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10 Ways Donald Trump Has Changed Politics Forever
Way, way back in July 2015, we predicted that Donald Trump could become the official Republican nominee. Time has proven us so right that even we’re shocked at our precognitive skills. And now we’re here with another prediction: Even if he loses the presidency, Donald Trump will become known as the man who changed politics. Forever.
We don’t say this lightly. US politics (and most of the Western world) has adhered to a fairly narrow consensus for the last 40 years. At the start of the nominee race in 2015, everyone thought that consensus would stick for another decade or two at least. Then along came Trump, and everything changed. By riding a wave of popular discontent like a pro-surfer, The Donald brought popular discontent crashing onto the shore of mainstream politics. While we’d never claim to endorse him or anything he stands for, there’s no doubt that he’s changed our electoral landscape beyond all recognition. Here’s how.
10Fracturing The Right
America’s two-party system has long meant both the Dems and the GOP are less unified forces and more uneasy alliances between several interest groups, each pushing their own agenda. For a long time, the GOP was especially good at keeping its rival factions in check. No longer. Thanks to Trump, the consensus on the American right is shattering.
It helps if you imagine the GOP as three distinct parties. You have the religious, socially conservative party that loves Jesus and hates abortion. The free-market, pro-business party loves low taxes and hates big government. And the neo-con wing loves hawkish military interventionism and hates Middle Eastern dictators. For decades, they’ve been rubbing along against a common enemy. Now Trump has thrown a bomb underneath the bus and exploded those alliances.
By drawing voters from both the socially conservative and anti–big government groups, Trump has effectively divided the GOP. The damage is likely irreparable. For the first time, the base is seeing their nationalist agenda put first, at the expense of free market economics. This has strongly alienated its party’s pro-business wing, which also happens to have all the money. In a sign of how truly the GOP is split, many neo-cons are happier with the prospect of a Hillary presidency than a Trump one.
The Sanders insurgency exposed similar fault lines in the Democrats, but they’ve yet to split open as wide as those in the GOP. At this point, the Republicans really have two options: Follow their base into potentially unelectable territory, or split into two new parties.
9The Rise Of Isolationism And Nativism
Donald Trump is the most important Republican since Ronald Reagan. Quit laughing, we’re serious. After the Ku Klux Klan–endorsed Barry Goldwater led the GOP on an electoral suicide mission in 1964, the Republican mainstream has firmly been outward-facing. Nixon went to China. Reagan made the global market king. Both Bushes went on Quixotic quests in the Middle East. All eschewed populism in favor of consistent (if not always popular) policy decisions. 2016 marks the first time a GOP nominee has thrown all that out the window.
The GOP under Trump is isolationist, inward-looking, and avowedly nativist. It’s also here to stay. It’s said that to change a political party, you need a broad electoral base, allies in the power structure, and a clear message. Trump has all three of those. When Trump started running his nativist campaign, other candidates immediately pivoted to a similar position. Ted Cruz even floated the idea of mass deportations—a policy position unthinkable even one short year ago. The message from the base is clear: If you want to win the nomination after 2016, you better start taking from the Trump policy book.
Such a shift in the American right affects moderates and liberals, too. Bernie Sanders has already had success among the young running on an isolationist (though not nativist) platform. Even if Trump crashes and burns in November, these ideas are unlikely to go away.
8The Death Of ‘The Party Decides’
The Party Decides is one of the most important political science books ever written. Its central thesis is that presidential nominations aren’t decided by voters. They’re decided by party insiders, who use their funding and media connections to push the nomination toward their preferred candidate. It happened in 2008, when John McCain sawed off Mike Huckabee’s early lead. It happened in 2012, when the uninspiring Mitt Romney beat back outspoken Rick Santorum. Four years later, the idea imploded.
It’s impossible to overstate how little the GOP wanted Trump to win. Super PACs spent millions on attack ads. Party insiders bombarded the electorate with messages about how unsuitable he was for presidency. Even Fox News got the knives out. Yet voters didn’t follow the party line. Trump demolished everyone in his path. As the GOP first bigged up Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio, then finally (desperately) John Kasich, voters headed in the opposite direction. The party would no longer decide.
A lot of this is to do with how party funding has been shaken up. In 2002, GOP party structures accounted for over 50 percent of all campaign funding. By 2014, it had dropped to 30 percent. As the funds flowed away to advocates, think tanks and mega donors, the party lost its vice-like grip on its own members. We’re at the point now where the GOP base instinctively distrust their own party elites. Unless trust (and funds) can be restored, the GOP is unlikely to decide any candidates in the near future.
