There is only Trump.
The first piece I explicitly wrote about Donald Trump was nearly five years ago (feels more like 20 years ago). It was titled “Creating a Monster.” I argued that the rise of Donald Trump to win the nomination of the GOP was the natural evolution of where the party had been headed for decades and speculated about what might happen when the Trump moment was finally over. Like many other American political junkies, I have thought a lot about what comes next in the years that follow. Despite all the thoughts wasted on this exercise, I always come back to what I wrote in 2016:
Trump is not hijacking the Republican Party. Nor is he some perversion of the modern conservative movement. He is the logical conclusion to their mad science experiment. He is Trumpenstein, given life by the electric power of right-wing media, fed by the avarice of the establishment, and he has come to destroy his makers.
This came to pass. Trump was the logical conclusion of the devolution of the modern conservative movement. Trump shouts the quiet part out loud. He indulges the ID of white, evangelical Americans and their grievances. He stands on the shoulders of grifting giants, like Rush who preceded him, selling false hope, phony strength, and promoting a narrative about how liberals/minorities/RINOs/media/etc are responsible for everything bad that ever happens. He is the purest form of the drug Fox News and the GOP have been peddling to their base for fifty years. There is no going back to the soft stuff once you’ve got them hooked on pure, uncut Trumpism.
That has always been part of the problem with how I looked at Trump. I thought of him as filling the demand that a steady stream of grifters before him had created a market to fill. Put simply, I misidentified the cause and effect.
As I wrote then:
As Trumpenstien rose, the Republicans did nothing. How could they? They have become so dependent on this nonsense that they lack a coherent alternative. Even now, the remaining GOP candidates have failed to develop any substantive argument that undermines Trump and restores a measure of sanity to their race. He is out of the dungeon and wrecking the village. And many of the townspeople are cheering him on. What the horrified members of the conservative establishment do next may well define politics for the next generation. Will they double-down, support Trump, and continue this madness? Mount a third-party challenge that hands the election to the Democrats, beginning an internal battle that might result in a generation or more of liberal rule? Or might they hold their noses and vote Democrat, potentially altering that coalition and sparking off substantial reorganization of the parties as we know them?
With any luck, we will rejoice, like the people of Geneva,to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of this ugly enterprise. Even should he take the GOP, there is still hope– indeed a great likelihood– that the general population will take up the torches and pitchforks to run him into the sea. Trumpenstien will be washed away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance, the only question is if the GOP will be lost with him.
It took four years and another election but it did finally come to pass. Trump has been defeated, driven from office by a coalition of progressives, moderate liberals, and Republicans (many of them now former) who rejected the norm breaking, cynicism, lies, and anti-democratic nature of the Trump presidency. Washed away? Not at all. The GOP is going with Trump where ever he goes next. It isn’t because Trump is some masterful conman– he’s pretty second rate to be honest about it. It is because Trump is simply doing what his base wants. And now that the base has been heard it will not tolerate going back to the fringes of the party.
It’s not like historians, political scientists, and pundits have missed the myriad of ways the GOP base has primed the pump for this moment. The racism, the evangelical movements conflation of their religious movement with political power through the vessel of the GOP, the wedge issues (guns and abortion)– none of that was unknown. In some cases too much credit has been given to top down forces, as though they manipulated the base into wanting these things. In part, this is why Trump’s victory so shocked his critics. We underestimated what was really driving his voters. I thought the towns people were simply cheering for the sheer horror of his actions. They were cheering because he is exactly what they have always wanted.
From the New York Times infamous “diner interviews” to insipid works like “Hillbilly Eulogy,” folks on the left and right grasped for an explanation for Trump’s support that didn’t focus on what he did that his voters liked. After all, his platform was a massive departure from the modern conservative movement, his character the opposite of what the GOP has upheld as the model (and worse, an almost cartoonish version of the man they impeached and still loathe, William Jefferson Clinton). It was grotesque in its open racism and Islamophobia. It was inherently unchristian, from Trump’s mocking tone to and vengeful message. Our fellow citizens– especially conservatives– couldn’t really be supporting this. It had to be something bigger. It must be economic anxiety from the left behind Midwest! It wasn’t. It’s white people raging at the nadir of their power! Some of them are, to be sure, but this was still not right.
The answer was in front of us the whole time. It is deeply embarrassing that we have avoided speaking this truth: What drove voters to embrace Donald Trump was that the vast majority of them wanted the things GOP politicians had promised them– explicitly and implicitly– for decades. They don’t want to play politics with abortion– they wanted it completely banned. They don’t want to entertain any amount of gun control or tax increases. They do not want to live and let live with LGTBQ people– they want gay marriage overturned and for their religious views on marriage to be the law of the land. They do not care one iota about government deficit spending in the abstract. They have no commitment to legal “originalism”– you can see it in how they responded to each defeat Trump has suffered at the hands of a hard-right Supreme Court over the last four years. They do not care about freedom of religion– they want their brand of Christianity to dominate our laws and culture. They want the policies their in-groups in the coalition have been promised and they do not particularly care how they get them. Trump “fights” for the stuff they want. They do not care if those things have no ideological consistency. They do not care if those things are legal or even possible. They want them and they want their party to “fight” to do it.
