AMERICAN POLITICS has long been characterised as an iron triangle. It consisted of interest groups with narrow concerns, an executive branch trying to keep the groups’ ambitions in check, and a Congress entangled in a constant quid pro quo with the groups. But a new Republican iron triangle entails not interest groups but tribal ones. Primary voters, politicians and infotainment pundits have created a feedback loop of extremism, outrage and fear that is ripping American politics apart.
I have watched this new political dynamic emerge over the past five years as Donald Trump transformed the Republican Party. But I believe it is possible to overcome the lunacy that the new iron triangle produces and to restore the conservative party that the country needs. The first step is to understand how Mr Trump reshaped the Republicans.
How he did so is complicated, but in a way, also simple. He changed the voters: both the people who form the Republican base (Mr Trump, after all, won 11m more votes in 2020 than in 2016), as well as the beliefs and preferences of existing Republicans.
As a conservative communications consultant, I’ve spent decades studying how centre-right Americans think about politics. I’ve designed persuasive messages and advocacy campaigns about everything from alcohol policy to LGBT rights. Since 2018, I’ve spent hundreds of hours in focus groups with voters ranging from the centre-right to the far-right. The changes I’ve seen have been extraordinary.
One of the aspects I’ve always valued in conservatism is the scepticism that forms a core part of its worldview and intellectual history, from Edmund Burke to Irving Kristol. Until very recently, I had observed that most right-of-centre voters shared this scepticism and were sympathetic to arguments about the unintended consequences of government policy, the inherent waste and inefficiency of bureaucracy, and the moral and practical advantages of free people and free markets.
Yet this scepticism in recent years has collapsed into a combination of paranoia and nihilism. A consistent theme in my focus groups is that people “don’t know what to believe anymore”, and are therefore suspicious of things that ought to be trustworthy—including the results of the election in 2020 and the approved covid-19 vaccines.
Conversely, these same voters are more likely to believe rumours, tendentious partisan talking-points and misinformation. Following the cues of right-wing infotainment outlets, focus-group participants often quickly pivot from the failings and flaws of Republicans to the offences—real or perceived—of Democrats. “Whataboutism” is rampant. The voters in my focus groups have learned the technique by watching the news.
Of course, “the news” can mean anything from America’s staid public broadcaster, PBS, to a conspiracy nut’s YouTube channel. The saturation of information has disoriented and alienated voters. Social media make it easy to remember salacious headlines but hard to remember sources. The proliferation of media outlets makes it hard to know which sources are reputable. The occasional lapses in journalistic standards by legacy outlets do not help. It is telling that some of the most radical and misinformed voters I see in focus groups are those who claim to “do their own research”.
The change in the party isn’t just political or electoral but epistemological. The old iron triangle was based on objective facts; policies arose from and were shaped by those facts. The new iron triangle is dependent on emotion—or those “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” as Lionel Trilling, an American intellectual, memorably derided conservatism in 1950. Today’s Republicans have no incentive to design policies to improve any objective aspect of their voter’s lives—to say nothing of Americans who didn’t vote for them. Instead, their interest is in reinforcing their voters’ least charitable impulses. Policy is just an accidental byproduct of partisanship.
Power drives the new tribal feedback cycle: Media personalities and networks earn their profits by stirring outrage and hostility. Radicalised voters turn to politicians to protect them from threats that are said to be constantly right around the corner. And politicians play to the same fears to win re-election in gerrymandered districts.
Voters are only partly to blame: those who spread misinformation and aggravate tensions are the villains of this story. They’re arsonists, gleefully setting fire to American institutions and society—and becoming celebrities in the process. In the weeks after the November election, the share of Republicans who felt that Mr Trump had really won shifted from half to two-thirds, as Republican politicians joined right-wing media outlets in claiming election fraud. Similarly, immediately following the attack on the Capitol on January 6th, 45% of Republicans supported it. By early April 55% of Republicans believed it was left-wing protesters trying to discredit Mr Trump.
Some stalwarts in the Republican party resist these changes. That is why the efforts of Liz Cheney, a Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, and other honourable Republicans to speak the truth about the election are so important. The new iron triangle of tribalism has a weakness: those people whom it excludes. Despite the propaganda, some 30% of Republicans still trust the outcome of the 2020 election. That share is obviously too low, but considering the close margins of many elections, if even a third of those voters start to vote for Democrats or third-party candidates, the Republican Party could face an existential crisis—the kind that will force it to reform dramatically and quickly, as it did after Watergate.
Anti-Trump Republicans can and should be willing to work with Democrats where possible without surrendering their criticism of the Democrats’ progressive leanings. This doesn’t mean that Republicans who oppose the current direction of their party—or, in many cases, their former party—must become Democrats. However, in certain cases some Republicans may find it advantageous to register as Democrats in states that have closed primaries. Yet writ large, it’s enough, if not better, for this wing of the Republican Party to maintain an independent identity. What is essential is that these Republicans be willing to join with Democrats to form a pro-democracy coalition that is as large as possible.
The work of American conservatives must be to oppose the party’s authoritarian turn, because any policy preference is inherently secondary to the preservation of the constitutional system. We can argue about marginal tax rates and regulations only after we’re certain there will be no more violent insurrections.
Sarah Longwell is the chief executive of Longwell Partners, a political communications firm in Washington, DC and for many years a Republican strategist. She is the publisher of the conservative news site The Bulwark and the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump (now the Republican Accountability Project).