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u.s. election 2016

Donald Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association annual meeting in Louisville, Ky., on Friday.Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Norman Ornstein is a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. Back in August, 2015, when Donald Trump's candidacy was widely viewed as a joke, Mr. Ornstein published a piece arguing that Mr. Trump could win the Republican nomination. Mr. Ornstein spoke with the Globe's Joanna Slater about the roots of the Trump phenomenon and the future of the Republican Party.

Your piece from August feels pretty prescient these days. How does it feel to be one of the only people who saw this coming?

To be perfectly truthful, I would rather have been wrong. Of course, there's a part of me that feels some satisfaction, because there were plenty of leading experts who pooh-poohed the whole notion. But I'm not real happy at the direction our politics have taken.

When did you start to feel that this time really could be different?

I really began to feel in about May of last year that Trump and [Texas Senator Ted] Cruz were likely to be the ones to fight it out for the nomination. Some of this was based on a lot of years being right in the belly of the beast, but also watching the dynamics outside. In 2012, my long-time writing partner and friend Thomas Mann and I wrote a book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks, that reflected our belief, after four-plus decades in Washington, that we were careening out of control.

Starting in 2009, Republicans said, "We're going to behave like a parliamentary party," only in a system that doesn't have either the parliamentary structures or the culture. As you know, the culture of a parliamentary system is you have a majority and the majority makes decisions. Even if you don't like those decisions – the minority vociferously opposes every one of them – people believe those are legitimate decisions. In our system, the culture is built around the idea of this extended republic, where you do debate and deliberation to build broad leadership consensus around policies. What [Republicans did] was to unite against everything that the Democrats and [President Barack] Obama wanted to do, even if they had been for it before. They weren't going to win on everything, but they were going to make every victory look ugly and illegitimate.

Republicans would say, well, the Democrats are no different. But you've argued that the current Republican Party has become 'an insurgent outlier.'

This is different. Just to give an example: [In November, 2000] George W. Bush gets elected president after the most controversial, contested election in at least 100 years. If Democrats had behaved the way Republicans did with Obama – who won in a landslide, really – then they would have united to an individual against Bush. Democrats would have filibustered in the Senate, they would have blocked everything and they would have created the whole idea that Bush was an illegitimate president. Instead, Democrats in Congress – including some of the most liberal members such as Ted Kennedy – immediately worked with Bush to pass major pieces of legislation such as No Child Left Behind and tax cuts.

After the 2008 election, you have this new generation of conservative leaders who went around the country to recruit Tea Party-type populist candidates and incite anger in a lot of people. It worked beautifully for them.

In the midterm elections in 2010, they made massive gains and took a majority in the House of Representatives. But they did it in a couple of ways that led to the politics of the Republican Party now. One was to promise the moon and the sun. Namely, you give us power and we'll bring Barack Obama to his knees. We'll repeal Obamacare, we'll repeal Dodd-Frank [a piece of financial-reform legislation], we'll blow up government as we've known it.

Did some Republican voters believe that was actually possible?

Yes. So you've got a group of Republicans and Republican sympathizers out there who now basically believe their own leaders have taken them down a garden path, have seduced and abandoned them repeatedly. The level of distrust combined with another factor: people increasingly looking at government as failing them completely. Then you have the data. Going back to last April and May, every poll of Republicans showed 60-70 per cent support for outsiders and insurgent candidates and 20 per cent or less for establishment figures.

Enter Donald Trump.

Trump was one of 17 candidates, a curiosity at the beginning. Then he was clever enough to seize on the immigration issue and move to the right of Ted Cruz and everybody else in his rhetoric and his approach. That was the skyrocket that took him to the top of the field.

He recognized that the immigration issue was not just a strong issue at a difficult economic time. Trump also understood that white working-class people were beginning to see not only stagnant wages and manipulation by billionaires and elites, but also that the country was moving inexorably towards majority-minority status [in which minorities together make up a majority of the electorate]. So you have a slogan like "Make America great again," which is, basically, we'll make it like it was in the 1950s, when you thought everybody was happy.

Do you think Mr. Trump could actually win?

Yes. I don't think it's likely. I put the odds at 80-20 for Hillary Clinton. A 20-per cent chance may not seem that high, but it's plenty high. There are a couple of reasons for this: One, this is a distinctly tribal environment. We're already beginning to see some surveys that show Republicans rallying behind Trump. Now, he may not get the same proportion of Republicans supporting him that John McCain or Mitt Romney got, but my guess is he's going to be damn close. In the end, people are tribal. Tribalism means that you despise the other side and Hillary Clinton is an easy target for them. So he's going to start with probably 45 per cent [of the electorate] as a base, because he'll get Republicans and some others. That's not enough to win.

Then you throw in the reality that stuff happens and the world can change. The bottom line here is that whenever we have an election where you have a two-term president, the election focuses entirely around change. How much change do you want, and how much risk can you tolerate to get that change?

What if there's a Brexit and there's global turmoil that really begins to reverberate by late summer or fall? What if there are some disasters in the world, including terrorist attacks at home or elsewhere, which leave people feeling uneasy? Maybe voters decide that Trump is too big a risk under those circumstances. But it's also possible that there's a kind of panic and people begin to look for a strongman.

Could the Republican Party split?

If they lose in November, there is an existential struggle among three components. There will be the Trumpist populists. A lot of them are going to believe – including, most likely, Trump himself – that they were stabbed in the back by the Republican establishment. You're going to have the Cruz-ite radical right. And then you're going to have an establishment wing, which is going to be divided and battered. It's going to be a long time before we see anything emerge in a unifying way.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Editor's note

An earlier version of this piece added honorifics in the editing process. These were not used by Mr. Ornstein during his interview with Joanna Slater.