For decades, what may be termed “establishment” Republicans have owned the party. These are the more anti-populist, globally-oriented conservatives famously obsessed with tax cuts for the rich, ending regulation of Big Business, mass immigration in order to lower wages for the working and middle classes, open commitment (or at least pretend-commitment) to liberal ideals of diversity and inclusiveness in service of said mass-immigration policy, hawkish war policy, and all the rest.
This wing of the Bushes and Romneys, the Ryans and McConnells has never faced any serious contest to their hold over the party and its platform since — when, exactly? Eisenhower and his famous Military-Industrial Complex farewell speech?
But there is another wing of the right, one without the money of the Establishment but with all the grassroots fervor so ably harnessed by talk radio, the wing that until recently was referred to as the Tea Party before that term got co-opted. This wing can get a few backbenchers elected to Congress here and there, or an occasional fusion candidate like Cruz who attempts to belong to both sides; but as noted before, these guys have not had a national candidate they could rally behind since George Wallace. At least, not until a certain billionaire rode down his escalator to announce his presidential bid. (The third wing of the right, the social conservatives, represented by perennial also-rans like Huckabee and Santorum, are always faithful to the Establishment in the end. And both the Establishment and the populists largely agree on social issues like guns and abortion anyway.)
Until now, the GOP’s populist base could be relied on to support the inevitable Bush or Romney at the top of their ticket. Not because the populists, the Tea Partiers or the white nationalists particularly like Bushes or Romneys, but because they sure hate the Dems a lot more. Listen to Rush during any election year, and he spends little time talking up the top GOP candidates, and almost all his time tearing into the Democrats. The Establishment GOP guys had to throw out an occasional dog whistle or empty promise to the base, and that was all it took to keep them in line.
But now, both sides seem willing to burn down the village in order to save it. The Establishment wing is mulling a brokered convention to deny Trump the nomination no matter what the votes show; Trump, meanwhile, is threatening a third-party bid if he loses the nomination either to honest means (votes) or dishonest (such smoke-filled rooms at the convention). Both sides surely know this scenario ensures a Clinton presidency, but neither side seems willing to back down. In the words of S.E. Cupp on Trump:
“If he does [run as an independent], he’ll most likely pull enough votes away from Republicans to ensure a Democratic victory… but as a conservative who would very much like to see a Republican win the White House again in the future, I’m increasingly thinking this is the best thing for the party, even if it means a certain victory for Democrats… if Trump wins the nomination and runs as a Republican, we’ll have Democrats like Clinton in the White House for the next 50 years.”
The idea is that the GOP brand would be rendered so toxic by a Trump nomination that it would be better to eat the loss now; render the GOP populists, including their alt.Right white nationalists, neutered once again; and return as an Establishment-dominated unity party in 2020.
All of this is fantastic news for the Democrats, of course. With the GOP vote split, there’s almost no way HRC could lose in November — and who knows what damage an independent Trump could inflict on the GOP downticket? Ross Perot sucked up 18.9% of the vote in 1992, which put Hillary’s husband in the White House; an independent Trump would almost certainly inflict even more damage to the eventual GOP nominee, as some social-cons vote along with most of the right-wing populists for Trump. Or if Trump were the GOP nominee, I have little doubt enough mainline conservative Establishment money and votes would defect to Hillary that she still wins (update 12/16: I may have been more right than I knew). After all, whatever distaste they may have for Hillary’s stances on social policy, they may rest assured she will protect the 1%’s interests as much as any Bush would.
The Democrats might want to go easy on the champagne, though. The same thing could happen to us.
Like the GOP, there are three main wings to the Democratic party. There is their own Establishment, with the Clintons as their king and queen, and a whole court of nobles and princes like Rahm Emanuel, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand bowing and scraping before them. There is the pro-labor socialist wing, represented by Elizabeth Warren and a certain crazy-haired senator from Vermont, who like their social conservative counterparts, always wind up falling in line behind the Establishment. And finally, there is the social-justice grassroots, which like the right-wing populists, also lack any representation beyond backbenchers in Congress but who are powerful on the ground level. They are represented by #BlackLivesMatter, La Raza, the campus demonstration movement, radical feminists not content with Hillary, and pro-Islamist Chomskyites like Glenn Greenwald. And like their right-wing counterparts, they are sick of being taken for granted by their Establishment. However, right now they have no national firebrand to coalesce around, and always wind up pulling for the Establishment Clinton or Obama no matter how reluctantly.
What if that were to change? What if a leftist Trump, a stronger Al Sharpton-type or an American Hugo Chavez, were to emerge out of #BLM? Or if some existing figure like Bill de Blasio gets sick and tired of kowtowing to the Establishment and goes full firebrand?
It’s not hard to predict. The base would be pulling hard for this anti-Trump, which would befuddle the mainstream media. Think about what’s going on with Rahm in Chicago right now: people would want to do that to the Clintons on a national level, if they only had a champion. Such a figure would no doubt drop insane lines and positions like Sharpton, or Huey Long before him; the polite commentariat would huff that such words would prove him or her unfit for the presidency and yet express amazement at his or her continued ascendance in the polls. The social-justice base would continue to express their contempt of the Establishment pick of that year; the neutral socialists and economic liberals would be split between the two camps.
I’d be surprised if social-justice leaders aren’t thinking about this even now. They look at Trump and think what his mirror image could do to the Democratic party. In addition, their champion could be as much a reaction to Trump himself as they would be to the Establishment. Greece’s Syriza, after all, benefited hugely from opposition to the fascist Golden Dawn.
Now, perhaps such movements would be doomed to oblivion like most third-party movements. But then again, one could assume ascendancy like the Republicans once did over the Whigs. The real political divide, after all, is elite vs. plebian, not red vs. blue. No matter how obnoxious Trump may be, it would be a welcome change to have a lasting political movement specifically for the interests of the grassroots of either side (or both!) instead of for the landed aristocracy represented by our various Bushes and Clintons.