Donald Trump is the logical progression of the Republican Party’s decades-long coarsening of American politics, says Koli Mitra.
It’s easy to understand why liberals or libertarians may be alarmed by Donald Trump, but why do Republican party bigwigs hate him so much? They claim it’s because he is not a real conservative. Yet, there is nothing in Trump’s official position that is so out of synch with the usual range of Republican views as to repulse them the way he has. He is hawkish, anti-immigrant, anti-choice, (vaguely) Bible-thumping, Muslim-baiting, pro-gun, anti-globalist, and (lately) anti-tax—that covers most of the important bases of the current Republican party. In broad terms, it’s fair to say he has pretty much adopted the 1994 “Contract with America”, the platform of the so-called Republican Revolution, a landmark electoral drubbing of the long-time Democratic Congress, and a sharp reactionary turn in mainstream American political culture.
The charge that “Trump is not a real conservative” has some truth to it, at least in the sense that when it comes to principles, he isn’t a “real” anything. He says whatever suits him in any given moment. He contradicts himself so much that he can’t possibly mean everything he says (though according to many of his supporters, his main appeal—incredibly—is that “he says what he means”). But Republican leaders have backed chameleons before—and frequently.
Their last two presidential nominees flip-flopped entirely and obviously on major issues, including campaign finance reform, healthcare, reproductive rights, marriage equality, national security, government surveillance policies and gun regulations. The party elders didn’t flinch. They were willing to fudge the philosophical specifics in order to appeal to this demographic or that, in order to win elections. So what if Donald Trump gets away with a “family values” posture, even though he has cheated on and discarded two wives and made much of his fortune running casinos, and has a long record of sleazy behaviour vis à vis women? What if he gets away with expressing outrage over aliens who “take American jobs” when he has routinely opted to hire foreign guest migrant workers over equally qualified American applicants in his resorts? So what if he promises protectionism while having made his fortune as a global businessman? Republicans have been getting away with stuff like this—and sometimes exactly those things—for years!
The charge that “Trump is not a real conservative” has some truth to it, at least in the sense that when it comes to principles, he isn’t a “real” anything. He says whatever suits him in any given moment.
By the way, what exactly constitutes a “real” conservative for Republicans is not very clear. It has elements of nationalism, but that nationalism can be expressed as an isolationist creed of self-sufficiency or its opposite: global hegemonic/imperialistic tendencies. Both strains of nationalism have long existed among “respectable” conservatives within the American political mainstream and the Republican party. The neoconservatives advocate spreading capitalism, democracy, and the western lifestyle around the world, by deadly force, if necessary. Palæoconservatives want to withdraw from the world altogether, by building a wall around the country, if necessary. Some conservatives believe immigration must be reduced significantly (or stopped altogether) in order to shield American workers from cheaper competition or to preserve a purported American national character (racial, religious, or cultural). But the more classical-economics-oriented conservatives consider this kind of protectionism to be unacceptable government interference in the marketplace. For some, conservatism is about social or religious traditionalism, even to the extent of legislating moral conduct, while others equate conservatism with strict constitutionalism, which severely limits government power and places most private social behaviour beyond the reach of government to proscribe or regulate.
Not only are there are these different strains of “conservatism”—some of which are contradictory— the most popular Republicans tend to advocate various contradictory philosophies simultaneously. They claim to support laissez faire economics when denouncing labour and consumer protection, public social services, or environmental standards. Yet, they are willing to meddle in the market to protect big banks, auto manufacturers, oil companies, construction companies, and agribusinesses. Republicans at both federal and state levels (no less than Democrats) make sweetheart deals with their corporate friends and campaign donors to bail out failing industries with taxpayer money, granting permits and monopolies, contracting out public sector work (including security and national defence services), giving out farm subsidies, tweaking immigration policy to influence the labour market, just to name a few examples. They say they are strict constitutionalists and yet they have helped dilute individuals’ power to contract, with rules that allow employers and other institutionalised market actors to have civil complaints against them resolved by private arbitration panels of their own choosing (and paid by them) rather than by courts of law, thereby tipping the scales of justice even further toward the already powerful. They “support the troops” in the sense of wanting to deploy them to active duty, but become austerity fanatics and deny veterans’ organisations adequate funding to provide soldiers with healthcare and other urgent services when they come home.
