The Republican establishment was happy to have the votes of these newcomers, many from America’s working class, and accommodated their cultural preferences on social issues from guns to abortion to gay marriage. What the establishment didn’t do was adjust the GOP’s economic approach to match the populist impulses—or even seem to consider such a shift necessary.
Mr. Trump did. After entering the presidential race with just 3% to 5% support in national polls, he amplified the belief among millions of Republican newcomers that free-trade deals did more harm than good. He defended Social Security and Medicare benefits. He relentlessly voiced the fear that immigration shreds the economic and cultural well-being of the middle class.
Those grievances coalesced into an explosion that shocked Republican leaders, crippled the party establishment and will likely alter the GOP’s direction for years regardless of the Nov. 8 election’s outcome.
Grand New Party
The Republican Party's geographic center has shifted toward poor and rural areas, while prosperous and urban areas have moved more toward the Democratic Party.
*Includes only Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Notes: If counties were tied for 100th in a specific year, all those counties were included in the calculation. Alaska results are statewide because it doesn’t report votes by region.
Sources: Associated Press (1996 and 2012 presidential results); University of Virginia Center for Politics (1968-2012 results); Commerce Department (per capita income)
Mr. Trump’s campaign, like the waves of change that preceded it, has attracted new voters to the Republican party but driven others away. He has opened a deep divide that will be hard to heal and could even split the party into two sides, one made up of newly energized populists and the other of more-traditional moderates and conservatives.
If Mr. Trump wins, he figures to steer the GOP down the more-populist path his campaign has traveled, potentially driving away establishment figures, conservative thinkers and business leaders. He has increasingly belittled those who disagree with him on trade, immigration and foreign policy. They would have to decide whether the party can remain a home for them.
If he loses, a nasty internal debate about what Republicans stand for is likely to erupt, including “a lot of finger-pointing” from Trump supporters who will blame the establishment for failing to get behind their man, predicts former House Republican leader Eric Cantor. Either way, he says, Republicans should “take the lesson learned from Donald Trump, which is that he has tapped into that anger that says our policies just aren’t always yielding positive results” for many average Americans.
A few Republicans saw the explosion coming long ago. As early as 2001, Tim Pawlenty, later Minnesota’s governor and a presidential candidate, warned that the GOP needed “to be the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club.”
THE GREAT UNRAVELING
A Wall Street Journal series examining the causes and consequences of 2016's political upheaval
Mr. Buchanan tapped into anti-immigration anger in his first presidential campaign in 1992. “We were saying: ‘This is what’s going to happen,’” Mr. Buchanan recalls. “And it happened.”
Why did so many other supposedly smart politicians not see Mr. Trump’s soldiers gathering?
“It really is the elitism,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia. The attitude of many in the party was “we’re smart, and they’re stupid, and we’ll just feed them abortion and guns,” he says. “It didn’t have to be this way.”
In 1970, Mr. Davis was a young political aide in President Richard Nixon’s White House and worked for an adviser named Harry Dent. Mr. Dent grew up in South Carolina and was plotting to woo conservative Southerners from their traditional mooring in the Democratic Party.
Many of those Democrats voted for Mr. Wallace, the pro-segregation former Alabama governor, as a third-party presidential candidate in 1968. He won five states in the Deep South, and many supporters felt alienated from a Democratic Party that was moving to the left.
Mr. Dent and his team made sure the GOP provided a home to disaffected Democrats. While they didn’t share the business-friendly economic views of the Republican Party, it offered them allegiance on cultural issues such as hatred of draft dodgers, mistrust of busing to achieve racial desegregation and anger at the sex-and-drugs counterculture.
John Sears, a political operative who worked for Messrs. Nixon and Reagan, says Mr. Nixon appealed to crossover Democrats in some of the same ways that Mr. Trump appeals to populists now. Messrs. Nixon and Trump were widely scorned by the media and political establishments of their time.
