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Story highlights

The catalyst for the anti-establishment dominance in the party may have been another Republican who used bomb-throwing rhetoric

Today, furious rank-and-file Republicans don't trust their leaders or government, splitting the party

Watch the CNN Republican debate Tuesday, December 15 at 6:00 p.m. ET and 8:30 p.m. ET.

Washington CNN —  

Donald Trump’s political hurricane is no accident. It’s been brewing in the Republican Party for decades.

Yes, the wild force tearing through the Republican White House race is a reflection of the grass roots’ current fury at government and a revolt against establishment party leaders that has already swept away the likes of former House Speaker John Boehner and his lieutenant, Eric Cantor.

And it’s at least partly an individual phenomenon based on the charismatic appeal of Trump himself. The billionaire’s brash television virtuosity and mastery of social media has connected with an angry swath of Republican voters in a way no other candidate has managed and will be put to the test again in the final GOP debate of the year, on CNN from Las Vegas on Tuesday night.

READ: Stage set for final GOP debate of 2015

But the Trump tempest has long been building. GOP critics argue the party has brought his destabilizing intervention on itself by not squelching controversies like claims he helped fuel that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States or explosive rhetoric about illegal immigrants. This contentious atmosphere has detracted from the debate on the nature of authentic conservatism that many partisans had expected in the 2016 race.

READ: Iowa poll: Ted Cruz leads Donald Trump

Several conservative commentators have rejected the notion that the GOP is itself responsible for Trump’s appeal. They reason, for instance, that the real estate mogul is not a true believer but has merely hijacked the party to reach a community of mainly white, blue-collar voters resistant to the tide of change in Obama’s America. And they have a point: The anti-establishment heat that he is exacerbating does predate Trump’s arrival on the political scene.

The Republican Party’s current trauma stretches back at least to the 1990s, if not earlier. It lies in a transformation that turned the GOP from a party of consensus government that produced presidents like Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush into a party of rebellion in which the rank and file are consumed with anger at party leaders who they believe habitually maneuver to block true conservatives from winning the nomination.

Gingrich starts a revolution

The catalyst for the anti-establishment dominance in the party may have been another brash Republican with a flair for bomb-throwing rhetoric and a disdain of party elites.

Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich led an insurgency against the GOP House leadership, determined to dispense with the coziness that encompassed both the Democratic and Republican parties in Congress for decades. Gingrich not only took over his party; in 1994, he led the GOP to take over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years and became speaker in a backlash against struggling Democratic President Bill Clinton. His coup went down in history as the “Republican Revolution.”

The next tipping point came six years later, when many activists believed George W. Bush would install authentic conservative governance in the White House. But the 43rd president turned out to be a deep disappointment to many conservative voters around the country, fueling the fury at GOP elites that has crested in Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Bush backed an ultimately unsuccessful immigration compromise that opponents derided as amnesty for illegal immigrants, ballooned debt through unpaid-for wars that also prompted a massive expansion of the government and presided over a financial crisis that saw billions of dollars funneled to save banks while ordinary Americans lost their jobs and houses.

READ: GOP primary voters split over Trump’s Muslim ban, poll finds

Add in two failed presidential campaigns by nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney – whom many conservatives saw as dinosaurs of the Republican establishment – an industry of political revolt fueled by social media and super PACS that enabled individuals to challenge party bosses, the echo chamber of right-wing talk radio and partisan television programing, and the stage was set for pent up grass-roots ire to erupt.

Into that roiling cauldron stepped a black President, a culture that increasingly embraced liberal social values and a GOP-controlled Congress unable to stop massive legislation such as Obamacare and White House actions seen as dangerous executive overreach on crucial national issues.

Today, furious rank-and-file Republicans don’t trust their leaders or government, splitting the party between, on one side, activists who believe compromise on political principles leads only to Democratic victories and should be scorned even if it that threatens to drive the economy over a fiscal cliff and, on the other, conservatives in Washington who see compromise as a necessary evil to keep the country running. The latter group wants to implement at least the modest Republican goals that are possible in a divided government and worry that Trump’s rhetoric and policies will sink the GOP.

In fact, the anti-establishment sentiment stoked by the upstart Gingrich and congressmen who embraced the tea party that surged during Obama’s presidency rather than face defeat in primaries has resulted in a GOP constituency that doesn’t particularly care about the party itself, certainly not when compared to its allegiance to Trump.

READ: National poll: Trump leads; Cruz rises as Carson falls

Voters furious at the GOP

“For them to go out and backstab him like this, you know what? I’m done with the Republican party,” Paula Yoel Johnson from New Hampshire told CNN’s “New Day” on Thursday, demanding more respect for Trump from establishment leaders.

Steve Stepanek, a local lawmaker who chairs Trump’s campaign in the Granite State, said that people were fed up with those in the party establishment trying to dictate the terms of the presidential race.

“I think Donald Trump in his success and his popularity is an example that people are sick and tired of the political machines in both parties,” Stepanek told CNN.”

Trump’s advance rides on the fact that he is not offering these voters detailed plans or promises about what he will do. Instead, he has simply positioned himself as the most vocal, outspoken vehicle for the grievances of this voting bloc – who believe he dares to propose action, like imposing an entry ban on Muslims in the United States that they also support, but no conventional politician will risk uttering.

READ: I am a Trump supporter: Voters speak out

Indeed, the divide between the GOP’s two factions is exacerbated by many establishment figures’ feeling that Trump is not a true conservative at all but has simply hijacked the Republican primary to exploit a seam of angry, white, blue-collar, aging and less well-educated voters who have taken up residence in the party’s base.

While Trump may have once been seen as a joke inside the party, the humor has faded. With his call to ban Muslims from traveling to the U.S., among other controversies he has ignited, the front-runner threatens to inflict deep harm on the party’s chance of winning its first presidential election in 12 years – perhaps why it triggered such unusually broad condemnation from across a Republican Party often wary of calling him out.

Some candidates, however, have increasingly been willing to do so. One-time establishment favorite Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, has called Trump “unhinged,” while another candidate, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, branded him a “race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot” who could “go to hell.” Some Republican officials and right-leaning analysts have even suggested that the man leading the GOP polls displays fascist tendencies.

Still, the constituency that Trump is making use of is one that the Republican Party itself created, according to Heather Cox Richardson, a Boston College professor who wrote a history of the GOP titled “To Make Men Free.”

Trump succeeded, she said, by discovering it.