Republican conservatives almost universally claim to support lower taxes and a leaner government, but the party has not historically not lived up to this ideal, either. While Democrats have funded pet domestic projects (which sometimes have no real impact on the public goals that they ostensibly exist to serve), Republicans have funded military operations that sometimes do not serve reasonable national security interests so much as they secure the commercial interests of American companies and industries. While criticising Democrats as the “tax-and-spend” party, self-proclaimed “conservative” Republicans have been eager to fund mortgage insurance programs (usually supported more by Democrats) that allowed lending institutions to maximize their own profits and pass their risks on to ordinary taxpayers.
Republicans at both federal and state levels (no less than Democrats) make sweetheart deals with their corporate friends and campaign donors to bail out failing industries with taxpayer money, granting permits and monopolies, contracting out public sector work (including security and national defence services), giving out farm subsidies, tweaking immigration policy to influence the labour market, just to name a few examples.
Ultimately, the only consistency Republicans have shown over the years is their reliability in defending the rich and powerful. Perhaps that sounds a little glib, but the record is almost as straightforward as that. When you pare away all the high rhetoric (and acknowledge certain earnestly principled members of the party, like libertarian Ron Paul and evangelical Christian Mike Huckabee, notable exceptions who are clearly not among the party’s power élites), it becomes plain that the Republican party’s primary constituency—not the one it has most passionately courted, but the one it has most faithfully served—is the economic élite class. Here is a blatant example: while accusing liberals of “class warfare” for demanding tax hikes on the rich and claiming to oppose taxes generally, Republican stalwarts such as Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal have been revealed to favour raising taxes, specifically on the poor.
So, I don’t believe for a second that the Republican establishment is freaking out over Donald Trump because of his inability to meet some mythical gold standard of consistency and philosophically pure conservatism. What is it then? Is it Trump’s boorishness that’s inspiring such disdain among the party élites? “Trump is a hateful bigot,” they complain. “This is not what our party is about,” they claim. Oh, but isn’t it?
Republicans have long shown themselves to be comfortable with mudslinging and stoking intolerance and cultivating a level of reflexive contempt for anything considered “liberal”. In fact, it is the Republican Party that’s largely responsible for the coarsening of American politics to the degree that makes someone like Trump possible as a major party frontrunner and ultimately, its nominee. Trump’s persona, as a real estate tycoon in the 1980s and now primarily as a reality TV personality, has always been loutish and mean spirited, but the Republicans are the party that “has given him an institutional platform to introduce those behaviours to the political arena,” as John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution put it. “Over time, Republican politics seized vitriol and disdain and personal distrust and even hatred as a means of accomplishing political victory or making political distinctions”.
“Trump is a hateful bigot,” they complain. “This is not what our party is about,” they claim. Oh, but isn’t it?
The Republican nobility is not freaking out because Trump is an obnoxious, racist, sexist, egomaniacal madman preying on people’s anxieties and pandering to their lowest instincts. They are freaking out because Trump is beating them at their own game. He is a wild card. They don’t control him and don’t know if they ever can.
For a while now, the Republican party élites have been playing a deep, dangerous and ugly game that has worked a kind of Machiavellian magic on certain segments of the population that have no real reason to align themselves with Republican élites pulling their strings. The Democratic Party has manipulative élites too, but they have long figured out they must appeal to a coalition of social liberals, welfare-economy progressives, trade unions, historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities, environmentalists, etc. It’s a coalition that has some organic cohesion, being built somewhat around issues that grow out of ideals of community and compassion. (I do not suggest that the party bosses are motivated by actual compassion or community spirit, but only that this is the flavour of ideology they have come to endorse and/or co-opt and its nature this brand of ideology has given them a relatively stable flow of popular support.) Through interesting historical twists, Democrats have cornered the market on the rhetoric of tolerance, inclusion, camaraderie, compassion, equality, social-civil liberties and welfare—“bleeding heart liberalism”—gradually since the turn of the 20th century and solidly since the 1960s.
Republicans have had to use more ingenuity to build their coalition. Originally, they had been the more liberal, ideological party, the party of “conscience”, while Democrats were the ultraconservative, pro-slavery party, anti-immigrant party. The Republican Party (whose first breakout star was Abraham Lincoln) began with an abolitionist platform and championed racial equality and women’s suffrage. Republicans promoted civil rights and educational benefits for immigrants and African Americans. They were modernists. They promoted science and progress.
