For months the American election was about personal advantage. Could insults drive political rivals out of the race? Were two famous families who first tangled in 1992 destined to fight again in the latest incarnation of the Hatfields (the Bushes) and the McCoys (the Clintons)? Was the support of the establishment enough to prevail in both parties?
Unlike the equivalent questions in most American elections, we learned the answer to those matters in swift order. What remains, however, are three far more fundamental questions, the answers to which will shape American politics for the remainder of the decade and perhaps thorough the first quarter of the century. They are questions that are far more urgent, far more significant, than any political questions that emerged in roughly the last half-century, from 1966 to the present. Here they are:
• Is one of the sturdy pillars of American life, a political party that this year marks its 160th birthday, in hopeless disarray and ceaseless contention, or is this merely one of those regular reckonings that established institutions experience — and endure?
The Republicans have contributed 18 presidents to our history, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, for the most part sturdy guardians of our values, as well as William McKinley, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, wartime presidents and also important parts of our history. It is incontestable that America has prospered when it had a strong and vibrant Republican Party, and so the question that emerges from this year’s demolition derby is whether the GOP is so fractured that it is in the position the Whigs were in by 1853, when their last president, Millard Fillmore, left office.
There is no obvious answer to that question, but there are obvious stakes to the inquiry. The Republican Party has been as much a strong supporter of Main Street business values as it has been an enabler to Wall Street business excess. It has been a voice for free trade in the era when American economic power was at its zenith. In its best days, during the 1860s and the 1960s, it was a reliable, brave defender of minorities and, though the other party thinks of itself as the instrument that extended and expanded Americans’ rights, the GOP was an indispensable element of the anti-slavery and Civil Rights movements.
It is not only the ascendancy of a startling outsider, Donald J. Trump, that threatens the party — or, if you are a political Cubist and choose to look at it from another angle, that is transforming the party from the inside, beginning at July’s convention in Cleveland. Three of the Final Four GOP candidates — let’s include Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in this list, but exclude Gov. John Kasich of Ohio — portrayed themselves as angry insurgents, the posture they retained until it was in their interest to appeal to the party establishment to stop Mr. Trump.
These three — Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio — saw a rot within a party that repeatedly spoke for dramatic change but just as reliably settled for incremental change, the modern equivalents of the Republicans of the Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson years. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona called these men “dime-store New Dealers.” The contempt today’s pugilists have for GOP accommodators is many times greater than that possessed even by Mr. Goldwater.
• Are the traditions and folkways that have governed American politics since the Civil War finally outmoded and have we entered a new era of political style?
In the past, changes in political style have been gradual. William Henry Harrison, inaugurated in 1841 as the first Whig president, emphasized a (mostly imaginary) personal story of log-cabin origins. Andrew Jackson became president in 1829 with a burst of common-man zeal. Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the presidency in 1901 with an explosion of energy. Mr. Kennedy won the 1960 election in part because of his telegenic profile in a television age and his perceived vigor at a time when Americans expected action in a Cold War world.
If Mr. Trump loses the November election, the contest will be remembered as a referendum on his personal style (verdict: invective and insult are insufficient instruments of political power and crudeness is repudiated). If he prevails, however, it may mean the end of what we might think of as the cavalier era in American civic life, when politicians did not ridicule their rivals, nor append to them biting nicknames, nor speak openly of the personal morals of the spouses of political opponents. (All these prevailed in the Jackson years, when the morality of both the wife of the president and the wife of the secretary of war were challenged in harsh, unforgiving terms — but largely disappeared later.)
• Regardless of whether the GOP survives in its current form, is there a substantial ideological readjustment underway?
It became obvious during the Clinton years that the era of broad American political parties was in eclipse and that the dream of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who in 1938 tried (but failed) to bring ideological discipline to his own party, finally had been realized. But if the Republican rump goes the Trump way — a trail blazed more by instinct and impulse than by ideology — what is the new character of the GOP? If, for this election cycle and perhaps beyond, a slice of the Republicans breaks away, what does that mean for the two-party system? In the 1890s, the Democrats coopted the nascent Populist Party. In the 2010s, which faction of the GOP will co-opt the other, or might the two wings be irreconcilable?
The American political system has been under stress before — in the 1910s, when Theodore Roosevelt led the breakaway Bull Moosers; in 1948, when Strom Thurmond and his Dixiecrats broke away from the Democrats and when the extreme liberals veered off under former Vice President Henry A. Wallace; and in 1968, when former Gov. George C. Wallace broke from the Democrats and won five states and 46 electoral votes on the American Independent Party line.
We will not know for decades whether this is one of those realigning “critical elections” that political scientists identify and study. We do know now, however, that important questions are in the air, and that not all of them include a wall with Mexico or free college tuition.