Norm Ornstein on why the Republican Party was ripe for a takeover, what the media missed, and whether Trump could win the presidency.
By Andrew Prokop May 6, 2016
In the summer of 2015, most of the political world still thought Donald Trump’s candidacy was a joke.
Norm Ornstein didn’t.
For years now, Ornstein — a political scientist at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute — had been arguing that the modern Republican Party is deeply broken.
In his 2012 book It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, co-written with Thomas Mann, he argued that the GOP had become “an insurgent outlier — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Naturally, when Trump entered the race and surged to the top of polls, Ornstein thought he’d fit right in. And in an August 2015 piece for the Atlantic titled “Maybe this time really is different,” he made that case.
Personally, I had glibly dismissed Trump’s chances back in July 2015. And though I had come around by September, Ornstein deserves credit for seeing it coming before me and most other observers of American politics.
So here’s his explanation for how he got it right, why so many political scientists got it wrong — and how likely it is he thinks Trump will actually win the general election. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Why Trump should’ve been taken seriously from the start
Andrew Prokop: Let’s go back to last year. When did you first start to think, wow, this guy, Donald Trump, might be for real after all?
Norm Ornstein: I would say it was probably in May. And I was still a little uncertain. But I had focused for so long on the growing dysfunction inside the Republican Party, and I believed that its leaders had generated an awful lot of the anger out there. And eventually, I combined that with the set of polls that we began to see that showed 60 to 70 percent support for outsiders and insurgents.
I put that together and thought that this conventional wisdom that, of course, it would be just the way it’s always been — that these flavors of the month would emerge but then fade, and the voters would eventually fall back on an establishment figure — it just didn’t ring true to me.
And then when I began to look at who the outsider and insurgent candidates were, it just seemed to me that Trump and Cruz were the two most likely to emerge. Because they both tapped into different elements of this anger out there.
Andrew Prokop: So where, exactly, do you think this anger within the Republican Party electorate has come from, and why do you think it’s so powerful?
Norm Ornstein: When you look at populism over the longer course of both American history and other countries that have suffered economic traumas as a result of the inancial collapse, you’re gonna get the emergence of some leaders who exploit nativism, protectionism, and isolationism. They’re components — sometimes greater, sometimes lesser — that are baked into the process. So you’ve got a bit of that.
But if you forced me to pick one factor explaining what’s happened, I would say this is a self-inflicted wound by Republican leaders.
Over many years, they’ve adopted strategies that have trivialized and delegitimized government. They were willing to play to a nativist element. And they tried to use, instead of stand up to, the apocalyptic visions and extremism of some cable television, talk radio, and other media outlets on the right.
And add to that, they’ve delegitimized President Obama, but they’ve failed to succeed with any of the promises they’ve made to their rank and file voters, or Tea Party adherents. So when I looked at that, my view was, “what makes you think, after all of these failures, that you’re going to have a group of compliant people who are just going to fall in line behind an establishment figure?”
Trump clearly had a brilliant capacity to channel that discontent among Republican voters — to figure out the issues that’ll work, like immigration, and the ways in which populist anger and partisan tribalism can be exploited. So of course, to me, he became a logical contender.
How the Republican Party got to this point
Andrew Prokop: Your main culprit for Trump’s rise is the Republican Party, and Republican leaders specifically. Can you walk me through how you think the party got here?
Norm Ornstein: Back in 1978, when I first came to AEI, Tom Mann and I set up a series of small, off the record dinners with some new members of Congress. And one of them, Newt Gingrich, stood out right away. As a brand new member of the House, he had a full-blown theory of how Republicans could break out of their seemingly permanent minority, and build a majority.
And over the next 16 years, he put that plan into action. He delegitimized the Congress and the Democratic leadership, convincing people that they were arrogant and corrupt and that the process was so bad that anything would be better than this. He tribalized the political process. He went out and recruited the candidates, and gave them the language to use about how disgusting and despicable and horrible and immoral and unpatriotic the Democrats were. That swept in the Republican majority in 1994.
The problem is that all the people he recruited to come in really believed that shit. They all came in believing that Washington was a cesspool. So what followed has been a very deliberate attempt to blow up and delegitimize government, not just the president but the actions of government itself in Washington.
And Republican leaders, like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor, were complicit in this. I think when Republicans had their stunning victory in 2010, Cantor et al thought they could now co-opt these people. Instead, they were co-opted themselves.
Andrew Prokop: What’s interesting to me is that, here and in your book, you’ve told a very Washington-centric, Congress-centric, and elite-centric story. But Trump had very little support from these Washington Republicans and elites. So how do you end up with the voters abandoning what their elites wanted?
