The history of third parties in the modern era is not particularly inspiring. Alabama Governor George Wallace managed to rack up 14% of the popular vote — and 45 Electoral votes — in 1968. In 1980, Congressman John Anderson basically fell on his face, garnering less than 7% of the vote… among them that of my girlfriend at the time. H. Ross Perot, the tech billionaire who had bigger ears than Barack Obama, beat both of them with 19% of the vote — but did not win a single state.
Still, everything begins somewhere. Both of today’s major parties were “third party” startups at one time. Today’s Democratic Party was started by supporters of Andrew Jackson, who had won a plurality of both the popular and Electoral votes in 1824, only to lose in the House when no candidate received a majority in the Electoral College. Jackson returned in 1828 as the head of the shiny new Democratic Party… and that election he won. The modern Republican Party was founded in 1854 as an anti-slavery party. Its first nominee, Abraham Lincoln, managed to thread the needle through a hopelessly split Democratic Party to win the Presidency in 1860.
Some of these conditions are present today. Both of our major parties are splitting into factions, as the Democrats had in 1860. And there is a candidate available to lead a new party who not only came close to winning, but has served as the President of the United States.
President Trump must have at least toyed with the idea of forming a new party. Although the Republican Party’s voters nominated Trump in 2016 and elected him President, the party’s establishment figures never accepted Trump, or his agenda. Where the agendas overlapped, such as on taxes and judges, Republican officeholders supported Trump. Where the agendas clashed, such as on the border wall, they offered him zero support.
The truth is, if anybody should have to leave the Republican Party and start a new one, it is the people who consider themselves the Republican Party’s establishment. Whether they like it or not, what used to be their party was invaded by barbarian hordes, who are now a large majority of the party’s voters. Roughly 70% of the GOP’s voters — as opposed to its politicians — do not support the agenda of the Republican Party’s establishment. The sort of managerial-class Chamber of Commerce types who once formed the backbone of the Republican Party have moved almost entirely to the Democrats. Meanwhile, the working-class voters who once formed the Democratic Party’s base have become Republicans. The difficulty that “Establishment Republicans” have is that if they started a new party, it would sink like a stone. The voters they once had, and would still need, are now the Democrats.
Trump would have better luck. He has two qualities that were also possessed by the first nominees of the Republican and Democratic parties: he has already won the Presidency, and he is facing opponents who are wrestling with sharp internal divisions.
Would it work? Could it work? Could a “MAGA Party” replace one of today’s major parties, and become a major party itself? I think the answer is unequivocally ‘yes,’ and the reason is that a very large fraction of the Republican Party’s current voters are not fond of the Republican Party, do not like many of its office holders, and do not support the neocon, Chamber of Commerce agenda of the GOP establishment. If Donald J. Trump starts a new political party, close to 70 million of the Republican Party’s voters would go with him. They want the MAGA Agenda, not the Chamber of Commerce agenda. They are for a strong military, but not endless wars that accomplish nothing. They want export earnings and trade, but they do not want to sit in an ivory tower with David Ricardo, playing Free Trader while The Other Guys use game theory to take our jobs and clean our clocks.
One of the things that usually bedevils a new political party is the lack of a sizable grassroots organization that can do the sort of get-out-the-vote grunt work that wins elections. Here again, I think a large part of the Republican Party’s infrastructure — the local committeemen and women — would vote to re-register as part of the MAGA Party. In short, I think a new party that promised to advance the MAGA Agenda would decimate today’s Republican Party. The Republican domeheads wouldn’t know it until they tried to win an election, and found out their voters were gone. Their voters have been gone for four years. It’s time they knew.
I don’t think the Democrats would have much time to gloat. Without the baggage of the “Republican” label, a MAGA Party would most likely attract more minority voters than Trump could as a Republican. And as the left wing of the Democratic Party becomes louder and ever-more demanding, the MAGA Party platform may look more like what Old School Democrats are seeking than today’s Democratic Party can offer.
For at least the first few election cycles after its founding, Trump could well find himself the kingmaker in a country where no one party is large enough to win an election by itself.
As for what happens to the Republican establishment, consider the fate of Senator Ben Sasse (D-NE). That’s right, I just labeled him a Democrat. On Friday, Ben Sasse said this:
Since Election Night, a lot of people have been confusing voters by spinning Kenyan Birther-type “Chavez rigged the election from the grave” conspiracy theories, but every American who cares about the rule of law should take comfort that the Supreme Court – including all three of President Trump’s picks – closed the book on this nonsense.
See what he did there? He’s one of those people who sees the world as consisting of ignorant masses — people he here calls ‘confused voters’ — and anointed Smart People Wearing Suits who lead the masses around by the nose. As soon as I hear the Vision of the Anointed, I know I’m listening to a congenital Democrat. Sasse may run as an ‘R’, but he’s really some kind of weird ‘trans’ Democrat who identifies as a Republican. When the R Party disappears right out from under him, he’ll join the Democrats. Finally.