7Changing The Debate
Imagine politics as a vast, dark sea, heaving with the choppy waters of right-wing, left-wing, and religious ideologies. At any time, only a tiny fraction of this sea is lit by the beam from a lighthouse. This lighted area is what’s considered politically acceptable in our society. Left, right, center, moderate, independent . . . all exist within the narrow patch of water we can currently see.
As time moves on, the spotlight may drift slowly left, or slowly right, bringing once-unthinkable ideologies into the light (like gay marriage), and locking others out in the dark, churning waves (like segregation). In the normal course of things, the spotlight’s movement is slow, taking decades to cover a few meters of water. Occasionally, a politician with great charisma grabs it and sends it freewheeling out across the ocean, upending what we thought was acceptable. Donald Trump is one such politician.
The proper name for this is the Overton Window. It describes the limits of what politicians can propose and what people are comfortable to discuss in public. In one short year, Trump has yanked the window far to the right. Suddenly, stuff that was off-limits is a central part of the debate. Mass deportations, banning Muslims, and encouraging nuclear proliferation are all things that used to exist in the dark corners of the boiling sea but are now under the spotlight. Particularly where immigration and Islam are concerned, Trump has made his previously unacceptable policies mainstream among the GOP.
This is important because a major shift in the Overton Window can define how all parties position themselves. Think how in the ’90s, the Dems were forced to become free market cheerleaders to get elected, or how in this decade, Republicans who vocally oppose gay rights get a kicking. Trump is doing something similar with immigration and Islam. His success could redefine how we talk about these issues for decades.
Yeah, we know. How can we declare “the end of dynasties” in a year when a second President Clinton seems a real possibility? Simple: 2016 was meant to be Clinton vs Bush II: the rematch. Donald’s merciless demolition of Jeb Bush has ensured political parties will think twice before relying on name recognition in the future.
We saw something similar on the left this year, too. The Democratic race was meant to be a coronation for Hillary Clinton. In the end, she had to fight tooth and nail against an unknown, hard-left senator who began the primary season trailing her by 40 points. But it was Trump’s takedown of Jeb that will live on in infamy. Before the Donald made heckling Jeb a spectator sport, the third Bush to run for the GOP nominee was the clear favorite. Trump’s mocking attacks destroyed Jeb’s numbers and revealed a profound truth: Dynasties reward family power, not personal merit.
Anyone who saw one of Jeb’s debate performances will know he should never have been the favorite in the first place. He was flat compared to Trump and Cruz and indecisive compared to Rubio. He got to first place through name recognition, and the GOP wasted over $150 million ensuring he stayed there. His humiliating defeat at the hands of Trump will likely make both parties think twice about indulging dynasties again—especially if Clinton runs a narrow race, or even loses, in November.
5Dragging Conservatives Leftward
Many opposed to the Trump campaign have called Trump far-right, or even a fascist. We’re going to respectfully disagree. Although Trump’s immigration positions are far to the right of other GOP candidates, on many other issues, he’s extremely left-wing. And the bad news for the free market Republican right is that he appears to be dragging the base with him.
Trump supports “fair trade” over free trade. He wants to end tax loopholes for the rich. He’s in favor of universal healthcare, protecting social spending, big investment projects, and policies that protect American workers. He’s previously made pro-abortion comments. His economic plans are not a world away from those of Bernie Sanders. This is not a case of conservatives who like Trump’s immigration and Islam stance following him despite these leftwing policies. There’s strong evidence that his liberal economic stances are exactly why his followers like him.
It helps to think of Trump as an American expression of Europe’s new right. In Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark and others, a new breed of politician has risen that is extreme right socially (anti-immigration, anti-Islam, often anti-gay marriage), but big state and leftist economically (increased spending on welfare, government intervention in markets). In much of the Western world, this is proving to be a potent blend. Trump’s success means America is now following suit.
4The Rise Of Post-Truth Politics
In the 1990s, a single lie (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”) nearly cost Bill Clinton the presidency. Just a few years earlier, another lie (“read my lips: no new taxes”) sank the George HW Bush White House. Fast forward to 2016, and a politician who lies openly hasn’t just succeeded despite his lying. He’s succeeded because of it.
Trump has demonstrably lied on issues ranging from New York Muslims celebrating 9/11, to Obama spending $4 million to hide his Muslim-Kenyan ancestry, to the unemployment rate being 42 percent. You can check for yourselves if you don’t believe us. Heck, he even claimed Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the JFK assassination. But the point isn’t that Trump lies. It’s that his supporters simply don’t care.
Public anger with the mainstream media is at a modern high. People on the right and left are so sure the media is biased, they’ve stopped listening to it. When someone like Trump tells them Obama wasn’t born in the US, they believe him not because it’s true, but because it sounds right. And no amount of media fact-checks will convince them otherwise. This is known as post-truth politics, and it may yet turn our notion’s of democracy on their head.