For a while now, the Republican party élites have been playing a deep, dangerous and ugly game that has worked a kind of Machiavellian magic on certain segments of the population that have no real reason to align themselves with Republican élites pulling their strings.
Somewhere along the way, that mix of individualism and progressivism gave way to a kind of social Darwinism that began to animate a good portion of the party’s base. Meanwhile, Democrats began siphoning away the “social justice” ideals by becoming the party of welfare and “rights” oriented politics.
The full evolution of the two parties and their underlying ideologies makes for fascinating study, but for our current purposes, a very bare-bones summary would go something like this: over the course of 150 years, the Democratic and Republican parties have essentially swapped ideologies. One of the things that didn’t get “swapped” was the Republicans’ continued enthusiasm for capitalism, industry, and economic development, the contemporary version of which frequently tends to translate to a narrowly focused support for the interests of the very élite economic classes. But that’s not nearly enough of a constituency to provide political viability. The Democratic élites had made a pact with the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” (and go to school, and get healthcare, and get solid paying jobs with benefits, and procure a safety net for old age…) while the Republican élites had only themselves and their peers in industry and commerce and with deep roots in well-heeled political dynasties.
Since the mid-to-late 20th century, the Republicans have sought a much needed support base by aggressively courting an unlikely demographic: disaffected poor white people, sometimes rural, usually working class, working in non-union jobs or sometimes unemployed. These are people with many legitimate anxieties as well as many unfortunate cultural prejudices that the Republican establishment has been comfortable exploiting with the vague message that traditional, Christian (or, Judeo-Christian, depending on the community being courted), white culture was being threatened by an amorphous “them”.
A fuzzy but emotionally potent worldview was emerging that lazy, criminally inclined, disloyal, anti-American, sexually promiscuous and/or depraved outsiders were pouring into the country unchecked, committing crimes, escaping justice, getting free welfare money or affirmative-action jobs and trying to dilute the white race by forcibly intermingling with them.
A fuzzy but emotionally potent worldview was emerging—in part a remnant of the bygone segregation days, and in part renewed in the form of anxiety over rising immigration from new and unfamiliar cultures and growing demands from historically disadvantaged minorities—that lazy, criminally inclined, disloyal, anti-American, sexually promiscuous and/or depraved outsiders were pouring into the country unchecked, committing crimes, escaping justice, getting free welfare money or affirmative-action jobs and trying to dilute the white race by forcibly intermingling with them.
A lot of people were susceptible to one or more of these themes, which have become conflated and merged into an overarching anti-liberalism. The Republican machine has essentially preyed on these kinds of anxieties of this stoked these kinds of prejudices quite deliberately. Who is to blame for the decline of American values and prosperity and wholesomeness? The “liberal élites” who are privileged, highly educated and cosmopolitan—all of which was abstractly threatening. Of course, the conservative élites are equally privileged and educated and cosmopolitan, but they are playing a deep game. They talk a folksy talk. They invoke God, and church, and tradition and pretend to eschew globalism and call themselves “self-made” even if they are fifth generation millionaires, and talk about being from “small towns”, even though they grew up in exclusive neighbourhoods on the cape.
It is almost entirely a cynical exercise. These are prep-school and Ivy League turnouts, members of the American and global aristocracy, who have been harnessing the power of populist discontent to serve their own political purposes. They don’t care about “protecting the border” from migrant labour because they own the companies that profit from that labour. They don’t care about the decline (real or perceived) of America’s influence in the world; they themselves still belong to the global one percent. They have no problems with trade agreements that export jobs overseas; they are the factory owners setting up shop overseas to cut manufacturing costs. They have no interest in Bible-based morality and things like “creation science”, or offended by other people’s reproductive or sexual choices—they are among the best informed, most worldly and urbane people in the world. And yet, they are willing to fan the flames of intolerance as an electoral tactic.
It is almost entirely a cynical exercise. These are prep-school and Ivy League turnouts, members of the American and global aristocracy, who have been harnessing the power of populist discontent to serve their own political purposes.
