What is President Donald Trump? The new philosophical core of the Republican Party? A regression? Or a progression? A fluke or a paradigm shift? An evolution of American conservatism, or a devolution? The answers could very well appear to be contradictory. Many Never Trumpers would argue vigorously that Trump is a devolution and a detriment. Though Trump could easily be an evolution of American conservatism and a detriment to the Republican Party at the same time. On the other hand, Trump could be an evolution of American conservatism that is greatly beneficial to the Republican Party. Either could be true. Indeed, which of these two scenarios will pan out is yet to be seen. Overall, Trump has brought about a monumental shift in American politics that worked in his favor in 2016. The political implications, however, are only just beginning to reveal themselves.
When analyzing these political implications, the theory of evolution becomes surprisingly applicable. Evolution is not about survival of the fittest per se. Evolution, and successful adaptation, is more about the propagation of the most attractive and virile. What matters is not how long an organism lives or how good a life it has, but how well and how many times the organism passes on its genes before it dies. Translated to the political stage, this means winning over voters and getting media coverage.
What matters is not how long an organism lives or how good a life it has, but how well and how many times the organism passes on its genes before it dies. Translated to the political stage, this means winning over voters and getting media coverage.
Evolution functions through a series of heritable changes that are reproductively beneficial to the current generation. Any specific change can be detrimental, neutral, or beneficial. However, only changes that benefit an individual’s ability to produce offspring are considered evolutionarily advantageous adaptations. Further, each change is a specific and discrete difference between a parent and its offspring. Taken together, these changes form adaptations in the political landscape. Such changes might take the shape of a new policy proposal (“build the wall”), a new rhetorical style (Trump’s off-the-cuff rally style), or something else (maybe a new medium of communication, say, Twitter). These changes are “heritable” in the sense that Republicans now have to deal with what Republicans did in 2000. Likewise, the stances and tactics a party uses today will be brought up in future debate. In the case of Trump, the policy changes with regard to border security, trade deals, and “endless wars” function together to create the adaptation that has revolutionized the Republican Party. Trump is, therefore, an evolution of American conservatism, as his adaptations benefited him in the current generation and will be passed onto the next generation.
However, while evolution works through reproductively beneficial adaptations for the current generation, an adaptation can be detrimental to a species later on. These adaptations “gone wrong” are called maladaptations. Maladaptations occur because evolution does not have foresight. In politics, the clearest example of this is George H. W. Bush’s “read my lips, no new taxes” moment. When he said that, it certainly aided him in the 1988 election. But when 1992 rolled around, it hit him where it hurt, since he had—in fact—raised taxes during his first term. Bush’s comment was not the sole reason he lost the election (the economy was, after all, in a recession), but it was a massive sore point for his base.
A political generation is a bit trickier to define than a biological generation, as politicians do not give birth to their successors. A political generation, however, is likely most easily defined by the election periods: two years for Congress and four years for the president. Therefore, a beneficial change in politics factors in, at most, four years. The changes that Trump brought about were specific to 2016. They appear to have been detrimental to him in 2018. How the spirit of 2016 will or will not haunt 2020 remains unclear.
In 2024, there is no guarantee that a new nominee will step forward who can harness the momentum that Trump has created. In fact, the turbulent 2016-2020 period (and if Trump wins re-election, 2020-2024 period) could create a backlash against the Republican Party. On the other hand, Trump currently enjoys record-high in-party enthusiasm. Were the Republican Party to reject Trump-ism, large swaths of the party’s base would be enraged. Both scenarios could pose long-term disasters for the GOP if they occurred—even though Trump’s boisterous anti-establishment attitude and solid base have worked to the GOP’s advantage in the past.
Conversely, Trump could be a godsend to the Republican Party, especially if the Democratic Party fails to adapt. The Red Queen Hypothesis is an evolutionary theory that species must continually adapt to maintain their current state and prevent extinction. In order to prevent themselves from being out-competed by others, a species must run faster and faster to stay exactly where they are. And we can see evidence of this, throughout American political history. There have been moments of massive Democrat wins and landslide Republican victories. Despite this interchange of victory, both two parties solidly command one third of the population each. Meanwhile, the demographics of the typical Democrat and Republican have changed drastically over the years, because as one party steals voters from its opponent, the other party adapts to gain a different voter demographic. Even if Trump wins in a historic landslide, the Democratic Party will be back. The losing party always retreats, licks its wounds, and then saunters out again to stalk new prey and confront its exhausted foe.
Even if Trump wins in a historic landslide, the Democratic Party will be back. The losing party always retreats, licks its wounds, and then saunters out again to stalk new prey and confront its exhausted foe.
A modern political example of the Red Queen Hypothesis was former President Barack Obama’s campaign finance system. His use of an online platform to collect individual campaign contributions brought in the largest haul from individual contributors to date: $656.4 million. ActBlue, the centralized Democrat site for online campaign fundraising, gave Democrats a large edge over Republicans. In 2015, ActBlue helped Democrats raise $206.9 million online, which grew to more than $1 billion in 2019. The Republicans, therefore, were forced to develop their own online campaign fundraising platform, WinRed, just to stay competitive. WinRed, only just launched in July 2019, and the platform raised $450 million in its first year for the Republican Party. Similarly, the Democrats must find a way to address the Trump phenomenon. If Republicans find another candidate who harnesses Trump’s base and appeal in 2024 (as unlikely as this may be), the Democratic Party will have to accept that Trump forged a new Republican Party.
After all, evolution does not proceed at a constant rate. The punctuated equilibrium hypothesis posits that evolutionary change is characterized by long periods of little change broken by short periods of rapid change. This is probably why most Americans (or humans for that matter) feel that their heads are suddenly spinning when they try to understand the changes in American politics that have occurred in the past three years. When comparing traditional American politics to the Trump years, the preceding decades seem to have formed a “punctuated equilibrium.” Trump and his brand of republicanism rose rapidly, but the Democratic Party still has the potential, and the need, to adapt very quickly to this phenomena—though need and potential are no guarantees in evolution (just ask Lamarck).
In short, Trump is indisputably an evolution of American conservatism. How this will bode for conservatism in the future, however, remains to be seen. What is clear is that the Republican Party cannot simply shrug off Trump without facing strong consequences. Once an adaptation has occurred, it cannot simply be dropped off—even if it becomes detrimental. Instead, it must be addressed by a new adaptation. And Democrats must adapt, simply to stay in contention.