In one sense, the nomination of Donald Trump represents the spectacular culmination of a long-running trend: the breakdown of American political parties (or at least, the Republican Party) as autonomous institutions capable of regulating the electoral process and setting the terms of public debate. As our own Walter Russell Mead wrote in 2011:
American political parties are increasingly being reduced to flags of convenience; party organizations and party institutions have little influence over events. That didn’t use to be true. Party leaders and officials once exercised significant power over the choice of nominees, over the careers of aspiring pols, and over patronage. These days, outside Chicago and a handful of other places, we no longer think of party “bosses”.
And even more presciently:
From Jesse Ventura to Al Franken and Sarah Palin, we are seeing more politicians whose ability to command attention and mobilize the base counts for more than their ability to rise patiently through the ranks of a party machine.
The 2016 primary amounted to a long war between Donald Trump and the GOP’s feeble machinery—or, more precisely, the epic conquest of that machinery by Trump and his backers. Trump has no institutional connection to the party, no record of respect for its ideas (indeed, he barely tried to feign “conservatism” during the primaries) and none of the basic personal characteristics that major party establishments have always looked for in selecting nominees. But in the favorable anti-establishment terrain of 2016, the Donald’s mix of reality-TV populism, shock-and-awe media tactics, and occasionally shrewd political insights were enough to overcome the decaying defenses of a sclerotic institution. Media kingmakers turned, politicians sat on the sidelines, and, finally, the RNC fell.
But if the events from June 2015 (when Trump announced his candidacy), to May 2016 (when he clinched the nomination) illustrate the fundamental decrepitude of the institutional GOP, the events since then—culminating with Paul Ryan’s endorsement yesterday afternoon—illustrate, in a perverse way, its strength. Even though Trump is at odds with most of the things they have always professed to believe in, Party Men—elected officials, functionaries, donors, talk show celebrities—have lined up, one-by-one, to kiss the ring. Contrary to many pundits’ expectations just a few short months ago, the party is unifying around Trump “as if he were any other candidate,” Harry Enten has written. In a way then, this election has also proven that the Republican Party is strong—so strong that even the nomination of someone who openly insults its leaders and trashes its traditions isn’t enough to create a schism.
On the surface, these two trends are paradoxical: How can the GOP be too feeble and too resilient at the same time? In reality, they are two sides of the same coin. America’s major party institutions used to function as more than vehicles for the passions of their members. They saw themselves as referees of the political process—as quasi-public institutions, champions of a set of principles, and custodians of the Republic’s well-being (and not just their own). What we may be seeing today is the emergence of a new kind of party institution—one that is neither stronger nor weaker, but merely more nihilistic: Bereft of ideas, lacking in purpose, but still a potent force in national elections because of the intensity of hatred for its opponents. Like a titanium vessel, the Republican Party may turn out to be virtually unbreakable. But it has no say as to what its owners put inside.