President Donald Trump’s equivocation in the face of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville thrilled neo-Nazis and horrified almost everyone else. So many CEOs resigned from Trump’s business councils that the president decided to shut them down entirely. One might hope this moment would convince Republicans leaders in Washington to decisively break with the president. That hope is remains overly optimistic. The fundamental dynamics of the deeply dysfunctional Republican Party are unchanged.
In Congress and the executive branch, the Republican response to Trump’s coddling of Nazism has been extraordinarily weak. As of this writing, only 15 of 292 Republicans in Congress have called out the president by name for his explicit defense of white supremacists. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan issued statements opposing racism without mentioning the president at all. From within Trump’s cabinet, there are anonymous grumbles of dissatisfaction but no notable resignations. Republicans in Washington are trying to have it both ways—distancing themselves from Trump’s remarks without actually opposing the president.
The behavior of Republican leaders in the Trump era has been described as a kind of spinelessness or willful ignorance. But the problem is not just a failure of character; it is an institutional failure of the Republican Party. The party has moved so far to the right, has ridden the coattails of racism and xenophobia for so long, that there is no longer a national strategy to win votes from anyone beyond an older, white, conservative base. Trump got those voters to the polls in 2016, and—judging from the early polls—continues to have their support today. And that leaves Republican leaders in a pickle.
What Republicans in Congress would like to be doing is cutting taxes at the top and cutting benefits for everyone else. But this—as they discovered to their apparent surprise in the failed repeal of the Affordable Care Act—is not a popular policy platform when it might actually be implemented. Americans are philosophical conservatives, but operational liberals—they like the idea of small government, but they also like the big-ticket domestic spending items that government funds, like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.
For decades, the GOP has addressed this problem by glossing over its economic platform with racially coded appeals about “welfare queens” and “illegals.” And then Trump came along, willing to put down the dog whistle and pick up the bullhorn. His election demonstrated that focusing on turning out conservative white people could still win a national election—at least with the Electoral College putting a thumb on the scale.
But basing national election victories on an almost exclusively white voting bloc is not a long-term strategy. As the American electorate gets more diverse, even a national campaign of voter suppression might not be enough to swing the balance next time. Republicans have known this problem was coming; the Republican National Committee laid out the challenge clearly in their 2012 election autopsy. But after decades of reliance on the Southern Strategy, Republican leaders remain unwilling to alienate even the most racist of their dwindling base.
And Trump’s remarks do not change this basic calculus. Republican leaders accepted as their nominee a man who called Mexicans “rapists,” who insulted a Gold Star family, who bragged about assaulting women, and who built a political career out of denying the American citizenship of Barack Obama. Though many may wish it were otherwise, there is little reason to expect a gentle word for Nazism to be the bright line that the Republican Party will not allow their president to cross.
Vanessa Williamson is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution.