In this ‘conversation’ blog piece, the four of us (Whitney Ross Manzo, aka WRM; Michael Bitzer, aka MB; Chris Cooper, aka CC; and Susan Roberts, aka SR) consider recent developments within the Republican Party and what “Trumpism” may, or may not, necessarily mean in our politics.
Just to get a sense of things before we dive into the specifics, how do you teach what a political party is to your students?
WRM: I use V.O. Key’s famous 3-part description: the party in government, the party organization, and the party in the electorate. The hardest part is getting students to understand the difference between the party organization and the party in government, because usually the party organization is unknown to all except the most ardent political watchers. When you add in all 50 states’ party organizations, the “organization” becomes even more murky.
MB: Same for me. And, for the most part, students tend to find the “triangle’s corners” fairly easy to remember (especially in my Southern accent): PIG, PIE, and PAO (the last one is a bit weird, granted, but it’s basically “pay-oo”). And not just with students, but with reporters as well. To me, it makes a clear sense of how a party might be ‘viewed,’ and with those three corners, where perhaps Trump’s greatest influences might be found.
It seems like Trump has captured two of the three corners of the triangle: the party in the electorate, especially the Republican base voter, and the party as an organization. There's been a lot of articles written so far talking about censuring, including this one where a Kansas county GOP organization censured one of their U.S. senators for voting to certify the presidential election. The fight now seems to be in "the party in government," and elected officials who are Trumpist or not, or maybe not as outspoken in their fidelity to Trump.
CC: You’d be hard-pressed to find a Political Scientist who doesn’t lean heavily on Key for...well...about everything and I’m no exception (although I’ve got to admit that I’ve never thought to refer to swine, sweets, and whatever pay-oo is in my parties lecture).
Recently I have also been teaching the “UCLA School of Political Parties’” view that “parties in the United States are best understood as coalitions of interest groups and activists seeking to capture and use government for their particular goals…” (because I think it highlights the messy nature of party networks) and Julia Azari’s notion that the new party era is dominated by strong partisanship and weak parties (because I think it draws a distinction between partisanship and parties that rings true for students observing the state of politics today).
SR: Key’s tripartite theory of political parties is standard for me as well. I like how it captures how aspects of the “triangle” wax and wane. Party as organization can vary along local, state and national party structures, sometimes the stratarchy emphasis. Party in the electorate is great at capturing how more people eschew party labels. I also introduce definitions of political parties.
At its rawest, parties can be viewed as a means to power. At its loftiest, parties can be defined as organizations emphasizing shared principles. Given where we are now, maybe I should add party as personality! I often carry into class a collection of books with cavalier titles like “the party is over,” “the party has just begun” and “the life of the party” just to illustrate to students how fluid political parties can be in the United States!
What is “Trumpism” or the Trump brand of Republicanism?
MB: This is something I continue to think about and try and get a sense of in our modern context, so I have to go back to the age of Reagan and his creation of what I describe as the ‘modern GOP.’ But Reagan’s work was really a culmination, at some point, of the work done by ‘movement conservatives’ within the Republican Party to capture control of it. Starting with Barry Goldwater’s national defense conservatism, then Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and a sense of fiscal conservatism, and finally Reagan’s pulling social conservatism into it. Those three strands--national defense, fiscal, and social--of conservatism built today's Republican Party.
But now, it feels like the Newt Gingrich sense of conservatism--built around what I think of as “anti-governmentalism”--with Rush Limbaugh’s anger conservatism has built a movement that got captured within the Tea Party Revolution that generated a “resentment” or “reactionary” sense of conservatism that is really devoid of ideological principles. To me, there is a sense of a ‘world vision’ that anchors the beliefs of a party and ideology, and what role government plays in that belief about how the world should operate.
But getting to what Trump has brought to Republicanism: it’s nativism, “America First,” it’s nationalism, it’s a sense of authoritarianism, or probably better yet, anti-democratic beliefs, it’s a sense of “America has done nothing wrong and is a perfect nation.” Well, read the Constitution's preamble and note “a more perfect union.” We aren’t perfect. We’re human. We’re subject to failing, but we are also striving for a “more perfect” rather than a “perfect” sense of a nation. That's what the framers sought, to strive towards a 'more perfect' union.
