We hear a great deal about how the Republican Party has become the “Republican Party of Trump”: The Republican Party, we are told, has become the tail of the Trump comet. Republican office holders have become paralyzed because of Trump and his appeal to about thirty percent of voters, some of whom have been inspired by his rallies. The result is that office holders dare not speak out because of a hysterical fear of a vindictive president who will tweet them into certain political oblivion. The old Republican Party, with a history going back to the Civil War, has simply become the willing tool of a bombastic New York con man.

There is a problem with that formulation. It’s not true. It seems true because people have not thought through how the political parties are really structured. If we go back to the period between the Civil War and say, 1896, the parties were organized like rival armies (we still talk about precinct captains). That world is long gone even though the talking heads on your television sound like those political armies are still there.

The parties today are still well organized, on paper. In almost every state both parties have state mandated organizations at the county, the district (congressional district), and state levels. Those mandated organizations are identical in each state but may be different from state to state. Unfortunately, many of those legally required organizations long ago ceased to exist particularly in situations where one party appears to be in the permanent minority.

In almost every state there are legally mandated central party organizations for each party (usually in nice buildings near the state capital) staffed by people who try to help their party’s candidates, work on computers, and put pins in maps. They also send people to their party’s national headquarters in Washington DC (the majority’s party Director is named by the president) where there are people working on computers, writing speeches for candidates across the country, helping to raise money for them, and putting pins in maps (a bit oversimplified).

When most people think of the political parties they often are really thinking of their state’s Congressman and Senators. Those people are always identified as Republicans and/or as Democrats. The truth is that those people are not chosen by “their party”. They raise money themselves, they create their own campaign organizations, they are “chosen” by the tiny number of people who come out and vote for them in primaries (party elections) that are really controlled by the states. They gain the advantage of the party label without being subject to any real control by “their party”.

Donald Trump does have a good deal of influence over Republicans in the House and the Senate. But, for Republican members it is largely negative. Because he seems incapable of promoting legislation and really has no program (infrastructure and medical care have disappeared) Republican members feel forced to keep their heads down, service their constituents and do little else.

So, there are mandated organizations at the state level that are often non-functional. The parties have a state headquarters in every state. Both parties have a national headquarters in Washington which aids their national candidates’ campaigns and plan their national conventions. Representatives and Senators carry party labels but they are really more responsive to a vindictive Donald Trump over in the White House than they are to their own party.

And then there are the voters. Some Republican voters are really former Democrats who have been attracted to Donald Trump and his famous rallies (there have been over a hundred of those rallies). A much larger number are “cultural Republicans” who are often descended from generations of Republicans. Many, with origins on farms or small towns, have been drawn to suburbs (in every region of the country a majority of people now live in suburbs). Many are also evangelical Christians who voted for Trump because he seemed to be concerned about abortion.

Those two groups of voters have something in common. Neither have any formal connection with the Republican Party. They are not actual party members. They are Republicans because they think they are. Each of them carries a symbolic vision of the Republican Party in their heads. That shared vision in all those separate heads is the real heart of the Republican Party. Right now that symbolism is dominated by Donald Trump. By being such a commanding presence (ubiquitous for word lovers), he has powerfully effected their vision of “their party”. But, when Trump is gone that party in their heads will change. Many attracted by Trump’s ability to let them be angry will lose interest in politics once more.

The number of people occupying actual positions in the Republican Party organizations or participating as office holders is, relative to the whole population, really small. The number of voters across the country who carry visions of their party in their heads is much larger. Those shared visions hold people together. They make it possible for the party, with little real organization, to function at all.

Donald Trump certainly has a good deal of control over the national party organization in Washington. He has the ability to intimidate the members of his party in Congress who have emerged as something less than profiles in courage. He has, for many voters, become an important symbolic presence but his impact on his party is a passing thing. When he is no longer there the party which largely exists in the minds of its members will move on. Many attracted by his encouragement of public anger will recede into non-involvement. And, a new combination of voters will once again experience loyalty to an organization to which they do not really belong and which, in the real world, barely exists.

H.J. Rishel 10/06/2019

Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all