The Republican Civil War Is Over — The Populists Won

We’re witnessing a major political realignment

Announcing that he will retire at the end of this term, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake delivered a blistering critique of President Donald Trump:

We must never meekly accept the daily sundering of our country — the personal attacks, the threats against principles, freedoms, and institutions; the flagrant disregard for truth or decency, the reckless provocations, most often for the pettiest and most personal reasons, reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with the fortunes of the people that we have all been elected to serve.

Flake thus joins Tennessee Senator Bob Corker as a vocal, retiring anti-Trump Republican. Corker has been calling the president a threat to national security whose legacy will be “the debasement of our nation.”

Flake is 54 — young for a Senator — and in fine health. He’s retiring because of poor reelection prospects. A recent Morning Consult poll found that just 30% of Arizonans approve of his performance, compared to 53% who disapprove. Among Arizona Republicans, it’s 37% — 50%. And he’s trailing pro-Trump, Bannon-backed candidate Kelli Ward in primary polls by double digits.

According to Gallup’s weekly tracking poll, Trump’s national approval rating among Republicans is 80%. Flake is thus the latest conservative to realize the Republican party has left him. He’s still the same small government advocate, but the dominant force in the party is right-wing populism.

The New Realignment

The main ideological divide in American politics has shifted from big government vs. small government—that is, pro- and anti-redistribution — to Together vs. Apart. This is taking place all across the West, and American political parties are just starting to catch up.

Apartists are populist and nationalist. They blame their problems on external forces — immigrants, transnational corporations, international commitments, globalization — and believe turning inward, building walls (real or metaphorical), and knocking globalists down a peg will improve their lives.

In the United States and many European countries, Apartism includes an element of white nationalism. For many — but not all — American Apartists, “us” is not just Americans, but white Christian Americans, making “them” more than simply foreigners, illegal immigrants, and industrialists who ship jobs overseas.

The most egregious example of this was the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. But the racialized us-v-them dynamic appears in many Trump-era culture wars, such as Confederate monuments, and NFL players taking a knee.

The rise of Apartism presents a problem for conservatives, because many are Togetherist. They support free trade and easing restrictions on corporations, believing the market will lead to better outcomes. They support American global leadership, and see greatness in the United States’ status as a nation of immigrants, while Apartists see more burden than benefit.

Accepting the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal on October 16, Senator John McCain gave a stirring speech hailing America as “the land of the immigrant’s dream” and denouncing the Apartist worldview:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history. We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad.

Three days later, former president George W. Bush hit similar themes in a speech in New York:

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism — forgetting the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade — forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism… Our identity as a nation — unlike many other nations — is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood… This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed.

Neither Bush nor McCain mentioned the current president — though he and his followers were an obvious target — which made their speeches timeless statements of principle rather personalized attacks against one man.

21st Century Conservatism

Some conservatives see Trump as an aberration — as if he stole their party through charismatic, reality show media manipulation and they’ll get it back as soon as he’s gone.

However, while Trump is the Apartists’ current avatar, the forces are bigger than he is. This was most evident in the recent Alabama Republican Senate primary, in which the establishment-friendly, Trump-endorsed Luther Strange lost to Roy Moore, who believes Muslims should be disqualified from holding office, and twice lost his post as Alabama’s chief justice for defying the Constitution.

Conservatives still play a large role in Congress, but haven’t been able to translate that into legislative success. After failing on healthcare, and abandoning plans for revenue-neutral tax reform, they might squeeze through a deficit-financed tax cut that mostly benefits the wealthiest Americans. But they’re on the decline — either retiring like Corker, wilting in the face of a populist primary challenge like Flake, or opportunistically kowtowing to Trump, like Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz.

The word “conservative” will probably stick around. But it’s lost much of the connection to conservatism.

The main pillars of conservative political philosophy are:

  • Edmund Burke’s wariness of abandoning traditional values and societal structures, perhaps best expressed in William F. Buckley’s quip about “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”
  • Advocacy of individual freedom, as illustrated in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
  • Support for markets and decentralized control — most notably in contrast to the central planning of socialism —primarily associated with economists such as F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman.

Right-wing populists reject most of that, except for a selective reading of individual rights — 2nd amendment absolute, 1st and 4th not — and a version of “traditional values” that makes modern Burkeans cringe. They support entitlements, as long as those entitlements go to “us” and not “them.” They’re comfortable with attacks on individual freedom, such as Trump’s threats against the press and peaceful protesters. And they like government intervention into the economy, so long as it’s in favor of industries they consider “theirs,” such as coal mining or certain types of manufacturing.

Many call themselves “conservative,” but they’re using the word the way Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and the people who invited Steve Bannon to speak at CPAC use it, not the way Buckley and Friedman did.

That shift in language demonstrates how the populist takeover of the Republican party has been brewing for a while, and is nearly compete.

