United States: The Republicans' party is far from over

The Republicans gathered in Cleveland over July 18-21 to ratify the verdict of primary voters and choose Donald Trump as their presidential nominee for the November elections — with Indiana governor Mike Pence his running mate.

A last-minute attempt by the “Never Trump” forces to obstruct his nomination was easily overcome when party officials rushed through a voice vote on convention rules. Despite Republican internal divisions, the Trump-Pence ticket emerged intact.

Still, on the eve of the convention, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 38% of Republican voters were satisfied with Trump — though five in six of them say they'll vote for Trump.

The same survey showed Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in front of Trump by a 46%-41% margin among registered voters. This lead has remained unchanged for a month, despite the FBI director chastising Clinton for her mishandling of emails when she was Secretary of State.

Anti-Trump Republicans — the most vocal of which are concentrated in the party “establishment” of officeholders, lobbyists, donors, consultants and commentators — fear a Trump-headed ticket will drag the GOP down in November.

A whole roster of Republican luminaries — including senators vulnerable in their re-election battles — are trying to avoid the Trump taint by missing the convention altogether. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the establishment favourite who Trump humiliated during the primaries, has even said he will not even vote for Trump.

But despite high-profile angst, most Republicans, along with their billionaire donors, understand they are stuck with Trump in November — and also that there are other races to preserve Republican control of Congress, governorships and state legislatures to focus on.

Amid all the talk of chaos and crisis at the top, it is worth remembering that the Republicans hold their largest majorities in the US House of Representatives and in state legislative seats in almost a century. Even if control of the Senate changes hands after November, the Democrats won't have enough votes to stop a filibuster.

So as bad as things look for the Republicans in the presidential race, their chances of holding onto control in Congress and state governments across the country look good. Even if Trump is beaten badly in November, the Republicans will continue to hold a lot of political power.

Democrat role

More importantly, they have been able to take the initiative and drag mainstream politics further to the right during eight years of a Democratic president precisely because of their opponents.

The Democrats say one thing at election time to win votes — even the most conventionally conservative among them, Clinton, has made an effort to talk left, if only to fight off the primary challenge of Bernie Sanders and to contrast herself with Trump.

But in office, the Democrats' record at every level of government is littered with broken campaign promises.

The Republicans drag the political debate to the right, the Democrats push it in the same direction with every concession.

All the ugliness that Trump and the Republicans represent was on display in Cleveland, and anyone who cares about justice or democracy is right to feel repulsed. But confronting the GOP and its reactionary agenda requires challenging the Democrats who enable it.

Most discontent in the Republican ranks is directed at Trump himself — that is, at the messenger, rather than his message.

The political pros who think the Republicans' increasing reliance on a narrowing base of older, affluent white voters does not bode well for future elections may have a point. But for now, Trump won because he advocated positions that are widely supported by the most committed Republicans who vote in party primaries.

Opinion polls show Trump winning overwhelming support from his supporters for his incendiary rhetoric about banning Muslim immigrants from the US, building a wall on the Mexican border and deporting the undocumented. But Republicans who voted for other candidates in the primaries supported these same positions by wide majorities, too.

Republican disputes

Trump's victory signifies that the chickens have come home to roost in a Republican Party whose operatives and media fellow travellers have used the most reactionary rhetoric to whip up a voting base of committed partisans.

As the New York Times' Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin put it: “Republicans have wrestled for years with the push and pull of seeking to win over new groups of voters while tending to their overwhelmingly white and conservative base.

“Now, Mr. Trump's candidacy may force them into making a fateful choice: whether to fully embrace the Trump model and become, effectively, a party of white identity politics, or to pursue a broader political coalition by repudiating Mr. Trump's ideas — and many of the voters he has gathered behind his campaign.”

The problem with this analysis is that it could have been written in 2008 or 2012.

Yet the platform adopted by delegates at the start of the Republican convention this year is even more right wing that the one passed in 2012 — it endorses Trump's border “wall” and calls for a reversal of the Supreme Court decision legalising same-sex marriage.