Combine that with the sense of societal transitions that the nation is experiencing, and that brings about a sense of fear and resentment, and it feels like to me, that’s the notion of Trump’s rebranding of Republicanism, or “Trumpism,” in my mind.
CC: I’ve recently become convinced that “Trumpism” refers to so many different things that it’s lost all meaning. Sometimes people use the term to refer to ultra-conservative policies, other times to anti-establishment, racist, or xenophobic ideas, other times to candidates who are narcissistic, unpredictable, authoritarian, or populist. All of those definitions are just too much for one word to describe. By continuing to use the phrase “Trumpism” and leaving it up to interpretation of the reader, I fear that we run a real risk of obscuring what we mean. I’ve certainly fallen into the trap myself, but I hope that we can move away from the notion of “Trumpism” and name the idea or phenomenon we’re trying to describe more specifically.
SR: Two things immediately come to mind. The first involves the remarks made by former Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) upon his retirement from the Senate in 2018. In his book Conscience of a Conservative, Flake urges the Republican party to return to a party of principles rather than a politics of “anger.” As Flake sees it conservatism under Trump is one in which Republicans have chosen to “sacrifice principle to do what is easiest and most politically expedient.” This sentiment seems particularly relevant at this juncture for Republicans.
The second thought that comes to mind concerns authoritarianism as manifested not in the singular figure of Donald Trump but in a worldview such as Whitney brings up. I use a book in my Presidency class, Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics (2009), written by Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, where I emphasize to my students that there is an entire scholarly literature on authoritarianism. At its simplest, individuals scoring high in authoritarianism are less tolerant of change, have a strong desire for order, and feel threatened by individuals who are not like them.
In addition, the authoritarian worldview believes in a strong militaristic response to any perceived international rather than a diplomatic one. These tendencies taken together suggest a Trump brand of Republicanism undergirded by anger and authoritarianism.
How is this iteration of the GOP different (or not) from the Tea Party in 2009-10?
WRM: I don’t think there is much difference between the current GOP and the fraction that called themselves the Tea Party. In theory, both groups are for lower taxes, less regulation, and a return to what they believe are “traditional” American values. In practice, both groups seem to be mostly just reactionary- to changes in American society, to proposals by the Democratic Party, to issues in the “culture wars.” And while you once could distinguish votes of the Tea Party caucus from votes of the rest of the GOP, the entire party has shifted to the right such that you can’t make this distinction anymore.
CC: There are certainly some similarities and WRM describes them well. I think the main difference is that there was a formal Tea Party Caucus in Congress, therefore there was more structure and clear delineation of who was “in” and who was “out” of the Tea Party. In my mind, the Tea Party is closer to the modern day Freedom Caucus (described well in Matthew Green’s Legislative Hardball)--both are groups that derived their power from being slightly outside of the mainstream of the party. The modern Republican Party is certainly different than it was a few years before, and there are elements of the Tea-Party that remain, but I tend to think of them as related, but separate entities.
SR: Agreed! I do try to emphasize to my students that the Tea Party was more of a movement than a party, but the features of that movement distinctly echo the new iteration of the GOP. Their conservatism embraced the fear of changing demographic change. Probably the best books on the movement is “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism” by Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, who begin their introduction with a quote from one of the Tea Partiers they interviewed. That quote was “I want my country back!” The Tea Party may not have been the first to make the noun primary into a verb (for example, to be primaried), but they sure lived it, and that is where some strong similarities can be drawn.
How do you think Trump has remade the Republican Party?
WRM: As I said regarding the Tea Party, I think Trump’s part of the GOP has been around for awhile. So, if he’s remade anything, it’s to make the far-right part of the party more like the core of the party. The Democrats have moved further left in reaction, so in a way the Tea Partiers and Trump have remade the Democratic Party, too.
CC: Trump remade the Republican Party in that he successfully centered it around a person (namely, himself) rather than around ideas. The ideas that led to Trump were around before, but those ideas are now organized around a cult of personality. In that way, Trump may resemble the southern politicians of the early 20th century profiled in V.O. Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation (see, I told you Political Scientists love to cite Key).
