Shribman: This GOP revolution is different

David M. Shribman

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. 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 13 percentage points. Statewide, according to the latest Fox News Poll, 57 percent of Republicans believe they have been betrayed by their own party.

In a recent interview, 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 Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, do not so much aim to take over the party as they seek to ridicule, repudiate and renounce its leadership.

This time it is not a faction that is in rebellion but the majority of the party. 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 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.

The roots of this rebellion actually go back to 1976, with the challenge Ronald Reagan mounted to the nomination of Gerald Ford, an accidental president but, as a former House minority leader and a creature of moderate Grand Rapids politics, a sturdy symbol of the Main Street strain of the Republican establishment.

The Reagan rebellion of 1976 bore fruit four years later, when the former governor of California won the nomination and defeated President Jimmy Carter. 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 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.

Now Republicans are energized with the conviction there is much they can do. The result is a rebellion that is transforming not only their politics but the broader political system as well.

David M. Shribman is executive editor

of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.