Norm Ornstein: In the process of Republicans winning these short-term, midterm victories, a couple of important things happened. One is, they’ve almost precluded their capacity to build a broader base for the party that could actually compete for majorities. Since the largest base from which they exploited this anger is in the South, that’s now the base of this party. The South has a very different set of attitudes and approaches to policy on the whole from the rest of the country, but it’s also the most anti-immigration and nativist, though of course it’s not alone in that.
Second, if you delegitimize government, and make every victory that occurs partisan and ugly, and then refuse to implement the policies to make things work as much as you can but instead try to undermine them, and you cut government funding, and you freeze the salaries of people in government — well, then eventually you’re gonna have a public out there that basically says, “Anything would be better than these idiots.”
So when you get a Donald Trump, who is contentless, and knows less about policy, domestic or international, I would say, than any candidate in the last 50 years — including Pat Paulsen, the comedian — you have a large share of the public who say, “You know, the people who know about policy were the ones who fucked all of this up! And how could Trump do worse?”
Andrew Prokop: It seems to me that you’re telling a story about norms. That over the years, Republican Party norms of what’s appropriate and not appropriate in both policy and the political realm have been degraded. So now that the norms have been so degraded, and government and leadership so discredited, that presents an opportunity for someone like Trump to take advantage of that chaos.
Norm Ornstein: Yeah, I think that’s a very important, powerful element of it. Cantor, McConnell, and others went out and really tried to fan the flames of Tea Party and populist anger, working it to their advantage in midterm contests. But what ended up happening was that they undermined their own authority.
When you basically move dramatically away from what we call the regular order, when you almost debase your own institutions — you’re gonna find an opening for somebody who’s never been a part of it and who can offer you very, very simplistic answers.
What role does polarization play in Trump’s rise?
Andrew Prokop: You’ve written a lot about the phenomenon of asymmetric polarization — in which both parties have polarized, but Republicans have actually moved much further to the right than Democrats have to the left. But Trump’s policy positions, oddly enough, don’t entirely follow this pattern. He breaks from conservative dogma on several major issues.
Norm Ornstein: Well, when populism emerges in a big way, it has a lot of common themes that cut across typical ideological boundaries. The anger at elites, the protectionism, and the nativism can all unify. So for Trump, in a lot of ways, the populism and the willingness to take on his own party establishment — as long as he is able to check a few marks on litmus test issues — is enough.
Another element of this that Trump also recognized is that Republican voters are an older, white crowd. And so their desire to blow up government doesn’t extend to Medicare and Social Security.
But I think there are several strains that run through the Republican Party and its base now.
First, there’s an anti-establishment, anti-leadership populist base that is driven by identity politics and culture and a visceral reaction against leaders of all sorts. That’s best represented by Trump.
Then, there’s a more radical conservative ideology that has been a dominant force out there in Washington and in a lot of states. That’s the Freedom Caucus and Cruz, and that’s what we wrote about in the book. This is a radical set of beliefs. They want to blow up all of government, and are willing to use more radical tactics. They don’t much care about shutting down the government or breaching the debt ceiling, or any of those things.
Finally, there’s an establishment leadership. That’s not a moderate leadership — it would be a big mistake to call Paul Ryan a moderate. Or to call Mitch McConnell a moderate. By any historic standards or reasonable standards, they are very conservative. But they’re pragmatic in some ways, even ruthlessly pragmatic. And they see a party winning elections and holding power as sometimes requiring tactical moves to make compromises, to keep government from shutting down, to keep things from falling apart where they might get blamed.
Why so many political scientists missed the Trump phenomenon
Andrew Prokop: So to go back a little bit, when you started to take Trump seriously last spring or summer, and you chatted about the race casually with people and told them that, what were the kinds of reactions you got?
Norm Ornstein: I think it’s the reaction that probably you would have gotten as well from your peers, which is, “Oh come on, there’s no way Donald Trump could win the nomination.”
And to be honest, I was growing increasingly frustrated watching the cable news analysis and reading what so many of my peers, including the political scientists, were saying, which was glib dismissals. They relied on everything that had happened, with the belief that you could just, as far into the future as you could foresee, project what had happened before into what would happen now. That just seemed to me to be wrong-headed.
Now I can’t say that that was true of everybody. There certainly were some of my friends and colleagues, people like Tom Mann and Alan Abramowitz, who basically took it seriously. But if you go back to last summer, almost universally, people thought, well, maybe he’d last longer than he thought he would, but he’s not gonna win the nomination.