Modern democracy is based on an informed electorate making rational choices, helped by a media that holds politicians to account. When people choose to ignore the media in favor of falsehoods and conspiracy theories, we no longer have an informed electorate. A foundation stone of democracy has been kicked away. 2016 may yet turn out to be a bellweather year, with Trump’s candidacy pointing toward a new, post-truth normal in American politics.
3The Fall Of The Mainstream Media
Post-truth politics is on the rise is because the media badly misjudged the situation. They thought they could put Trump on TV for ratings and have viewers tune in to laugh at his hair and incoherence. They assumed those watching at home would be on their side. But something strange happened. The viewers weren’t laughing with the reporters at Trump at all. They weren’t even laughing. They were sat at home, hanging onto everything he said.
The Trump candidacy has exposed a massive gulf between the values of the media and the values of those it claims to represent. It’s also shown just how well a wily politician can play them. By one estimate—made over two months ago and now likely surpassed—Trump has received over $2 billion in free airtime, thanks to wall-to-wall media coverage of his every gaffe and misstep. It’s thought this was crucial in raising his profile during the early stages of his candidacy, in effect making his nomination possible. The media thought they were laughing at a clown. It turned out the clown was the one pulling the strings.
Now that the cat is out the bag, political reporting may never be the same again. Times were that determined journalists with a story could bring down a president. Now they find themselves manipulated into doling out free publicity.
2The Rise Of American Nationalism
In 2002, the French Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen shook Europe to its core. Against all expectations, he made it to the second round of France’s presidential elections, putting himself one vote away from becoming the head of the French Republic.
It was a wakeup call to France. Leftists mobilized to vote for arch conservative Jacques Chirac, and ordinary people took on an “anyone but Le Pen” attitude. The Neo-Nazi lost by the biggest landslide in French electoral history, raking in just 17.8 percent of the vote. Moderate France cheered. The celebrations didn’t last long.
Le Pen’s making the runoff marked a turning point in France, and in Europe. The Pandora’s Box of ultra-nationalism had been opened. Today, Le Pen’s ultra-rightwing daughter Marine is leading the polls ahead of France’s 2017 election. In the UK, the far-right Ukip party recently pulled off the amazing feat of getting the public to vote for Brexit. Austria is about to rerun a presidential election that could see a candidate who poses with Nazi-era symbols elevated to the presidency. Le Pen gave the European far-right legitimacy, and ultra-nationalism has been on the rise ever since.
The fear now is that Donald Trump will do the same for America. Not everyone will agree this is a bad thing. But its effects will certainly be profound. With voters hungry for a nationalist candidate, the ground is fertile for the rise of a new party, or a new movement that will make the Tea Party earthquake look like a mere tremor in comparison.
1The Rise Of American Authoritarianism
In desperate times, people often turn toward strongman figures. To many sections of the population, these certainly feel like desperate times. Terrorists are massacring civilians and police officers. A jihadi group is dominating the Middle East. North Korea is building technology to nuke America. Old social certainties are being swept aside in favor of things like gay marriage, black lives matter, and transgender bathrooms. Meanwhile, wages are falling, jobs are drying up, and the future is looking bleak. People are scared. And when people get scared, they often look for simple solutions.
Trump appears to offer those solutions. He’ll protect jobs by kicking out immigrants. He’ll stop terrorists by banning Muslims. He’ll raise wages by driving a hard trade deal with China. Such big, easy, pseudo-solutions that trample on democratic norms are hallmarks of authoritarianism. And Trump may be creating the first generation of American authoritarians.
Modern research into authoritarianism has shown very few of us are openly supportive of strongman ideals. Until, that is, we feel threatened. At that point, those of us with latent authoritarian tendencies “activate”—we chuck our previous beliefs out the window and search for a strong leader to protect us. Trump’s fear-based campaign has activated millions of authoritarians across America. Even if he loses in November, they will still be there, desperately looking for a strongman to lead them.
In practical terms, this means we are likely to see more Trump-like candidates in the future. Some may even be successful. But—more importantly –we will see the first-ever mass movement of American authoritarianism. If the research is anything to go by, this movement will likely support pre-emptive military action against possible foreign enemies (Iran, North Korea), the banning of gay marriage, racial-profiling of Middle Eastern citizens, and the mass deportations of illegal immigrants.
At that point, the US will enter uncharted territory. No one seriously thinks Trump or his successors could be a dictator. But authoritarians can damage democracy while still working within democratic institutions. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is one example. Hugo Chavez is another. At the very least, there will be a notable subsection of the US public that is angry, and scared, and desperate for easy, anti-democratic solutions. And they may yet get enough clout to influence how American politics and elections work.