It’s hard to believe that just four and a half years ago, the GOP nominee was Mitt Romney, who is the polar opposite of Trump, whom no one saw coming. In 2015-2016, there was Pepe, 4chan pol memes, the alt-right, and frog Twitter. In 2012? Nothing. But what was the turning point? What was the ‘Arch Duke Ferdinand moment’ that caused the GOP to squander the three decades of post-Reagan goodwill it had built? It wasn’t just single event, but rather a confluence of several factors; first, the ‘Gang of Eight’ immigration bill, in 2013:
In the United States of America, the Gang of Eight is a common colloquial term for the bi-partisan group of eight United States Senators—four Democrats and four Republicans—who wrote the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) bill. The group was also instrumental in bringing comprehensive immigration reform back to the legislative branch in early 2013.
The reception, judging by the comments on various right-wing message boards and blogs, including even NRO, was overwhelmingly negative. Some joked it was the ‘gang raped by eight’ bill. It was the first sign of the GOP ‘establishment’ being out of touch. And although by the late 2000’s the Iraq war was also unpopular with a significant number of Republican voters, some still saw it as their patriotic duty to support the war, but there was nothing patriotic about more immigration.
But that alone doesn’t explain the sudden implosion of the Establishment. A string of domestic Islamic terrorist incidents–the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Pulse Nightclub shootings in 2016, and the 2015 San Bernardino attack–further turned Americans against immigration. And in France, there there was the November 2015 Paris concert attacks that killed 130, and earlier the Charlie Hebdo shooting, also in 2015. In 2016, there was the Brussels bombings, which claimed 32 victims and injured over 350, and then Nice attack in France, which claimed 87 lives and over 400 inured. A major turning point was Syrian refugee crisis in 2013-2015, in which millions of refugees from war-torn Syrian poured into Europe:
Between 2009-2013, the GOP put all their chips behind repealing Obamacare and overturning gay marriage. But by 2013-2014, Obamacare and gay marriage ceased being so relevant in the minds of Conservative voters, eclipsed by immigration and economics instead. You can see above how the surge in immigration almost parallels the rapid decline of the Establishment and the rise of the ‘dissident right’, all between 2013-2016. Trump capitalized on this disaffection, as the mainstream GOP had failed voters by ignoring immigration, or worse yet, advocating amnesty. Trump won by making economics and immigration focal, not Obamacare and gay marriage.
Candidates such as Jeb, Cruz, and Rubio assumed that by enticing voters with ‘easy’ issues such as repealing Obamacare, they could sneak in ‘harder’ ones such as immigration reform. As alluded by Thomas Frank in his best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas, that’s generally been the way the GOP has operated for decades: winning easy votes by making promises on social issues, which acts as a ‘backdoor’ for less popular policy once in office. It remains to be seen if Trump will follow through on his, or take the backdoor out and hope no one will notice.