The Last Realignment

The successful, late-20th century Republican party grew out of the last major realignment. The GOP shifted U.S. politics away from the redistributionist, pro-regulation New Deal coalition by cobbling together:

  1. Ideological small government and economic conservatives, many of whom favored Barry Goldwater’s failed 1964 presidential campaign.
  2. National security hawks, including both Eisenhower traditionalists and neoconservatives.
  3. Social and religious conservatives, who opposed cultural changes, such as the sexual revolution, secularization, and legalized abortion.
  4. Southern whites who didn’t like Civil Rights.

The southern whites were mostly Democrats, owing to Republicans’ legacy as the party of Lincoln. George Wallace, for example, became governor of Alabama in 1963 as a Democrat, making states’ rights arguments to oppose racial integration of schools. Goldwater captured many of those voters when running against pro-Civil Rights Democrat Lyndon Johnson, and Nixon courted them in 1968 with the “Southern Strategy.”

This Republican coalition reached its apotheosis in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s two presidential election landslides. It delivered George HW Bush one presidential term — the only time a party has held the White House for more than eight years since Truman — and stayed together through the early 2000s. Though a Democrat, Bill Clinton declared “the era of big government is over,” made welfare reform and balanced budget deals with the Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich, and reduced financial regulations. George W. Bush similarly combined tax cutters, hawks, Christians, and southern whites to win two presidential terms, albeit by much closer margins than Reagan.

But the coalition started cracking in 2006, when Democrats retook both houses of Congress. And in 2008, it broke beyond repair, when Obama led a Democratic sweep.

That’s true even though Republicans recaptured the House in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and now hold Congress and the White House. It has the same name and many of the same voters, but it’s not the same party.

The New Realignment

Much as previous realignments were triggered by major changes — the Great Depression and WWII for the big government coalition; Vietnam, Civil Rights, and Roe v. Wade for the small government alternative — this new one was ignited by globalization, the Iraq War, and the Great Recession.

As with previous realignments, it will take a while to settle in.

The first big sign was the Tea Party wave in 2010. Establishment conservatives convinced themselves the Tea Party was upset about federal deficits and Obama overreach. But they weren’t listening.

Tea Party activists denounced the Republican establishment along with the Democrats. Most Tea Partiers strongly opposed illegal immigration (and many weren’t keen on legal immigration either). Many did not have a problem with big government, as much as the perception that their tax dollars were going to undeserving others. Some of this could be seen in the racialized criticism that the housing crisis was caused by government and big banks loaning money to insufficiently credit-worthy minorities.

The Tea Party was primarily an expression of frustrated anger in response to the Great Recession, and the Republican establishment quickly sought to co-opt the grassroots energy. Megadonors Charles and David Koch funded the first national Tea Party website (, which opens with a video asking “is our tax code too complicated?” — a question no actual Tea Partiers were asking. The Kochs also funded what became the two largest Tea Party organizations, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, the latter of which put out the “Contract From America,” which claimed to be a Tea Party manifesto.

Incorrectly assuming the right-wing grassroots was clamoring for entitlement cuts, upper income tax reductions, and reduced regulations, the Republican party stayed on course. Their blanket opposition to Obama worked well politically, but they were wrong about why.

After Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the RNC’s “postmortem” came to the conclusion that small government conservatism was popular, but the party lost voters by being perceived as hostile to non-whites, especially Latinos. Their solution: cut a deal on immigration and take the issue off the table.

In 2014, the grassroots revolted. An unknown professor named Dave Bratt primaried House Majority Leader Eric Cantor— who by all objective measures was a staunch conservative —by denouncing Cantor’s supposed support for amnesty for illegal immigrants. The establishment panicked and dropped all efforts towards a bipartisan immigration compromise. And in 2016, Donald Trump rode anti-establishment and anti-immigrant sentiment — especially against Latinos and Muslims — to the nomination and the presidency.

As a candidate, Trump also challenged conservative orthodoxy, promising to:

  • Defend entitlements, and provide everyone with great healthcare.
  • Tax wealthy hedge fund managers, massively increase infrastructure spending, and overall fight for the working and middle class against the rich.
  • Reverse free trade deals, start trade wars, and intervene in the market to protect certain types of jobs.
  • Abdicate global leadership, pulling back from international commitments.

As president, he’s gone the other way on healthcare and taxes, and sort of followed through on the international aspects, albeit erratically. But the point is not what Trump’s done in office as much as the right-wing populist platform — combined with attacks on elites, political correctness, and globalism — he used to win. Variations on that theme is what gave Roy Moore the nomination in Alabama, and discouraged Jeff Flake from running again in Arizona.

The conservative economic agenda is distinctly unpopular.

2/3 of Americans want to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, while the Republican establishment is fighting to lower them.

(Gallup. Polls from Pew, Washington Post, and Quinnipiac all show similar results)

Americans oppose spending cuts. Most don’t want to cut spending on anything, and the only area in which a majority of Republican voters would cut spending is foreign aid.