The Republican machine didn’t stop at vilifying their enemies in substance; they turned up the rage quotient. That was a smart move, because when the substance you offer is an illusion, the emotional content must be intense. In this day of Trump’s ascendancy, the refined, patrician elders of the party can scramble for their smelling salts all they want, but they are the ones who have been developing, for the last quarter century, an underhanded messaging strategy—masterminded by the likes of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove—that has little regard for decency or civility or even the truth. Thanks to Republican support, media houses like Fox News and talking heads like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh have brought vitriolic diatribes and boorishness into the mainstream. It has not only become acceptable to be an unscrupulous bully; it is now something of a badge of honour. Speaking harshly and abusively about others—especially those who might be vulnerable in some way—is equated with “straight talk” or “freedom”, while choosing to show restraint or compassion is equated with weakness and “political correctness”.
In this climate, anything is fair game. You can conflate your gun rights agenda with a veiled threat against a political opponent by promising to explore your “Second Amendment remedies” (the Second Amendment of the US constitution guarantees the right to bear arms). The chilling statement was uttered by Sharron Angle, Republican candidate for Senate from Nevada. She lost, but it was a very close race. She got 45 percent of the vote against a 20-year incumbent, Harry Reid, who has the power of incumbency and almost universal name recognition. The fact that Reid is a Democrat means that the 45 percent who voted for Angle almost certainly constituted almost 100 percent of the Republicans who voted in that election.
The Republicans are outraged at Trump for deriding John McCain for having been captured during the Vietnam War. But in 2004, they lent support to an “independent” advocacy group who launched the notorious “Swift Boat” ad campaign against Democrat John Kerry, casting doubt on his record of military valour, based on allegations that later proved to be groundless.
The Republicans are outraged at Trump for deriding John McCain for having been captured during the Vietnam War. But in 2004, they lent support to an “independent” advocacy group who launched the notorious “Swift Boat” ad campaign against Democrat John Kerry, casting doubt on his record of military valour.
In this hostile new culture, you can casually court the racist vote by starting a rumour that the black candidate is a Muslim (and implying that that’s a dangerous religion) or that he is foreign-born; or by speaking in code about “security” and “terrorism” in a way that lets the listener know what you really mean is that you will put an end to the growing non-white menace that is diluting the national character.
The prominent Republican Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, expressed anxiety over Barack Obama’s fitness to serve as president because according to him, someone with Obama’s “Kenyan” background and experience would naturally be hostile to America’s “Western” values and history. Gingrich went so far as to speak contemptuously of Obama’s “anti-colonial” worldview and suggested (with no hint of irony) that such views would be “outside the comprehension of most Americans.”
In one fell swoop, he managed to insinuate that racial minorities are never going to be real Americans and that the history of western colonial domination of the rest of the world is not only something to approve of, but that disapproving of it is something unthinkable for any right-minded, patriotic American. When Justice Sonya Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court, she got a lot of press over some remarks she had once made about being a “wise Latina” with certain experiences that give her a unique perspective that perhaps is a valuable resource in understanding the circumstances of a case. This was seized on by Republicans as evidence that minority justices cannot be unbiased.
In this hostile new culture, you can casually court the racist vote by starting a rumour that the black candidate is a Muslim (and implying that that’s a dangerous religion) or that he is foreign-born; or by speaking in code about “security” and “terrorism”.
Then there is the Confederate heritage issue. (Quick history: the Confederate States of America comprised a group of southern states that seceded from the United States in the 1860s when Abraham Lincoln—well known for his anti-slavery views—was elected president, even though he had made a campaign promise that he would not support the abolition of slavery. The rebel states’ secession led to a four-year civil war, which ended when the rebels were defeated and subsequently reincorporated into the United States. During the war, Lincoln issued an executive proclamation emancipating the slaves within the rebel states. After the war, slavery was legally abolished throughout the United States by a constitutional amendment.) In the present day, many southern Republicans proudly display the Confederate flag celebrate various aspects of Confederate heritage. Whenever anyone criticises the displaying of this flag—quite literally a symbol of treason, not to mention a symbol of human slavery—Republicans accuse critics of denouncing the freedom of expression, regardless of whether the criticism is accompanied by calls to ban the flag.
There are also disturbing less symbolic, more concrete practices that have been established or rationalised with Republican support. Racial profiling in policing is widely endorsed by Republican politicians. Under the leadership of its Republican governor Jan Brewer, Arizona gave law enforcement broad powers to stop and detain anyone “reasonably suspected of being an illegal alien”, which, of course, is code for “looks Hispanic”. Trump’s rhetorical formulations having to do with “taking America back” and “making America great again” and “silent majority” have been used in close variations before, usually in vaguely white nationalist ways. Trump’s ardent supporters, like the Reform Party’s Pat Buchanan, who had once made a strong showing as Republican contender for presidential nomination, says pretty openly, that the white middle-American population “whose country this is” need to be protected from being culturally diluted. (Subtext: diluted by non-white people, whose country this is not.)
