to develop under the Trump presidency has grown under the protection of bourgeois democracy and its parties. The response of the Democratic Party establishment after its defeat in 2016, and its attempt to demonize the impoverished working class of the Midwest that appeared to give Trump his Electoral College victory, only developed the divisions among the exploited, who this year showed unity in the streets against racism and police brutality.
The incoming Biden administration will be no less a government of capital than was Trump’s. Biden has already shown that his cabinet will be made up of CEOs and conservatives. At this moment, anti-establishment illusions — and the strong support that some progressive demands have — along with the broad mobilization we’ve seen in 2020 represent the possibility of questioning the bipartisan regime. The Republican Party, as Trump has shown, is not an anti-establishment party; on the contrary, its policies, like those of the Democrats, leads to more inequality and impoverishment for the working class. Moreover, the rise of an extreme right in its own ranks will fuel the party’s confrontation with workers and social movements. The capitalist state, directed by the two big parties of the regime, is an instrument for controlling and oppressing the masses, not a tool for creating better living conditions, as the bipartisan system presents itself. On the contrary, the only genuine, powerful alternative is a massive, democratic organization from the roots of the working class.