Trump voters wanted to blow up Washington. Regardless of what else they may disrupt, they have succeeded in disturbing the entrenched partisan divisions which for years have cemented our politics in a tedious and angry stalemate. The election has handed Republicans the imperative to govern and Democrats the need to regroup. These realities will place pressure on both parties and create a four-way political dynamic. Democrats will still oppose Republicans and Republicans will still oppose Democrats, but these disputes will be complicated by the heightened presence of intra-party wrangling. The stress of governing promises to exacerbate Republican divisions between conservatives and reactionaries. The stress of losing power will advance the cause of progressives in the Democratic Party and empower them to confront entrenched monied interests with greater determination.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Before the election, the Reagan coalition was in twilight but still resistant enough to prevent Barack Obama from repudiating it, and the lingering pull of a business-centered neoliberal politics prevented the Democratic president from bringing about the kind of progressive economic changes which might have broadened his coalition. Both these things may change in the months ahead.
Now that they have more power, Republicans paradoxically are more vulnerable to succumbing to internal strife between conservatives and reactionaries. Governing is hard. It puts pressure on coalition partners in the best of times, which these most certainly are not. Trump ran as the leader of a reactionary faction, which remains a minority even in the Republican Party. His governing options are tricky. Reactionary candidacies like Trump’s are oppositional rather than forward-looking. He is not positioned to implement a new agenda based on the campaign because he never asked for a mandate to do anything other than build a border wall, deport undocumented immigrants and keep Muslims from entering the country. It’s not clear if or how much he intends to push these divisive ideas, but if he does he may meet resistance from some congressional conservatives who will be torn between self-preservation and helping a president of their own party. If he does not, or more accurately if he does not generate the perception that he is improving the lives of his supporters, he risks blowing a hole in his impassioned but tenuous coalition.
Trump’s biggest mistake would be assuming he has a mandate for action. If the first days of his transition are a guide he will almost certainly make this mistake. The reality is Trump will take office with one of the weakest governing positions of any modern president. He faces an angry and divided nation which he does not understand, and he campaigned on the promise to govern part of it at the expense of the rest. If he violates that promise and reaches out to the other side—not an altogether crazy proposition for someone who has not demonstrated a specific worldview—he risks selling out his core supporters. If he honors it he faces pushback from everyone else. He is likely to be drawn to a risky third option—chaos and distraction—which could carry him surprisingly far for a little while but grow exhausting and produce diminishing political returns if everyday conditions do not improve.
And as they say on infomercials, that’s not all. Trump’s seven-figure popular vote loss diminishes his legitimacy, especially when an unprecedented proportion of his own voters and a majority of the country do not like him or have doubts about his abilities and do not support a reactionary agenda. This point may not make headlines, but the few presidents who lost the popular vote are not a happy group. Among them, only George W. Bush was re-elected—narrowly—while we were fighting two wars in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
Republicans will want him to succeed but are bound to disagree on what they want him to do, and Trump’s stated positions on issues like trade policy are anathema to Republican orthodoxy—a big reason why many conservatives opposed him. The more cautious among them may worry about the political effects of advancing positions (repeal and replace!) which if implemented could cause suffering and the loss of political support from some of Trump’s voters, but less cautious Freedom Caucus Republicans will move ahead without fear.
This is the situation the Republican Party now faces. How they hold it together will be one of the great mysteries of this unprecedented administration-in-waiting. Conservatives may momentarily make peace with the radicals if that’s what it takes to advance their long-stifled agenda, but the ingredients for infighting and stalemate are there.
Democrats know they have to be ready with an alternative if Republicans falter. Should the Trump adventure leave the Reagan coalition in shambles, the opportunity will be there for a reconstructive candidate to offer an alternative. Under these circumstances, they would have the political space to offer a program that was not previously viable, the way Reagan conservatism would not have been acceptable to the electorate before Carter. As with Reagan, that alternative would come from a place that is far out of the mainstream of our present-day politics. With the emergence of a Bernie-endorsed party platform this summer and now the unexpected close of the Clinton dynasty, the party will move left. Clinton’s concession speech had barely ended before Sanders was making a push for progressive representative Keith Ellison to run the DNC. Within a day, more traditional Democratic leaders were falling in line. For his part, Bernie Sanders announced plans to take a leadership role in congress alongside Elizabeth Warren, who lost no time positioning herself as a determined opposition voice. The party of Clinton is departing the stage.
From these leadership positions, vocal progressives will do battle with monied interests in an attempt to reshape the party as a functioning progressive entity which, if elected, could offer a program with something for voters in the rising electorate as well as those who have been left behind by globalization. They have a lot of work to do to rebuild in parts of the country where Democrats let a once-promising fifty state strategy atrophy, and it will take time for a new generation of leaders to emerge, but they will have the help of a mature infrastructure of online and real world progressive organizations which at times in the past have not been welcome in the party. The vacuum created by Clinton’s sudden, shocking loss is an opportunity for progressives, just as the vacuum likely to exist in a White House run by a president who wants to commute home on weekends will attract warring Republican factions. No one can pretend they know how it will play out, but the chaos caused on Election Day has already scrambled the battle lines in a way that could expand the range of political debate on the right and left.