Meanwhile, racially motivated police brutality is hand-waved away with doublespeak about “reasonable fear” and “threatening behaviour.” To the dismay of many actual, church-going Christians, their faith has become a weapon in the current culture wars. Christian writer JD Vance wrote in The New York Times that politicisation of Christianity has been detrimental to the faith. He notes that instead of the religion and its practice informing the way the faithful behave in the social and political world, people are using the faith as an instrument for furthering their social and political activism, even as they are going to church less and less. Vance is concerned that “[a] Christianity constantly looking for political answers to moral and spiritual problems gives believers an excuse to blame other people when they should be looking in the mirror” and that “[paranoia] has replaced piety.”
This is the situation that the Republican Party has cultivated over the years. Writing for The Guardian, Adam Haslett observed about the Bush family, which is essentially Republican Royalty, that “the Bushes have long been aristocrats with knives in their pockets…this dynastic family embodies more than any other the transformation of the Republican Party from a coalition of north-eastern social liberals and economic élites to one of southern, religious conservatives and free market-extremists.” I would add that “religious conservatives” and “free-market extremists” have virtually zero common ground, and the only reason they are even in a coalition is that the “economic élites” of the party have made a manipulative and cynical pact with these other groups for no reason except the electoral math, since having lost the “north-eastern social liberals” to the Democrats. For the most part, the party leaders themselves have kept a certain degree of dignity about them, letting their surrogates in the media—the shock jocks—do their dirty work of aggressively provoking their political opponents, with mischaracterisation, deliberate falsehoods, and/or irrelevant personal insults based on their race, sex, or other perceived “otherness.”
Trump just took the next step and started doing the dirty work himself. He doesn’t need media surrogates; he already is a media personality. He is playing openly and with sincere gusto, the sinister game that the Republican aristocracy has been playing through proxies while holding their noses. Meanwhile, because of that long-running game, our culture has been so intensely and constantly exposed to shock jocks for so long that they don’t shock anymore. Instead, they impress and endear. Rush Limbaugh is a lot more popular than Mitt Romney ever was. Harshness is now equated with genuineness. I suppose a kneejerk suspicion of “political correctness” naturally leads to forgetting that civility can actually be sincere. Even more perversely, it leads to forgetting aggressive and insulting language can be used to tell lies.
Trump lies constantly, even about things that can be verified instantly, yet his reputation among his supporters is that he is “authentic” and that he “speaks his mind.” Even leaving aside that perhaps we should be alarmed and offended by what appears to be the content of his “mind”, it is fascinating that anyone still thinks he “means” anything he says. Once upon a time, people used to feign politeness or refinement to be liked. Now they have to feign nastiness. To quote Hudak once more, “now, a man who has always behaved in an aggressive, non-politically correct, blunt and outrageous way has found his home in a party that has lamented a president who is weak, a culture that is too PC, and a society that is more nanny state than self-reliant. The combination is one that Republicans look at, mouth agape and seemingly caught off guard. Yet, one has to look back with equal shock at how the party never saw this coming.”
Trump just took the next step and started doing the dirty work himself. He doesn’t need media surrogates; he already is a media personality. He is playing openly and with sincere gusto, the sinister game that the Republican aristocracy has been playing through proxies while holding their noses.
You might ask, why doesn’t the party just embrace him, if he is such a product of their making? That’s like asking why the nobility isn’t welcoming the hit-man into their society with open arms, since he is clearly a product of their long maintenance and use of hit-men to kill defeat their rivals. Still, they are trying, now that Trump is the presumptive nominee, to make their peace with him. He is one of their economic class, after all, though he is nouveau and crass and unsavory. He has business interests and international friends. He might not be so bad. But there is still fear. They are not sure he can be trusted. He has his own money. He isn’t beholden to anyone. He has no deep roots in the party (he has given money to both parties in the past and had endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2008). To use a feudal metaphor again, it’s one of those times when the established aristocracy must make a marriage-alliance with a lower, upstart house, newly risen to nobility, because they need the land and armies (or peasants) it brings along. They may have to do it, but they won’t like it.