The GOP Looks Dead. But It May Yet Rise Again.

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tags: election 2016, GOP, Trump

Robert Brent Toplin was a professor of history at Denison University and is professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. Currently he lives in Charlottesville, where he teaches occasional courses at the University of Virginia. Toplin has published several books about history, politics, and film. Contact:

Herbert Hoover, Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon

The GOP is in crisis. Clashes between pro and anti-Trump forces have turned so abrasive in recent days that pundits are now referring to a “civil war” within the Republican Party. In the meantime Donald Trump’s controversial statements and behavior are producing shocking declines in his poll numbers. Weakness at the top of the ticket this year could harm the candidacy of Republicans in state and local elections. Voter disgust might lead to Democratic control of the Senate. Some observers think the Republican brand has become so damaged by Trump’s candidacy that control of the House of Representatives could also be in play. This is a surprising development. A few weeks ago, the idea of a Democratic majority in the House seemed far-fetched

If Democrats win big this year, taking firm control of the presidency and the Congress, could a resounding defeat leave the Republican Party in the political wilderness? Might the GOP remain deeply troubled by clashes between Trump’s backers and his Republican critics? Will current divisions persist, establishing unique opportunities for Democrats to dominate national politics over many years?

A brief overview of American political history suggests the current mess is not likely to sound a death knell for the Republican Party. During the Twentieth Century, the GOP was rocked by three major crises that appeared to relegate the party to long-term minority status. Yet the Grand Old Party recovered rather quickly. The GOP was not subordinated at the national level over numerous decades, as the Democratic Party was, overall, for more than half a century (from the time of the Civil War until 1912). Nevertheless, dealing with intra-party divisions that produced the current crisis will not be easy. A Republican recovery might be accelerated, however, if leaders focus on a blueprint for reform presented by GOP officials after Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race.

The Great Depression produced the first major crisis of the Twentieth Century for the GOP. Frustrated Americans criticized Republican President Herbert Hoover for failing to avert the economic crash. Hoover lost the 1932 presidential contest by a wide margin, and in the 1936 election FDR carried all but two states. Democrats also won a huge majority in the Congress. The GOP seemed decimated in 1936. Yet the party gained a number of seats in the Senate and House in the 1938 election, and by the 1950s, Republicans, buoyed by Dwight D. Eisenhower’s popularity, returned to the White House.

Senator Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential candidacy in 1964 created the Republican Party’s second major crisis in the Twentieth Century. Goldwater promoted a conservative agenda that many establishment Republicans considered extremely radical. Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson beat Goldwater in a landslide, and Democrats handily won the Senate and the House. The Democrats appeared poised to enjoy years of supremacy in Washington. But Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of U.S. military engagement in Vietnam and civil strife at home quickly undermined the Democrats’ appeal with voters. The divisions opened an opportunity for Republican Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968

Nixon’s troubles with Watergate produced the GOP’s third crisis of the century. Democrats secured large gains in the congressional races of 1974, and Jimmy Carter capitalized on the public’s disgust with corruption in Washington. Carter won the presidential race in 1976. In the aftermath of Watergate, Republican leaders wondered how long they would have to struggle as outsiders. Yet within a few years, a hostage crisis, stagflation, and fumbles by Carter facilitated Ronald Reagan’s efforts to bring Republicans’ back to power in Washington.

If the situation ends badly for Republicans in November, 2016, can they reform their party and produce a winning agenda? Can they find a way to abandon the ugly politics of Donald Trump yet also address the anger expressed by Trump’s supporters? Can Republican leaders devise a strategy that appeals broadly to an increasingly diverse American electorate? Can they once again champion their party with voters through positive, optimistic messages, rather than the politics of fear?

Back in 2013, GOP leaders, led by the party’s current chairman, Reince Priebus, created a blueprint for reform and victory. Their Growth and Opportunity Project, called an “autopsy report,” identified lessons drawn from the party’s failed presidential bid in 2012. GOP officials recommended outreach to minorities and younger voters, greater tolerance for dissent, support for innovation, less emphasis on reactionary social policies, less criticism of immigration, and less ideological rigidity. Their report called for greater attention to the needs of workers rather than excessive devotion to the interests of wealthy business people. The report urged party leaders to blow a whistle on corporate malfeasance, and it recommended criticism of corporate welfare. The reformers urged sympathy towards middle-class citizens who had not received meaningful wage gains while company executives enjoyed huge salaries and benefits.

The “autopsy,” based on interviews with focus groups, was largely ignored this year. Donald Trump appealed to ordinary Americans in his speeches, but he failed to offer specific programs that could improve their situation. The Republican Party, influenced by radio and Internet-based radicals and Trump’s demagoguery, contradicted many of the report’s messages in the primary and general campaigns.

Can GOP leaders accept recommendations of the Project and still call their party a “conservative” organization? Can they respond meaningfully to millions of frustrated Americans who were excited by Donald Trump’s populist messages? Can the Party deal responsibly with those voters’ concerns while also rejecting the poisonous nature of Trump’s appeal?

If Republican leaders can come up with effective answers to these questions, they may be able to turn their party’s fortunes around rather quickly. If they reject the calls for reform, they may find themselves shivering in a long and dreary political winter.

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