And it’s true that if you went by past standards, by normal standards, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a guy like this winning the nomination!
Andrew Prokop: One of the things that initially made me think it couldn’t happen was, of course, the famous “Party Decides” political science theory. At first I sort of relied on it a bit, but I grew more skeptical as the race went on, and wrote a long critique of the theory last fall. Do you think this idea, or maybe the way this idea was interpreted in the press, led people astray?
Norm Ornstein: Those authors are really good scholars. And their book, as you pointed out in your piece, is not just a simplistic book. It’s got caveats and it’s more variegated than that.
But I have a couple of problems with a lot of people in my profession. Political scientists in some ways, just like journalists, pursue false equivalence. They do not want to suggest anything flatly or that one party is to blame. There’s a kinda cynicism whenever you suggest something might be different than it was in the past. “Oh, no, it’s always the same.”
We got a reaction when our book came out, even from people we admire enormously and people who are giants in our field, like David Mayhew. “Oh, we’ve had this kind of conflict before, this is no different than what we’ve seen.” There was a lot of dismissiveness.
And there’s a herd mentality too, I think. People glom onto The Party Decides and you look like a fool if you say, “Well, no, that’s not right” — because everybody believes it! I don’t know if I would call this a black swan moment, but people’s unwillingness to take a risk of breaking from consensus or believing that it will come out differently than it has before is pervasive.
Not surprisingly, there are some similarities with journalism. Some of the pushback Tom and I got when we wrote our book came from the lion’s share of the mainstream journalistic community, who clung and in many cases continue to cling to the idea that they’re both the same, they all do it. I had a lot of difficult conversations with people who wouldn’t give up on that.
Can Trump win the general? And where is our dysfunctional political system headed?
Andrew Prokop: Now that Trump has defied the conventional wisdom by winning the GOP nomination, there’s a new conventional wisdom that he’s very unlikely to beat the Democratic nominee in the fall. What do you think about this?
Norm Ornstein: I think if we’re laying the odds here, I still think it is more like 80/20 that he loses. There are a lot of reasons to think that he is not gonna be able to expand this message to a much larger group of people once you move beyond trying to impress a Republican Party audience.
Andrew Prokop: The story you’ve told to explain Trump’s rise is basically a Republican Party-specific story.
Norm Ornstein: It is. Having said that, I would not discount entirely the possibility that he could win, for the following set of reasons.
One, tribalism is still a dominant force. We do know that straight-ticket voting has increased dramatically. This to me suggests we’re not gonna have a 45-state blowout like Goldwater faced, or a 49-state one like Mondale or McGovern had. You’re gonna start with some states and you’re gonna start with 45 percent of the votes. Most Republicans are gonna come back into the fold.
And then, what if Brexit happens and you get turmoil in the global economy? And it affects the US? What if ISIS decides that a Trump presidency would be wonderful, so let’s stage a couple of showy, Paris-type attacks in the US in October?
When you have an election and history is not to be completely discounted, we know that elections that occur after eight years of a two-term president focus around how much change you want. And Hillary Clinton still has that hurdle to overcome that she’s not exactly a candidate of change. And if events occur that create more of a desire for change, then people might roll the dice with Trump.
So I don’t discount it entirely. And I think 20 percent sounds like not much, but is quite tangible.
Andrew Prokop: And how do you think these trends will play out beyond this election?
Norm Ornstein: One thing I am sure of is that we’re gonna have a continuing dysfunction in government that makes it hard to do much.
Even if Clinton wins the presidency, and Democrats take the Senate and the House, many of those new House members will be from Republican districts that are likely to swing back in the midterm. They’re gonna be running scared right from the beginning. Maybe you’ve got a couple of months to do some things that would be salutary. But nothing big.
What I’m hoping will happen is that we’d be able to get is a few things, though I think they’re unlikely. Maybe you can get a fix in the Affordable Care Act that does some tradeoffs, some technical corrections that makes it work a little bit better. Maybe we can get a more ambitious infrastructure passage where there isn’t a great ideological divide and actually do something to help the country in a 21st-century global economy. Maybe you could get some modest tax reform that would be a part of that. I’m hoping before this that we get some criminal justice reform and mental illness reform, but if not, throw those things in.
That would be terrific. But I doubt you’ll do much on immigration or on any of the larger issues that we face.
And for the Republicans, in the aftermath of this election, we’re gonna see a pitched battle across these different boundaries — the anti-leadership populist base, the radical conservatives, and the establishment leadership. At the moment, I don’t see anyone who can stitch them together. And I think it’ll be a while before that happens.