Why? Certainly the influence of the Trump campaign is partly responsible. But it might also be that Republicans feel there is no reason to change course from a strategy that has generally produced success for them.

The Republicans may not be able to muster majorities to vote for them in presidential sweepstakes. But they have generally succeeded in mobilising their committed base during midterm elections.

After the last two, in 2010 and 2014, the GOP ended up with commanding majorities at the state and congressional level — from which they were able to implement a counterrevolution fully in line with the highly conservative views that dominate the party.

Meanwhile, the Republican-controlled Congress has shut down the government and threatened to send the US government into default to force the Obama administration to accept even more extreme plans for austerity.

With few exceptions, these measures found the vast majority of the Republican “establishment” cheering for them.

So even though there were signs of internal crisis and conflict long before Trump, the Republican Party has remained united enough to do considerable damage to workers, poor people and the oppressed.

Conservative push

The party's most ideologically conservative activists and donors still aren't satisfied. They found their voice in the House Freedom Caucus, which makes up about a quarter of House Republicans, and among associated cranks like right-wing Senator Ted Cruz.

Last yeah, the Freedom Caucus succeeded in pushing House Speaker John Boehner, presumably not right-wing enough, out of office. Conservatives should have celebrated that one of their heroes, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, took over for Boehner.

Ryan is an acolyte of Ayn Rand and architect of plans to privatise social security and Medicare. His fundamentalist free-market ideology was once considered beyond the pale, yet Ryan is today one of the two most powerful Republicans in government, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Yet among a whole host of right-wingers like Cruz, Ryan is considered a sell-out — like Boehner before him.

It is a strange spectacle. But there is no denying that the Republicans, supposedly a party “in crisis”, has had a run of success in pushing through a conservative agenda at all levels of government.

Last year, Thomas Donahue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, announced that it would spend up to US$100 million to keep the US Senate in Republican hands. But it would also counter “the influence of hard-line legislators like members of the Freedom Caucus”.

Such signs of dissention and corporate discontent are often taken as the beginning of the end for the Republicans. But do not bet on the GOP's demise — or even fracturing.

Trump faces an uphill battle against Clinton, to say the least. With significant sections of the capitalist class abandoning their loyalty to the Republicans and coming out for Clinton, he could suffer a historic defeat. That would certainly have some effect on elections for other offices.

But there are other factors at work. One is that the Democrats are nominating a presidential candidate who champions a status quo stirring discontent among millions of people. If Trump is the most unpopular candidate of a mainstream party in memory, Clinton is a not-so-distant second — including among Democratic base voters.

That does not bode well for the kind of enthusiastic Democratic turnout needed to shift the balance even in the Senate, much less in the US House and state legislatures where Republicans are dominant.

'Lesser-evil'

Clinton's “I'm not Trump” strategy, while it may be effective in whipping up lesser evilism around the presidential race, will have the effect of squelching hopes and expectations among Democratic voters. This makes it harder to envision an election sweep that topples GOP control of Congress.

A status quo-oriented Clinton administration would almost certainly face a Congress where Republicans retain enough leverage to obstruct any Clinton initiatives outside of military spending. And Democratic prospects in the Senate are as unfavourable — setting up the possibility of another GOP victory at midterm time.

Meanwhile, if Trump loses, his opponents among the Republican leadership will get a chance to put another face on their party. The Republicans could also find someone who has the same right-wing populist politics as Trump, but who won't be so easily pigeonholed as a reality TV clown.

It is likely that some sort of regenerated conservatism — probably exploiting the appeal of Trump's right-wing populism, but without his baggage — will emerge after the 2016 election, whatever the outcome.

That puts a challenge on our side to build a credible left that can offer an alternative. This involves challenging the right-wing's bigotry, but also confronting the Democratic Party establishment that has aided and abetted the Republicans in dragging politics to the right.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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