Mr. Nixon “was running against Ivy League schools and the New York Times and the Episcopal Church,” says Mr. Sears. The Southern strategy helped Mr. Nixon win re-election in 1972, and a party long dominated by small-town Midwesterners, Northeastern liberals and a smattering of Western conservatives sprouted a new populist wing. Mr. Dent died in 2007.
George Wallace won five states in 1968 as a third-party presidential candidate, helped by disaffected Democrats who later shifted to the GOP because of its allegiance on cultural issues.PHOTO: PRESTON STROUP/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Growth of the party’s Southern-based populism was interrupted by Southern Baptist farmer Jimmy Carter ’s election in 1976. The Democrat’s presidency was widely regarded as a failure, though, opening the door to the next wave of GOP newcomers.
In 1980, Reagan Democrats were drawn to Mr. Reagan’s plain-spoken declaration that liberal policies dragged down them and their communities. Their conversion to the Republican Party completed its consolidation in the South and drew in disgruntled workers from the upper Midwest.
The Reagan Democrats bought into the conservative philosophy of tax cuts, and Mr. Reagan sang the party’s odes to the economic virtues of immigration. He broke with classic conservatism by imposing tariffs and quotas on Japanese goods, which won him the applause of union members.
Mr. Buchanan’s first presidential campaign pointed to trade and immigration as culprits in the faltering economy. He toured the Mexican border outside San Diego to raise concerns about undocumented immigrants flooding into the U.S. The government later erected a wall along that same stretch of border.
Pat Buchanan, shown at the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego in 1996, tapped into anti-immigration anger just as Donald Trump has this year.PHOTO: ERIC DRAPER/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In his speech to the Republican Convention in 1992, Mr. Buchanan challenged the party to stand up for middle-class workers still struggling to emerge from that era’s recession. He cited loggers in northern California put out of work to protect the spotted owl and Korean-American business owners who stood up to looters during the Los Angeles riots.
“They are our people, and we need to reconnect with them,” said Mr. Buchanan, a former White House aide to Messrs. Nixon and Reagan. “We need to let them know we know they’re hurting.”
The GOP leadership fought Mr. Buchanan, and there weren’t enough pitchfork populists for him to prevail. He lost the nomination to a thoroughly mainstream Republican, George H.W. Bush, who then lost to Bill Clinton. While the increasing cultural conservatism of the GOP had attracted some new voters, it also drove away some moderate voters.
Republican leaders thought Mr. Buchanan’s failure showed the limited appeal of his message. A better explanation is that much of it was siphoned away by billionaire populist Ross Perot, who ran in 1992 as an independent and in 1996 as a third-party candidate. He got 19% of the vote in 1992.
In 2000, the Republicans’ conservative and Wall Street wings coalesced behindGeorge W. Bush, propelling him into the White House with a message that was friendly to traditionalists and business.
But the party’s new working-class voters were growing more uneasy with traditional GOP economic formulas. Those pressures appeared first in the House, the chamber of Congress closest to the grass roots.
Billionaire populist Ross Perot, shown at a debate with President George H.W. Bush in 1992, got 19% of the vote.PHOTO:GREG GIBSON/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The House abandoned Mr. Bush’s call to overhaul Social Security and then rebelled on immigration. Instead of supporting a business-friendly guest-worker program and some path to legal status for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., House Speaker Dennis Hastert, a Republican from Illinois, started a campaign against illegal immigration and ordered committee chairmen to hold field hearings along the Mexican border.
In 2006, Congress passed legislation that was signed into law to fence hundreds of miles along the border, an early embrace of a signature proposal made by Mr. Trump from the start of his presidential campaign.
The GOP also benefited from growing Democratic concern about climate change and hostility to fossil fuels. The positions pushed working-class voters in energy-producing states toward the Republican Party.
West Virginia is perhaps the starkest illustration. When Barack Obamawon the White House in 2008, Democrats controlled the West Virginia state legislature, and held both of the state’s seats in the U.S. Senate and two of three in the House.
Republicans accused Democrats of waging war against coal. In 2014, the GOP took control of both chambers in the West Virginia legislature, won all three House seats and captured the Senate seat held by Democrat Jay Rockefeller for three decades.
