Donald Trump's rise in opinion polls doesn't entirely explain the waning future of the Republican Party, but it's a symptom of what has gone weirdly wrong. This week a New York Times/CBS poll indicated that about four in 10 Republicans now see Trump as their best chance of winning the 2016 presidential election.
That can't be more than wishful thinking. Trump has gone out of his way to insult women and Mexican immigrants and he's unlikely to win over any substantial number of Democrats. Without voters drawn from those pools, no Republican can become president. Still, he's won many followers, he's running first in two key states, Iowa and New Hampshire, and he's already tarnished the campaigns of several of his fellow candidates. In the last three months, his bumptious manner and careless opinions have created a strange new mood in American politics. His relatively unsuccessful performance in Wednesday's debate may have slowed his progress but 2015 has become, to everyone's surprise, the year of Trump.
He's accomplished this by arousing the anti-establishment anger of many right-wing Americans. Republicans may yearn at times for the genial, all-embracing spirit of Ronald Reagan, but many of them are hard-bitten grievance-collectors who have turned against the politicians at the top of the party. These people believe they are outsiders, ignored and betrayed. They consider themselves victims, whatever their personal lot in life, and they have sought consolation by expressing themselves through social media and conservative talk radio.
Having watched the GOP lose the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, they blame a political class loyal only to itself. They think their leaders are so obsessed with their personal status in Washington that they've forgotten the reforms the country needs.
Since June, these dissidents have adopted Trump as their champion. He convinces them he speaks the truth without pausing to coat it in politically correct language. He makes outsiders feel as though he alone understands their fears of illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Challenged by Trump, other candidates have tried to match him in the vehemence of their feelings about the establishment. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, normally a quiet-spoken fellow, recently said on CNN: "We're ready to wreak havoc on Washington." Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie also claim to be outsider candidates, perhaps because they now think that's the only way to establish their credibility.
In this drama of Republicans versus Republicans, the performers are re-enacting a previous struggle within the party. That was in the 1960s, when conservative Republicans believed they were shut out by a powerful liberal wing whose followers were often called Rockefeller liberals. Nelson Rockefeller is seldom talked about today and young TV viewers may know of him mainly as an off-screen character in the TV series Mad Men, as the source of power for a politician we see on the screen.
In 1959, his first year as governor of New York, Rockefeller called for increases in gas and cigarette taxes and lower tax exemptions. In his second year, he put in place a minimum-wage law, set up a conservation work camp in the style of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and created a state arts council.
He was more liberal than many Democrats of that era and conservatives found his policies outlandish. Roosevelt had given him his first role in government in 1940 (as coordinator of inter-American affairs) and Rockefeller saw FDR as a model. He thought that he too could go from the governorship of New York to the presidency. He went only as far as vicepresident, serving under Gerald Ford during the playing-out of Richard Nixon's aborted second term. Ford dismissed him because anti-liberal opinions made him a liability in the upcoming 1976 campaign. Rockefeller became a pariah and his political career was over. He had given his name to policies that many Republicans resented, providing a focus for a bundle of grievances felt even today. He turned into a symbol, someone the base could use to reject leaders it considered dubious.
Long ago, when Dwight Eisenhower was a free-wheeling, big-spending president, it was often said that the great problem of the Republicans was a lack of principles. History since then has demonstrated that they have far too many principles, that they hold them too fervently and that they have still not learned how to accommodate them without rancour. In this difficult year, as America and its allies yearn for a government that can re-establish American leadership in the world, that failure registers as exceptionally dangerous.