MB: Any blog post that has V.O. Key cited twice is a good blog post, in my humble opinion. I like how Chris brings in the idea that Trump is really heralding the dynamics of early 20th Century ‘politicos’, the “Big Jim” Folsom’s of Alabama, Henry Byrd of Virginia, Eugene Talmadge of Georgia. The politics of personality over principles seems, to me at least, driving so much of the remaking of the Republican Party right now. We just have to look at North Carolina’s U.S. Senator Richard Burr and the very public rebuke that the state GOP made against him. Burr’s response? "My party's leadership has chosen loyalty to one man over the core principles of the Republican Party and the founders of our great nation."
SR: Maybe Marjorie Taylor Greene’s remarks are the most insightful when she said of Trump: “The party is his. It doesn’t belong to anyone else.” Couple that with the weakening of Never-Trumpers and the vendetta against any Republican voting to impeach Trump, and you may not have the Republican Party of 2024, but that is where it is today.
MB: And Susan pointed out this article about "The Three Types of Republicans Trump Created": Never Trumpers, Trump Loyalists, and an odd "R.I.N.O." creation. Personalities, especially presidential personalities, seem to make the party reflective of that individual's influence, but honestly, I don't seem to recall the kind of influence that Trump has had since growing up during Reagan's time as president and party leader.
What is the likelihood of a third party splintering off from the current GOP?
MB: ok, who wants to bring up Duverger’s Law first?
CC: Not me. Well, at least not by name. Bottom line from my perspective: the likelihood of a third party splitter group being successful is just this side of 0%. There are too many barriers to success for a third party run to be a good idea for any politician whose goal is election (or re-election). By the time a third party gets enough petitions to even get on the ballot, the two major parties have already raised enough money to outspend the fledgling party ten-fold. Witness the recent cancellation of Green and Constitution Parties in NC.
Please understand that I am not defending the two-party system as adequate or ideal, just noting that it’s not going to change without massive institutional change. For more on what this “massive institutional change” might look like, check out Lee Drutman’s “Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop.”
SR: I actually have a copy of Maurice Duverger’s 1951 Political Parties on my bookshelf, a gift from one of my professors in graduate school. So as not to get into the weeds, he says the dualism of American party system is never in doubt by virtue of the single member, winner take all electoral structure. You’ve got the American League and the National League in baseball. That’s the way it is. I was going to try to connect the designated hitter into the analogy, but I just can’t do it!
On a more scholarly level here, I agree the chances for a third party from any direction is unlikely. Beyond the structural barriers, there are psychological barriers as well. As Rosenstone, Behr & Lazarus so elegantly state in Third Parties in America, to vote for a third party means citizens have to endure grief from neighbors, work to get information on candidates and “they must accept that their candidate has no hope of winning.”
WRM: The other thing that the two parties do to eliminate competition is to steal ideas from third parties, to weaken their support. For example, people have been talking A LOT about the Green New Deal this week due to the terrible events in Texas. Democrats are largely credited with proposing a Green New Deal, but as this article from the Green Party states, they weren’t first on the scene with that idea.
Similarly, when Ross Perot was trying to get the Reform Party started with a hard line on deficit spending, the Republicans took that idea and ran with it as part of the Contract with America that helped them win the House in 1994. So, it’s far less likely we will see a new third party than that we will see the existing two parties shift stances to adopt newly popular positions, as we are arguing the current GOP has done by capitalizing on Trump’s appeal.
MB: What’s going to be fascinating to me is to watch 2022 and the mid-term elections, especially the primaries, play themselves out. I think we’ve seen the divide within the GOP with the back & forth between Mitch McConnell and Trump, but the primary contests are going to be the real evidence and battlefields. And we’re likely to get a front-row seat here in North Carolina with the Republican nomination fight, especially if someone with the last name of Trump decides to throw her hat into the ring. How do you ‘out-Trump’ a member of the Trump family? Only time will tell, but with the rush towards 2022, it may be soon.