Do you remember what happened when the Berlin Wall fell? Until that moment, nobody realized just how decadent Communism had become. It had tanks, guns and nukes, but nobody really believed in its ideology anymore; its officials and enforcers were mere careerists, who folded at the first shock.
It seems to me that you need to think about what happened to the GOP this election cycle the same way.
The Republican establishment was easily overthrown because it was already hollow at the core. Donald Trump’s taunts about “low-energy” Jeb Bush and “little Marco” Rubio worked because they contained a large element of truth. When Bush and Rubio dutifully repeated the usual conservative clichés, you could see that there was no sense of conviction behind their recitations. All it took was the huffing and puffing of a loudmouthed showman to blow their houses down.
But as Trump is finding out, the Democratic establishment is different.
As some political scientists are now acknowledging, America’s two major parties are not at all symmetric. The GOP is, or was until Trump arrived, a top-down hierarchical structure enforcing a strict, ideologically pure party line. The Democrats, by contrast, are a “coalition of social groups,” from teachers’ unions to Planned Parenthood, seeking specific benefits from government action.
This diversity of interests sometimes reduces Democrats’ effectiveness: the old Will Rogers joke, “I am not a member of any organized political party – I’m a Democrat” still rings true. But it also means that the Democratic establishment, such as it is, is resilient against Trump-style coups.
But wait: Didn’t Hillary Clinton face her own insurgency in the person of Bernie Sanders, which she barely turned back? Actually, no.
For one thing, it wasn’t all that close. Clinton won pledged delegates by almost four times Barack Obama’s margin in 2008; she won the popular vote by double digits.
Nor did she win by burying her rival in cash. In fact, Sanders outspent her all the way, spending twice as much as she did on ads in New York, which she won by 16 percentage points.
Also, Clinton faced immense, bizarre hostility from the news media. Last week Harvard’s Shorenstein Center released a report on media treatment of the candidates during 2015, showing that Clinton received by far the most unfavorable coverage. Even when reports focused on issues rather than alleged scandals, 84 percent of her coverage was negative – twice as high as for Trump. As the report notes, “Clinton’s negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end.”
And yet she won, fairly easily, because she had the solid support of key elements of the Democratic coalition, especially nonwhite voters.
But will this resilience persist in the general election? Early indications are that it will. Trump briefly pulled close in the polls after he clinched the Republican nomination, but he has been plunging ever since. And that’s despite the refusal of Sanders to concede or endorse the presumptive nominee, with at least some Bernie or Busters still telling pollsters they won’t back her.
Meanwhile, Trump is flailing. He’s tried all the tactics that worked for him in the Republican contest – insults, derisive nicknames, boasts – but none of it is sticking. Conventional wisdom said he would be helped by a terrorist attack, but the atrocity in Orlando, Florida, seems to have hurt him instead: Clinton’s response looked presidential, his didn’t.
Worse yet from his point of view, there’s a concerted effort by Democrats – Clinton herself, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, President Barack Obama and more – to make the great ridiculer look ridiculous (which he is). And it seems to be working.
Why is Clinton holding up so well against Trump, when establishment Republicans were so hapless? Partly it’s because America as a whole, unlike the Republican base, isn’t dominated by angry white men; partly it’s because, as anyone watching the Benghazi hearing realized, Clinton herself is a lot tougher than anyone on the other side.
But a big factor, I’d argue, is that the Democratic establishment in general is fairly robust. I’m not saying that its members are angels, which they aren’t. Some, no doubt, are personally corrupt. But the various groups making up the party’s coalition really care about and believe in their positions – they’re not just saying what the Koch brothers pay them to say.
So pay no attention to anyone claiming that Trumpism reflects either the magical powers of the candidate or some broad, bipartisan upsurge of rage against the establishment. What worked in the primary won’t work in the general election, because only one party’s establishment was already dead inside.