Don’t take my word for it. You can look at almost anything published by the Sohrab Ahmari types on the pro-Trump right over the last four years. “He fights” is explicitly why they oppose the “David Frenchism” of the pre-Trump GOP. They don’t care about democracy. They hate it. The democratic process didn’t work for them. They won all these elections the establishment promised them would deliver the goods and walked away without the sweeping changes they sought. To hell with democracy. They worship power and will accept nothing else.
Where do we go now that the monster has been defeated, but we realize he was simply a symptom of the greater disease?
NeverTrumpers, Republican Voters Against Trump, and other groups of disaffected or former Republicans have been indulging themselves in the fantasy that the GOP could be saved once the Trump fever broke. We’ll make a short to medium term deal with the Democrats to stamp out Trumpism and then we can retake the party. They had it all wrong. Trump’s election was the fever breaking on the Reaganism that had infected the movement. As far as the GOP base is concerned, the David Frums and Bill Kristols of the world were the problem with Republican politics. There is no going back.
Liberals likewise lived in delusion. Hopes that Trump would so seriously damage the GOP that Democrats could waltz into power and enact sweeping change were wildly optimistic– a lesson the Democratic base learned just in time to nominate Joe Biden. Then a second delusion took hold similar to the one the NeverTrumpers held: that the cooperation between NeverTrumpers and Democrats could be a short term, one-off thing. We’ll vanquish Trump together and then we can expel these conservative interlopers. Whether the NeverTrumpers could retake the GOP or not was immaterial. Indeed, many hoped they wouldn’t, believing erroneously that a Trumpified GOP was somehow weaker than the neo-con Reagan-Bush era party they’d spent so much of their adult lives opposing. They are wrong. The unleashed GOP is a much stronger and more dangerous party than even the most fatalistic progressive on Twitter could have ever imagined the neo-cons to be.
The truth is this realignment is a long time coming. Prior to 2020, the American political party system had undergone six realignment moments. Typically, they happened every 30-40 years, with one party achieving political dominance and the other dissolving to be reformed under a different brand, reshaped coalitions, and a new centralizing message. It typically happened as a response to the actions of the prior generation, the shifting challenges of their day, and the recruitment of new groups to the coalition (often at the expense of a less powerful group already in the coalition who then is recruited or flees to the other side). The last of these realignments happened in the 1960s, as a result of the Democrats support for Civil Rights (reversing their decades of alliance with the Dixiecrats and their Jim Crow system) and Nixon’s GOP cynically pandering to the disaffected Dixiecrats and white supremacists.
The Reagan administration was the zenith of power for the modern conservative movement, but it’s lasting legacies illustrate how the Taftist establishment types had come to dominate the party. Sure, they paid lip service to the populists, evangelicals, and racists (a Venn diagram that almost perfectly resembles a circle), but the policies were pure establishment. Tax cuts. Trickle down economics. Military spending. Muscular foreign policy. Expansive State department. The modern conservative movement in practice looked little different than the previous party that had discredited itself during the Great Depression and the moderate Democrats it opposed. The George W. Bush administration was the moment of crisis and collapse for the sixth alignment. Bush proposed an aggressive agenda of reform in education (reforms now despised on the right) and draped the party in the flag of conservative Christendom, but left office utterly discredited by both the left and right. Mired in unending wars and presiding over an economic collapse, few rallied around the standard of Compassionate Conservatism he had promoted after 2007. Bush killed Reaganism. John McCain, an outsider who made his reputation rebelling against his own party in key moments and Sarah Palin, an unqualified representative of the renewed populist strain of the party, won the nomination to follow him and lost soundly to a little known Senator from Illinois. The GOP tried to go back to the establishment well in 2012, nominating Mitt Romney. His loss caused serious soul searching by the party elders. They saw their coalition shrinking and made the case that Republicans had to drop white identity politics and reverse the Southern Strategy of Nixon if they wanted to compete while maintaining the economic and foreign policy positions they had promoted for the last forty years. Their base had other ideas.
If the last several election cycles have shown us anything it is that the number of “establishment” true believers in the base of the GOP was always pretty small. They were able to hold together the disparate groups in the GOP for a generation with cynical dog whistles and culture war distractions, but eventually the base was going to start asking why even when they had complete control over the government why nothing was ever done to deliver the policies they demanded. I think most of the disaffected Republicans really believed in small government, limited spending, lower tax rates, and the like. The problem is, the base never really cared much about most of that. They wanted the total victories their party and media apparatus were promising. They didn’t oppose free stuff– they opposed free stuff for other people. Free trade went from being a bedrock of the GOP economic policy to a dirty phrase associated with anti-Semitic rhetoric about globalists. Forget using tax cuts to force spending cuts– just cut taxes and spend away! More than anything, the base wants to impose their will before the internal enemies of America destroy it once and for all. All that stuff you were winking at they took seriously.
For the NeverTrumpers, there is no going home. And moderate Democrats have a choice– build a lasting coalition out of the Biden campaign or go all in on the populism of the left. It is not hard to see where this is going next.
Realignment is upon us. The seventh system won’t be between the remnants of the New Deal democrats and Civil Rights activists against a Libertarian, neo-con, or a “non-racist” version of zombie Reaganism. This Trumpist party is not going away and there is no viable path for a third party. The NeverTrumpers have two choices. The first is to continue down the 2020 path and join the Democratic party. They can align with moderate Dems and govern from the center. Or they can choose to die. There is no country for RINOs. And to be a Republican in more than name only now means fulfilling the dreams of maniacs and subverting democracy. Time to drop the label and move on.
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