On December 7, Donald Trump strode out in front of the assembled television cameras and did something unusual: The stream-of-consciousness candidate read a prepared statement.
It said: "I, Donald J. Trump, am calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."
Trump didn't break a law that day; he broke a norm. Major politicians can single out particular religious groups for discriminatory treatment in the United States. They just … don't.
They don't do it even when they might find votes through bigotry. The restraint isn't entirely altruistic. Norms are enforced through powerful, if informal, mechanisms in American politics — in this case, widespread condemnation from politicians of both parties, as well as (accurate) accusations of bigotry and racism.
But Trump isn't bothered by the guardrails of American politics. As I've written before, his most salient characteristic is that he operates entirely without shame. He doesn't care if he's condemned, or called a bigot, or shown to be a liar. He cares about the polls, and he cares about winning, and he sees everything else as negotiable. In this, he truly is a dealmaker: If the cost of the presidency is being seen as a racist, he'll pay it.
To understand the danger Trump poses, though, it's important to recognize what happened next. Banning all Muslims from traveling to the United States, for any reason, went instantly from being a proposal so bigoted and outlandish that no one had even considered it to a proposal at the center of the American political debate. It was discussed. It was polled. It was normalized.
This is the danger Trump poses to the American political system, even if he loses. He is normalizing the abnormal. He is redefining what is acceptable to do and say in American politics.
Shame on Donald Trump for having no shame and doing this to our polity. Not so fast, say non-partisan Congressional scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. They argue that the Republican party has waged war on government for three decades and Donald Trump is the logical result.
Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party’s steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.
From the time he came to Congress in 1979, Gingrich deployed a strategy to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in the House by moving to polarize the parties, to use the ethics process to taint both the majority and the entire political process, and to get Americans so disgusted with politics and politicians that at the right moment, they would rise up and throw out the incumbent party.
The theory was that a deliberate strategy to make all government action in Washington look disastrous, whether by stopping legislation or delegitimizing the process and its products, would work against the party in power: the Democrats. Scandal politics, which vaulted Gingrich to prominence in the first place, could be hyped and exploited; see Benghazi. The "birther" movement was not explicitly embraced by party leaders, but it was encouraged; it was an indirect way to criticize the "African" president while also, incidentally, vaulting Donald Trump to prominence in the political realm.
But when leaders neither criticized nor condemned the assertions, it gave them more legitimacy with voters. We do not believe that party leaders themselves believed Obama was a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton's aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist, or that a Black Panther uprising was ever imminent. But those claims were cynically exploited to foster anger among base voters.
Whatever happens in November, the fractured Republican Party will struggle for a long, long time to find an identity and a center of gravity. Almost certainly, given the retirements from Congress and the vulnerable incumbents, the relative influence of the Freedom Caucus — radical lawmakers who want no compromises — will be significantly greater.
On some issues, like immigration and trade, Freedom Caucus Republicans will be with Trump. On others, including his support for Social Security and Medicare, neither they nor the leaders will back him. Most likely, when it comes to things like torture and trade, Trump would bypass Congress and use executive action in ways that would potentially create constitutional crises and divide Republicans in profound ways.
If the single most likely election outcome occurs — a Clinton presidential victory and a narrow edge for Democrats in the Senate, with a reduced Republican majority in the House — the party divisions will be huge. A Trump loss will energize the Ted Cruz/Tom Cotton/Freedom Caucus wing, with Cruz doubling down on his assertion that Republicans keep losing because the party is not pure enough: It keeps nominating moderates like Romney and liberals like Trump instead of purists like Cruz (who would theoretically bring out tens of millions of voters who stay at home otherwise).
Just as troubling is the shameful appeal Trump is making, as the Republican standard-bearer, to racist, anti-Semitic, and nativist elements in the populace. To their detriment, party leaders did little to discourage those nefarious appeals. Getting the racist genie back in the bottle may prove impossible.
That does not mean going back to an Eisenhower-era or even Nixon-era GOP, when centrists were key forces; it means a very conservative party by any reasonable measure. As such, we sympathize with Republicans like David Frum who have been harshly critical of the party’s course but refuse to leave it, believing their presence is necessary to fight to yank the party back to a problem-solving state.
If they can’t, perhaps, as when the Whig Party hit a dead end, a new force will emerge to replace or challenge the Republican Party. But anyone expecting a quick or clean resolution of this turmoil will be sorely disappointed.