A Change in Ideology
The GOP's ideological center has shifted to become whiter, less educated and more evangelical.
Graphics by Andrew Van Dam; additional reporting by Gerald F. Seib, Bob Davis and Brian McGill
Source: Pew Research Center
The financial crisis energized today’s populist army more than anything else, supercharging mistrust of Wall Street and economic elites. The federal bailout of financial institutions in the fall of 2008 drove a wedge between Republican leaders who pushed for the rescue and conservative lawmakers who no longer were content with toeing the party line.
The U.S. recession that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009 cut the median net worth of American families almost in half, according to the Pew Research Center. Middle- and lower-income households were hit especially hard, and Americans who lacked college degrees lost more ground than any other group.
The illusory recovery for many Americans created a fertile environment for anti-Washington candidates, none more than Mr. Trump.
Donald Trump just before announcing his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015, at Trump Tower in New York.PHOTO:JUSTIN LANE/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
He also inherited the wave of political activism that came from the tea-party uprising. It was sparked in 2009 by anger over a federal rescue of the mortgage industry and fueled a Republican takeover of the House in 2010.
The Republican establishment actually encouraged the rise of these new forces, thinking it could benefit from tea-party votes and channel the energy toward the GOP’s broader purposes.
In 2010, Senate campaign-committee funds fueled the Senate campaigns of numerous tea-party members. Republican House leaders recruited and helped raise money for some tea-party candidates who won that year.
Soon, though, tea-party populists defied the House leadership by trying to shut down the government during spending fights. The rebel forces rose up and destroyed their own patron when a tea-party candidate defeated Mr. Cantor in his 2014 primary race in Virginia.
House Republican leader Eric Cantor after losing his 2014 primary race in Virginia; He predicts 'a lot of finger-pointing' at the GOP establishment if Donald Trump loses.PHOTO: BILL CLARK/CQ-ROLL CALL/GETTY IMAGES
Economic anxiety also was shaking the core Republican belief in free trade. In 2010, 52% of people who called themselves Republicans said free trade hurt the American economy, while just 21% said it helped, according to an NBC/CNBC poll. Republicans split on the same question in 2007.
Last year, Rep. Jeff Duncan, a tea-party favorite from South Carolina, was one of 50 Republicans to vote against rules to expedite the approval process for trade deals. In 2011, he sided with the Republican-led House on trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea negotiated by the Obama administration. “Tariffs are taxes,” he told an aide.
A spokesman says Mr. Duncan still supports free trade but was concerned about increased negotiating powers that would have been granted to the president. Mr. Duncan also had doubts about a trans-Pacific trade deal that was to be approved under the same rules.
The changes in the past four decades add up to a Republican Party that morphed slowly but inexorably into something fundamentally different.
Among the 100 poorest counties in America, 74 voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.
From Democratic in 1996 to Republican in 2012.
Mr. Davis, the former congressman, often brandishes a map published by The Wall Street Journal last year showing all the counties that voted Democratic in the 1996 presidential election but had turned Republican by 2012. They form a wide, almost unbroken swath from Louisiana north through Arkansas and Missouri along the Mississippi River valley, branching east from there through Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Those counties represent the new heart of the GOP. It includes farmers and coal miners. Country music is the norm. Collars are as likely to be blue as white. An America changed by immigration stirs as much anxiety as hope.
Long stereotyped as home to the country-club crowd, bankers and big business, the party is increasingly driven by anxious working-class voters, small-town business people and middle-aged Americans.
At the same time, the cultural conservatism that attracted new voters to the Republican Party has repelled some upscale suburban voters who had long been reliable Republicans. The upshot is a changed electoral-college landscape that in many ways favors Democrats.
Thus was the table set for Mr. Trump. He brought incomparable celebrity swagger to this year’s presidential race, and benefited from Republican distrustof longtime party leaders and positions. Speaking directly to that exasperation enabled Mr. Trump to upend a generation of conservative orthodoxy.
“I’m an outsider and I won the primaries,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in June. “I competed along with a lot of establishment people. I beat them all.”