I'm not waiting to write an election postmortem. There's no mystery as to how the GOP nominated the one candidate with the worst chance of defeating Hillary Clinton or what is required to guarantee a more viable GOP presidential candidate in the future.
Donald Trump's ascension was three decades in the making. As documented by BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins, he first dipped his toe in the water in 1987 with a speech to a Rotary Club in Portsmouth, N.H., and then returned to New Hampshire six times in the next 27 years, usually during presidential season. That ruse might have continued had President Obama not pushed Trump's buttons at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner, which led to his descent on an escalator at Trump Tower on June 16, 2015. The rest is history.
In the 30 years since Trump entered the scene, the GOP underwent systemic change. A polarized media supplanted the role of party leaders, ending the days when political power was earned by paying dues and gaining seniority. Instead, all that was required was incendiary talk that created fund-raising independence. Think Republican Joe Wilson shouting "You lie" at Obama in 2009 during a joint session of Congress, and raising $1 million in the next 24 hours.
Trump was the nation's first nominee to mirror the talk radio, Fox News, Drudge Report, Breitbart view of the world. He even hired Breitbart's executive chairman, Steve Bannon, to be CEO of his campaign. But where the GOP, like the Democratic Party, exists to win elections, the polarized media have a different objective: to attract computer clicks, television-viewer eyes, and talk-radio ears, all in the name of revenue. The prospect of Hillary Clinton's election represents a financial bonanza akin to the halcyon days of the 1990s when Bill Clinton was president!
Enter Trump, the Howard Beale of the 2016 cycle. Peter Finch earned an Oscar playing the fictitious newscaster in the 1976 classic Network who intoned: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore." Trump marshaled primary and caucus voters in the same way Beale got viewers to go to their windows. Where a full 42 percent of Iowa voters said they were "angry" at the federal government, Trump won 30 percent of them (when still facing more than a dozen competitors). In New Hampshire, 39 percent of GOP voters were "angry"; Trump won 44 percent. South Carolina, 40 percent/44 percent. Florida, 40 percent/59 percent.
The angriest might not be the most numerous, but they are the most reliable, especially on the right. A Pew Research Survey of the 2012 election noted that conservatives are the most politically active. Eighty percent of conservative Republicans follow public affairs and government "some" or "most" of the time compared with 73 percent of liberal Democrats and 67 percent of the general public. Trump was a beneficiary of the loudest voices muting many others. To his supporters, his bona fides as the father of "birtherism" more than made up for his lack of government experience. Except the criteria that facilitated his climb were ultimately his ceiling.
Lost in the passion of the primary season was that those reliable Republican voters were actually outliers compared with the general public. As noted by Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, the social science data, including the General Social Survey, suggest that we are actually as happy today as we were when it was "Morning in America" on Ronald Reagan's watch in the 1980s.
And we didn't have the divisions during the Gipper's time that we do today. As documented by Congressional Quarterly, as late as 1970 the typical member of Congress voted with his party only about 55 percent of the time. Rep. George H.W. Bush is the exemplar. As a Texas congressman, he voted 53 percent with the Johnson administration, and a similar 55 percent with Richard Nixon. By 2013, members of Congress were voting with their party colleagues close to 90 percent of the time. And, according to an analysis by the National Journal, when Trump spoke to the Rotary Club in Portsmouth during Reagan's second term, a full 60 percent of the Senate consisted of moderates. There were so many that GOP moderates had their own gathering called the Wednesday Lunch Club.
Things changed at the time of the first Gulf War, when a Sacramento talker named Rush Limbaugh had success in establishing a clubhouse for conservatives. Every talk station in the country wanted him and a stable of his imitators. Fox News came online in 1996 and took a page from the talk handbook. Drudge Report reached its zenith in 1998 by breaking the Lewinsky scandal. Ward leaders no longer got out the vote - men with microphones did.
There were other contributing factors to polarization, namely money, social media, geography, and self-sorting. Each accentuated that which divides instead of unites. But for the climate to change and for the GOP to nominate a candidate who can win the White House, it needs to look to alternative media leadership. There is opportunity on the horizon.
Trump is reportedly interested in establishing a television network at a time when Megyn Kelly's contract is up at Fox. Should Trump TV launch in the mold of talk radio and Drudge and Breitbart, it could enable Fox to more closely align with the type of independence Kelly has occasionally shown this cycle, and which was exhibited by moderator Chris Wallace in the final presidential debate, or that we see in Shepard Smith, as distinguished from Fox's more ideological hosts.
"A Fox that is conservative but really fair and balanced could provide the type of leadership that makes the GOP more competitive in presidential elections, so long as it ends the echo chamber," notes Brian Rosenwald, who earned his Ph.D. by studying talk radio at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is now a fellow.
The GOP would benefit by having its primary voters become better informed, and thus less interested in conspiracy theories and the most extreme policy stances that make for good ratings but not general election victories.