If Minnesota had a Mr. Republican pageant, I think Vin Weber would be a serious contender, at least in the senior division. (I hope I can get away with saying that, since I’m slightly older than Weber.)
Weber was raised in a Republican family. His Republican grandfather was president of the Minnesota state Senate. He came up in politics working for a Republican congressman (Tom Hagedorn), then a Republican U.S. Senator (Rudy Boschwitz) then served (as a Republican, obviously) in the U.S. House himself.
For decades now, he has been a successful lobbyist and Washington insider but has stayed very plugged in to Minnesota. When I reached him yesterday, he was on his way to his Minnesota cabin.
So, although he is not the first prominent Republican to announce that he could not vote for the party’s presidential nominee this year, it was nonetheless a noteworthy indicator, especially on planet Minnesota, of the stress that the Trumpian experience has generated among the bred-in-the-bone GOP regulars.
Weber told me that he has occasionally voted for Democrats in down-ballot races in the past, although without going public about it. In presidential races, he has never strayed from his party’s choice before, but that, he said, was because the Republicans have never before nominated someone so “fundamentally unqualified” to do the job, nor one with whom he so “profoundly disagreed” on a number of key issues.
“I’ve known what I thought [about Trump] for a long time,” he said. This week he made it public.
The single most shocking word Weber uttered during our conversation was “sociopath.” He’s not a psychologist or anything, but in discussing Trump’s staggering inability or unwillingness to ever retract or apologize for horrible personal insults he throws at people, Weber wondered aloud, about Trump: “Is he a sociopath?” (That’s a term for a person who “lacks a sense of moral responsibility or a social conscience.”)
Anyway, I called Weber to specifically ask him to look down the road at the Republican coalition after this campaign. Trump has inspired a fierce loyalty in his most ardent admirers who, although they are less than a majority of Republicans, make up a significant chunk.
Trump continues to be at war with much of the Republican leadership, and has warned that the system — and the election — may be “rigged” against him, in unspecified ways. Trump is currently slumping badly and trailing in most polls by a widening margin.
As one who freely admits he does not really understand how Trump got this far (although I’m trying to), I don’t assume that his current slump means he cannot win in November. Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report did a good job of issuing a warning to those who think the recent Trump Slump means that he has little or no possibility of winning in November.
I agree. But at the moment, the odds have shifted more than ever against Trump, and, as Weber pointed out, Trump has begun to lay the groundwork for arguing that the system is aligned against him. If he does lose, and he decides to blame the Republican establishment for doing the “rigging,” Trump’s large, loyal, angry following is very likely to blame the Republicans.
I can’t say what might become of that grudge. But it has begun to occur to me that if Trump loses — and feels like arguing that he was done by the old school Repubs — a considerable chunk of (white, male, working-class) voters who have been part of the GOP coalition may not forgive the party and fall back into line in future elections for much-less-Trumpy orthodox Republican candidates.
The GOP coalition is complex and diverse in its views, but when all the elements are on board they keep the Republican Party competitive in national elections. If they start losing big elements of the coalition, that could change.
Weber said it was a serious possibility that the hard-core Trumpers will blame and punish the Republican party if Trump loses. He said that Trump has “preconditioned his supporters to believe that if he lost, that he was cheated,” not only by the Democrats and the media but by the Republican Party establishment, including guys like Weber who publicly came out against him.
But for the party to have any real future, Weber said, Republicans must follow the strategy in the so-called “autopsy” report that the party leadership developed after losing the 2012 Obama-Romney contest. That blueprint fairly explicitly called for the party to shed its image as the anti-immigrant, racist and sexist party of political incorrectness. That was the basis for the candidacy of several Republicans — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio come to mind — whom Trump clobbered in the primaries.
Trump seemed to demonstrate in his rise to the nomination that a significant portion of the Republican electorate does not want to go in that direction. If the angry Trump backers see their guy lose under circumstances that enable them to blame the party regulars, and then see the party dismissing and rejecting the very elements that excited them about Trump, it’s hard to see how that group stays loyal to the party for future elections. But if they bolt — and either start their own party or simply stop participating or even become Democrats — how can Republicans compete?
“I think we face a real difficult situation in that regard,” Weber said when I laid out that possible scenario. “We’ve got a situation that is almost impossible to deal with. I don’t know a clear way around that problem. But to rebuild our party we have to go out and appeal to minorities and women.”
“In England, in the Brexit vote, we see some similar kinds of thinking,” Weber said, and he sees similar working-class revolts in other European countries. “Those kinds of forces definitely exist, and it’s the definition of a demagogue to exploit that kind of situation.”
In the United States, Weber said, because of the power of the two-party duopoly, it’s been hard for an element like that have any success, because they are not a majority. But, he added, “the two-party system is under greater stress than it has been in a long time.”
Of course, the scenario could be great news for the Democratic Party, which — the anger of some Bernie Sanders supporters notwithstanding — seems to be more unified around its nominee. Some of them are less-than excited about Hillary Clinton, but very few big-name Democrats (off-hand I can’t think of one) have announced that they cannot vote for her in November.
It’s probably crazy to try to look past the current cycle, but if the Trump enthusiasts get mad and stay mad, the Republican identity crisis might have some legs. And so I asked Weber one last time if the big thinkers in his party were working on this dilemma.
“A lot of people are thinking about it at the policy and intellectual level,” he said.