After Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention last week, Nicolle Wallace, a longtime GOP strategist, had a memorable exchange with NBC’s Chuck Todd.
WALLACE: [T]he Republican Party that I worked for for two decades died in this room tonight. We are now represented as a Party by a man who believes in protectionism, isolationism, and nativism. And those were the forces that George W. Bush, and I believe John McCain too, were most worried about during their times as the leaders of the Republican Party.CHUCK TODD: Striking comment. You believe the party died tonight?WALLACE: Well, the voters picked this guy. This is where the Republican Party is now. They now are attracted to those forces of isolationism and protectionism. But the party I was part of for two decades is dead.
If you feel as if you’ve run into that sentiment and that phrasing quite a bit lately, it’s not your imagination. The headline of David Brooks’ New York Times column last week read, “The Death of the Republican Party.” Max Boot recently published an L.A. Times piece with the headline, “The Republican Party is dead.” The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson, George W. Bush’s former chief speechwriter, wrote last month that the Party of Lincoln “is dying.”
After the GOP’s presidential nominating process wrapped up in May, the New York Daily News ran a cover with a cartoon elephant in a casket. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the GOP, a once-great political party, killed by epidemic of Trump,” the cover told readers.
It’s important to define our terms a bit, because it’s easy to misunderstand what these observers mean by “dead.” The Republican Party will, of course, continue to exist no matter what happens in the 2016 elections. When commentators refer to the GOP’s “death,” they’re not talking about its disappearance from the political landscape.
Rather, this is about the passing of a major party as we understand it, giving way to something new. The Republican Party, as an institutional entity, isn’t going anywhere, but it’s nevertheless transforming into something different from what Americans have been accustomed to.
Avik Roy, a Republican health care wonk with whom I’ve disagreed many, many times, has been deeply involved in GOP politics for many years. He spoke to Vox yesterday about the state of his party and the degree to which, as Vox put it, Republicans are “driven by white nationalism rather than a true commitment to equality for all Americans.”
“I think the conservative movement is fundamentally broken,” Roy tells me. “Trump is not a random act. This election is not a random act.” […]“Conservative intellectuals, and conservative politicians, have been in kind of a bubble,” Roy says. “We’ve had this view that the voters were with us on conservatism – philosophical, economic conservatism. In reality, the gravitational center of the Republican Party is white nationalism.”
In the same interview, he added, “It’s a common observation on the left, but it’s an observation that a lot of us on the right genuinely believed wasn’t true – which is that conservatism has become, and has been for some time, much more about white identity politics than it has been about conservative political philosophy. I think today, even now, a lot of conservatives have not come to terms with that problem.”
New York’s Jon Chait made a related point last week, reflecting on the GOP convention, explaining Trump’s rise as part of the Republican Party’s transition from a conservative party into an explicitly ethno-nationalistic, “white-identity-politics” party.
Clare Malone recently argued something similar at FiveThirtyEight, explaining the degree to which the GOP’s small-government ethos has been completely replaced by the politics of “racial and cultural resentment.”
When Republicans talk about the death of their party, I think this is ultimately what they’re referring to. Sure, some of these trends and ideas have been part of the GOP’s diaspora for years, but what’s new – what marks the death of one party and the birth of another – is the way in which Republicans in 2016 have come to define themselves, not by principles of equal opportunity and the free market, but by the ethno-nationalistic tenets the party has traditionally tried to suppress.
Those efforts have failed. It’s a new Republican Party now.