Throughout most of the 20th century the Republican Party was a peaceable kingdom. Its roots were in farms and finance, its adherents the managerial class, small-business owners and members of Rotary and country clubs, its power centers the Eastern colleges, the Farm Bureau, Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Main Street, plus much of the prairie Midwest and mountain West. The party dominated the 1920s, the 1950s and the 1980s. Rarely were its disputes bitter, and seldom did its disagreements break into open or prolonged bickering.
But when the Republicans do fight, they fight fiercely. And this winter may be their fiercest fight ever.
The party of the American establishment is undergoing the biggest revolt against its own establishment since at least 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona won the GOP nomination and Ronald Reagan emerged as a conservative avatar. Two ferociously anti-establishment figures are dominating the Iowa caucuses, accounting, if polls are to be believed, for half the GOP vote. The three main establishment candidates together account for only 12 percentage points. Statewide, according to the latest Fox News Poll, 57 percent of Republicans believe they have been betrayed by their own party.
In an interview the other morning, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who ran two insurgent campaigns for president and won the 1996 New Hampshire primary, told me “the Republican establishment is a church whose pews are empty.”
In earlier Republican upheavals, the rebels were defeated in nomination fights (1952, 1992 and 1996), rejected in a brutal general election defeat (1964) or merged with the establishment (1980). This time businessman Donald J. Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas are conducting White House drives that, unlike the Goldwater campaign of 1964, do not so much aim to take over the party as they seek to ridicule, repudiate and renounce its leadership.
“The civil war in the Republican Party of the United States,” Theodore H. White wrote in his “Making of the President” volume for 1964, “is one of the more fascinating stories of Western civilization.” If Mr. White, who died 30 years ago, were here today, he might argue that that sentence applied even more so to the 2016 race.
The difference: This time it is not a faction that is in rebellion but the majority of the party. This time the base of the party is estranged from the traditional ruling elements of the party.
The Democrats, famous for their internal feuds, have not in modern times faced an insurrection remotely like the one the Republicans are experiencing right now, except perhaps at the end of the Lyndon Johnson years, but even then the party establishment moved in rough alignment with the party base, and the rebels left the Johnson camp with reluctance and regret.
Not so this time with the Republicans. “The people I know are relishing the discomfort this is causing with an establishment they can’t stand,” said Mr. Buchanan.
The Fox Iowa poll shows that nearly two-thirds of Republicans with no college degree feel betrayed by their party, which might lead to the conclusion that this rebellion is class-oriented and in fact fueled by new Republicans who do not fit the party’s traditional mold. But that is not the case; more than half of Republicans with college degrees feel betrayed by their party, too — and nearly three in five of those who say they will “definitely” attend a party caucus two weeks from now share that bitter sentiment.
This reflects another important shift in the character of Republican politics. A quarter-century ago, the Republican Party had a share of issue-oriented activists who were less concerned with victory in the general election than with their own special causes, often involving social issues such as abortion.
Indeed, at the party’s 1992 convention, when Mr. Buchanan spoke of the “culture war” that was enveloping the nation, those issue activists played a key role in the platform fight at the party’s Houston convention. In a study published in the Political Science Quarterly, the Colby College political scientist Sandy Maisel found that their determination to shape a document that customarily is soon forgotten resulted in their successful exclusion of moderates from the platform committee.
Now these very same activists — or their next-generational legatees — are determined to prevail in the election itself, and their rhetoric, especially from Mr. Cruz, a rebel despite possessing all the surface credentials of the group he reviles, is full of disdain for the establishment candidates they say always get the nomination but never get, or keep, the presidency. Their examples are Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush, who were defeated for re-election in 1976 and 1992, respectively, along with nominees Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas (1996), Sen. John McCain of Arizona (2008) and former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (2012).
The roots of this rebellion actually go back to 1976, with the challenge Mr. Reagan mounted to the renomination of Mr. Ford, an accidental president but as a former House minority leader and a creature of moderate Grand Rapids, Mich., politics, a sturdy symbol of the Main Street strain of the Republican establishment. Mr. Ford was a Rotarian and in fact his hometown club now bears the name Gerald Ford Rotary Club. (I have no animus for Rotary. My father and my brother were presidents of the Salem, Mass., Rotary Club, my daughter won a Rotary International fellowship to the Czech Republic and has spoken at Rotary events in Prague and at locations domestically, and for years I’ve gladly participated in Rotary events for students.)
The Reagan rebellion of 1976 bore fruit four years later, when the former governor of California won the nomination and defeated President Jimmy Carter. Mr. Reagan’s appeal and political skills papered over the divisions in the GOP for his two terms and for the first half of the elder Mr. Bush’s single term. But since then the tensions have simmered and in the past several years have boiled over, fortified by a pervasive public frustration with politics.
“This is a special case of a broader sense of dissatisfaction and frustration with government,” says John J. Pitney Jr., a Claremont McKenna College political scientist widely regarded as a leading student of GOP politics. “The anger is particularly intense on the Republican side because they have control of Congress and haven’t been able to do much.”
Now the Republicans are energized with the conviction that there is much they can do. The result is a rebellion that is transforming not only their politics but the political system as well.