Globalization, automation, and the decline of unions all contributed to stagnant wages, undermining lower and middle income whites’ trust in economic elites. When Trump-Pence offered them nativism and culture war wedges without the Reaganomics, they enthusiastically followed.

The Right-Wing Populist Party

Even as Trump’s candidacy alienated foreign policy and small government conservatives — many of whom are known under the NeverTrump banner — it retained, or even gained, support among the cultural elements of the previous coalition.

One might have expected religious Republicans to abandon the party when it nominated Trump, considering how much they stressed the importance of leaders’ personal morality. Instead, they changed their position.

On the question of whether personal immorality is disqualifying for office, white evangelicals went from most likely to answer “yes” in 2011 to most likely to answer “no” in 2016.

As Varad Mehta points out, part of this comes from white evangelicals’ decision to prioritize judicial nominations, seeing it as the only way to prevent cultural changes they oppose — same-sex marriage, trans rights, health insurance that covers birth control, etc.

A less generous interpretation says the “white” part of their identity matters more than the “evangelical” part. That was evident in Republican primaries when they could have chosen religious, once-married candidates who also promised to appoint conservative judges, such as Ted Cruz, but a majority still backed Trump.

Additionally, 12% of Democrats who backed Bernie Sanders in the primary voted for Trump in the general. Sanders-Trump voters were more than double Trump’s winning margin in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the three rust belt states that swung the election.

An in-depth analysis by the Voter Study Group showed that, compared to Clinton supporters and Obama supporters, Sanders supporters were more likely to see politics as “a rigged game,” less favorable towards foreign trade, more likely to believe “that ‘people like me’ are in decline,” and more likely to have negative feelings towards Muslims. That Apartist profile shows their political shift may be lasting.

(Voter Study Group)

The conservative elements of the Trump coalition is where the biggest questions lie.

There’s the anti-anti-Trump contingent, who decided they hate liberals more than they love anything, and will support anyone who upsets the left. And then there’s the economic conservatives who are trying to ride the tiger to Obamacare repeal and tax cuts. If the Republican party continues moving in a populist direction — and especially if the current tax cut push fails — it’ll be interesting to see how long they stick around.

How Will This All Shake Out?

A third party’s not going to happen. Those fantasizing about third parties think of it as a top-down process, in which an independent presidential candidate sweeps in and grabs disaffected voters. In reality, parties are massive, bottom-up organizations, running candidates for town council, mayor, and county legislature, in addition to state and national office.

The start-up cost is overwhelming. The two-party system is firmly entrenched.

But that doesn’t mean the Republicans and Democrats are stagnant. It just means that, compared to multiparty systems, more debates take place within the parties.

In the last realignment, from about 1964–1980, the south switched from Democrat to Republican and conservatives took over the Republican party. In response, the Democrats shifted towards the center, thereby changing from the party FDR created in the 1930s.

How the current realignment will alter the parties remains to be seen. Populists are consolidating their victory in the Republican civil war, but the Democratic civil war rages on. There’s a battle between the center-left and far left, continuing the Clinton-Sanders primary fight. And there’s a partially overlapping battle between those who want the party to focus on issues pertaining to race and gender, and those who want it to abandon identity politics to focus entirely on economic issues.

During the 2016 primaries, The Economist put together a neat graphic showing what the United States would look like if it had proportional representation.

(The Economist)

A year and a half later, we know that:

  • Cruz’s “Christian Coalition” stuck with Trump.
  • Some of Sanders’ “Social Democratic Party” voted with the right wing populists.
  • And much of Kasich’s “Conservative Party” feels alienated from the current incarnations of both the Democratic and Republican parties.

If I’m right, and Together vs. Apart is the main fault line moving forward, the Republican party might get increasingly populist, following through on some of Trump’s economic promises. That would pick up more of the Sanders voters, especially those who can live with the white nationalist aspects.

And this means the natural landing place for anti-Trump conservatives is the Democratic party.

Think about it:

  • You like the Togetherist aspects Obama and especially Clinton support, such as free trade, forceful intervention (drone strikes, Special Operations missions, etc.), and global diplomatic leadership.
  • Though you’ve been critical of the mainstream media, you like their baseline respect for truth, and, like conservative radio host-turned Republican critic Charlie Sykes, aren’t comfortable with the “alternative fact” media universe on the right.
  • You think the left overdoes it with identity politics, especially when it calls for stifling free speech. But you can’t truck with the white supremacists. And with your help, the free speech liberals can win their fight against the leftist language police.
  • You’ll probably have to give up on lowering upper income tax rates and accept some regulations, but you’ll have the opportunity to influence the platform. Reform conservatives’ ideas about helping the working and middle class with a payroll tax cut will get a warm welcome.

I’m guessing most Democrats and anti-Trump conservatives will hate this idea. But that’s at least partially a reflection of how tribalistic American politics has become.

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