The presidency of Donald Trump has reached a cul-de-sac. Trump retains the intense loyalty of perhaps one-third of Americans. Yet what thrills his hardcore base — older white voters without college degrees — repels the rest of the nation, including younger Americans, voters of color and highly educated workers. With his unrelenting tribalism and race-baiting, Trump has firmly planted his party on the losing side of the nation’s long-term demographic shift.
How did the GOP get here? The conventional account emphasizes white backlash, particularly white male evangelical backlash. After the civil rights era, Republicans attracted an increasing share of resentful white voters by stoking outrage against a growing list of boogeymen: lawless immigrants, godless liberals, anti-gun zealots, dark-skinned freeloaders. In this account, white mobilization in rural and small-town America explains both Trump’s 2016 victory and his 2020 vulnerability.
This account is not so much wrong as badly incomplete. In its fixation on right-wing populism, it ignores right-wing plutocracy: conservative business leaders and reactionary billionaires who’ve focused not just on winning elections, but on rewriting the rules of our economy and our democracy. The growing power of these forces has encouraged the GOP to embrace a retrograde economic program that has little support even among its own voters. One effect is more inequality. Another is a Republican Party more reliant on white identity to stay in power.
The United States is not just a distinctively diverse nation; among rich democracies, it’s also a uniquely unequal one. To a degree unparalleled elsewhere, the shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy has exploded the gap between the rich and the rest. The share of national income going to the top 1 percent of Americans has doubled since 1980, with much of that increase going to a small fraction within the 1 percent.
This wrenching shift is one source of populist grievance. But it hasn’t empowered the aggrieved. Instead, it’s the super rich who’ve flourished. With concentrated wealth has come unprecedented investments in politics by billionaire donors and business organizations, mostly on the right. Showcasing this conservative tilt, in 2016, the anti-government advocacy network associated with Charles Koch spent about as much to advance its reactionary agenda and elect sympathetic politicians as the Republican Party itself. In the process, plutocratic forces have reshaped the positions of both parties — especially the Republican Party.