Even Donald Trump no longer thinks Donald Trump will win the election, which is why he is spending so much time talking about the election being rigged and bragging about having gone to an Ivy League school.
Campaign coverage at this point has the feeling of a party that has gone on too long, but still has an hour left on the official clock. Some reporters are gamely trying to keep in the spirit of things, but others are ostentatiously looking at their watches and starting conversations about the shape of a future Clinton presidency, or getting an early jump on the campaign autopsies.
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An autopsy of the Trump campaign seems singularly pointless. The more interesting question is: What happens to the Republican Party in the wake of Trump?
With less than two weeks to go before the election, we are at the apex of uncertainty on this point, and therefore, the peak of dark foreboding about Republican civil war and the interregnum of the white nationalist masses. The depression is understandable; professional conservatives saw a reasonably good chance of Republican control of the presidency and Congress, and then Trump rolled in and handed the presidency and perhaps the Senate to the Democrats. It is the most spectacular own-goal in recent U.S. political history, at least since the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 gave Lyndon Baines Johnson the massive majorities he needed to jam through the Great Society programs.
That parallel tends to make people think of the intraparty convulsions that followed Goldwater, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan. And perhaps Trump is another John the Baptist figure, who comes to pave the way for a populist greater than himself. Perhaps. But Barry Goldwater wrote a bestselling book outlining a coherent vision. He made alliances with like-minded politicians and activists. And thus, he built a movement that endured beyond him.
Trump has built no organization, made no friends, inspired no new generation of politicians and intellectuals to go out and become his apostles. His entire contribution to a new policy agenda for the Republican Party can be embroidered on a hat.
Trump will probably fade fairly quickly, and once he is off the stage, how many of his followers will have the passion to keep working for the cause, when there is no cause?
The truth is, their cause is lost, because it was lost long before Trump ever came onto the scene. The demographics of the country have already shifted, making it numerically impossible to assemble a big enough coalition to restrict immigration and trade in the way that Trump’s supporters want.
Professional Republicans knew this, which is why they kept as far away from those issues as possible. So supporters got very eager to take over the Republican Party and use it to their own ends. The only way they could take it over was to break it. So they did, shedding college-educated voters without adding enough nonvoters to make up the difference.
In one possible future for the Republican Party, these Trumpistas will be left with a marginalized party that can never take the presidency and increasingly can’t hold the Senate. I see a more likely scenario.
When the dust settles and Trump sets about salvaging what remains of his business, his less fervent supporters will go back to their daily lives. That’s the life cycle of elections, and revolutions, and political movements: They gain supporters, and then they shed them, unless someone is constantly rallying the troops.
That revolution will, of course, have done some damage to the Republican Party. But at the peak of an election cycle, when the base is whipped up to a frenzy, it’s easy to overestimate how deep that damage will be. When supporters see that they are not getting the easy revolution they were promised, and when no comparable figure emerges for them to rally around — no Reagan to start by campaigning on Trump’s ideas, and emerge as the general who leads the troops to victory — how much heart will they have to continue the civil war?
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