Skip to main content

The Grand Old Party Has Eaten Itself Alive

Why did Republicans choose a reality show star as their presidential candidate?

By Jared Keller


Donald Trump speaks to supporters at Trump Tower in Manhattan following his victory in the Indiana primary on May 3, 2016. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Yesterday, Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee.

Senator Ted Cruz, whose flailing campaign lost horribly in the Indiana primary (despite the early selection of vice presidential candidate Carly Fiorina in a last-ditch effort to obstruct Trump’s path to the nomination), delivered the equivalent of a eulogy for his party in his concession speech on Tuesday evening. “With a heavy heart and boundless optimism for the long-term future of our nation, we are suspending our campaign,” Cruz moped. “But I am not suspending our fight for liberty.”

The Washington establishment is going berserk. “The GOP is going to nominate for President a guy who reads the National Enquirer and thinks it’s on the level,” tweeted long-time Senator John McCain staffer Mark Salter. “#ImWithHer” tweeted Ben Howe, a writer for the conservative Philip Klein, the Washington Examiner managing editor, deregistered as a Republican; Free Beacon writer Lachlan Markey burned his voter card. Former Mitt Romney campaign chief Stuart Stevens simply tweeted a photo of Trump posing with several Hooters waitresses.

This raging against the dying of the light underscores an important, seismic shift within the party. Trump’s nomination isn’t simply a rebuke of Cruz, or a rebuke of the legacy of the Bushes; it’s a rebuke of the Grand Old Party, the teetering mausoleum to the Washington establishment that’s finally come off the rails. Republican voters just rejected a slew of governors, congressmen, and senators in favor of a candidate who has never (seriously) run for office, nor participated in civic life. And he’s been winning the entire time.

How did the GOP screw everything up?

Let’s be clear: Americans hate politicians, and they’re increasingly leveling that disdain along party lines. Congress’ dismally low approval rating has been a common theme in American political life for years now, especially when the body’s popularity hit rock bottom in November 2013 following a controversial government shutdown. If Americans generally loathe Washington, they hate the Republican Party: The GOP’s unfavorables are currently at their highest level since 1992, a whopping 62 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.

Smarmy do-nothing obstructionism ended up hurting Cruz during the primary.

But, more importantly, this change has come from within the GOP itself: While views of the Democratic Party have remained relatively unchanged, the number of Republican voters who view their party favorably dropped from 79 percent last fall to 68 percent. While Republicans continue to be popular on a state-by-state basis — the party still exercises outsized control of the House and control most statehouses — a majority of GOP voters (60 percent) said they felt “embarrassed” by their party during this election cycle, according to a New York Times/CBS poll. The same poll indicated that three-quarters of Republicans still expected Trump to become the nominee.

On paper, Trump makes no sense for the GOP. For an electorate that’s been suffering from economic and social anxiety—impulses that have made Senator Bernie Sanders such a spoiler for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — Trump’s status as a bloviating billionaire who loves firing people makes for an odd economic populist. For a party that’s generally focused on a strong national defense, his lack of military experience is somehow not jarring in the slightest. Even in terms of the fundamental underpinnings of the GOP’s political philosophy — limited government — Trump is barely a conservative.

But that didn’t matter: Voters won’t abide by the exhausting obstructionism of past Republican lawmakers. Consider Trump’s conquests of Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz, the two knockouts that have symbolically bookended his insurgent campaign. Bush was obviously tarred by his family’s legacy (as polling shows), but Cruz’s defeat is particularly juicy. While Cruz has positioned himself as a political outsider, his brand of obstructionism was perfectly in line with the party’s guiding philosophy since 1992, the last time the GOP was in a world of hurt with voters. It didn’t matter that Cruz is a freshman senator untouched by the slime of Washington. At a certain point, the voters figure out that the party they’ve been supporting for years isn’t actually delivering on its promise. “Starve the beast” sank the GOP in 1992, and, despite the protestations of free markets and small government, smarmy do-nothing obstructionism ended up hurting Cruz during the primary.

This disdain for the current political establishment would have lain dormant, but it was Trump, through his mastery of the modern media, who gave furious voters an actual outlet for their exasperation. In a party that prides itself on the freedom to choose, Republicans finally had a choice of something other than the party’s three decades of establishment candidates. The GOP political establishment, swaddled in the warm comfort of the partisan loyalty wrought by increased polarization, had it wrong: It wasn’t #NeverTrump that voters wanted; it was no more GOP.

It only took about an hour or so for the storm to die down and Republican National Committee’s Reince Priebus to throw the party’s support behind Trump, but it’s less of an endorsement than a desperate grasp for some political saliency. Republican political leaders, in their adamant opposition to Trump, misjudged not only their own power, but their own relevance to voters.