The Genius Secret Trump Knows About U.S. Politics

Only new coalitions can break up the political logjams caused by status quo parties.

The vote totals in the Super Tuesday presidential nomination battles suggest a political reality of the campaign year: The Democratic Party is the party of the status quo; the Republican Party is the party of change.

Democrats on Tuesday all but anointed Hillary Clinton as their presidential standard bearer, and in doing so ensured that their party would maintain a continuity with the governing philosophy of Barack Obama. Clinton won seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia), collecting in the process some 453 delegates. That brought her preliminary delegate total to about 544. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders captured four states (Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Vermont), gaining 284 delegates and bringing his total to 349.

This put Clinton in a better position vis-à-vis her rival than Barack Obama enjoyed over her at a similar point in the 2008 nomination contest that ended in Obama’s triumph. Theoretically, Sanders could overtake the front-runner. But that is rendered unlikely by Clinton’s intrinsic vote-getting strength, much on display as the Tuesday results rolled in, and the nature of momentum politics in long nomination fights. The former First Lady and secretary of state did well among all ethnic groups, including white southerners as well as blacks and Hispanics.

Reflecting her confidence of eventual victory when she addressed supporters Tuesday night, Clinton ignored Sanders and turned her fire on the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump. “Instead of building walls,” she said, “we’re going to break down barriers.” She wouldn’t work to make America great again, she added, because “America never stopped being great.”

Throughout her campaign, Clinton has espoused a brand of Democratic politics that has become conventional party fare since Obama moved the party away from the centrism that characterized the presidency of Hillary Clinton’s husband—attacks on the wealthy, who should pay more in taxes; a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants; greater governmental intrusion into the economy; acceptance of Syrian refugees; retention of the Affordable Care Act; actions to address climate change. Clinton’s emergence represents party continuity and internal stability.

The same can’t be said about the Republican Party in the wake of Trump’s victory in seven states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia). The New York billionaire picked up close to 200 delegates, bringing his total (in preliminary numbers) to 274, or some 125 more than his nearest rival, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who picked up a major victory in his home state of Texas. Cruz also picked up Oklahoma and Alaska, while Florida Senator Marco Rubio won the majority of Minnesota caucus voters.

With his victories, Cruz seemed to emerge as the most credible rival to Trump’s front-runner status, though he would have to demonstrate significantly more vote-getting power than he has so far to actually challenge Trump—and probably would have to overcome widespread skepticism toward his candidacy from GOP colleagues who dislike the Texan’s brash ways. Most GOP establishment figures favor Rubio, but he lags so far in the delegate count (with about eighty-two thus far) that his challenge so far has lacked punch.

That leaves Trump with the commanding position in the GOP contest, suggesting the Super Tuesday results have become an inflection point for the 2016 campaign. More importantly, the 2016 campaign may be an inflection point for American politics. The country stands at the threshold of what appears to be a political realignment of greater proportions than the nation has seen since the advent of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal some eighty years ago.

The foundation of the New Deal was the American working class. To that solid base of support FDR added black Americans, up to that time loyal supporters of Lincoln’s Republican Party; Jewish liberals and intellectuals of the Northeast; the solid Democratic South (a remarkable feat given his pursuit of African-Americans; this would last only until the late 1960s); and a smattering of prairie populists in the West.

This coalition dominated American politics for the next forty-eight years, holding the White House for thirty-two of those years and, more importantly, taking firm control of Congress. From the 1930 election, Democrats dominated the House for sixty of the next sixty-four years; beginning in 1933, FDR’s party held the Senate for forty-four of the next forty-eight years. That’s what you call a governing coalition.

This commanding Democratic position began to fray in the 1970s and 1980s. First, the South broke off in response to Democratic racial policies and became a solid part of the Republican firmament. Then Ronald Reagan lured working-class Americans—the so-called Reagan Democrats—away from the Democratic Party, which increasingly seemed inattentive to their interests, if not actually dismissive. Horace Busby, following his days as a top aide to President Johnson, developed a thesis that the Republicans held a “lock” on the electoral college based on its standing in enough key states to capture the necessary 270 electoral votes for White House victory. “The Electoral College,” he said, “. . . is a Republican institution.” Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell added that the electoral system was “nothing less than an electoral Matterhorn” for Democrats.