I remember almost ten years ago, the normally sagacious Economist commented on the looming 2008 race. “The smart money is on Hillary,” they declared, remarking sarcastically on the “icy” small talk among Hillary’s lady friends at a tony fundraiser, and warning that an outbreak of Bill’s horn-dog behavior could still upset the Clintons’ especially well-constructed apple cart.
[Editor’s note: we thought about going with “eruption” instead of “outbreak,” but decided that either one is queasily connotative when used in the context of William Jefferson Clinton, so… fuck it.]
Of course, the good journalists and editors at the Economist could not see the unlikely figure of Barack Hussein Obama coming. Most people didn’t.
Similarly, the Republican establishment could not truly foresee the gale force onslaught of Donald Trump. For more than a year, GOP elites have been struggling to figure out what to make of one Donald Russell Jason Barry Bob Trump Jr. At first, most assumed his campaign was just a stunt, a play for publicity by a canny media operator. I was among this group, admittedly—surely he would drop out, having had his fun, I thought, before he was required by the Federal Elections Commission to make certain financial disclosures in July of last year.
He kept going.
He polled ahead of all his rivals from early on, and journalists, pundits, and scholars alike made up narratives to explain why he couldn’t win, didn’t want to win, would eventually pop like a punctured balloon.
Fast forward to the days of Spring and Summer, when it became clear that Trump would be the GOP nominee. The conservative stalwarts at National Review and Weekly Standard averred that he was not a conservative; indeed, he had utterly betrayed a proud intellectual tradition of conservatism. Leading commentators like David Brooks or Michael Gerson had been uneasy with the blustering boor from early on. Clearly, Trump was an abrupt and incomprehensible departure from GOP orthodoxy.
But was he? Was he really a “barbaric yawp” of anger from the heartland—as Peggy Noonan said of the Tea Party long ago (albeit approvingly)? Had eight years of Obamaism, a still underwhelming economy, demographic change, or some combination of these factors driven the base that hooted and hollered at Trump rallies… basically insane?
I think not. It might be a tired allusion, but the GOP has the aspect of a Captain Renault barging in during a raid, sputtering that he can’t believe there’s gambling going on here. Sure, conservatism for the last 70 years has just been a lot of nerds who can’t get laid, up late with their flashlights, reading Hayek in the hopes of bettering the lot of the people through traditional morality and free-market economics. The Bill Kristols and Mitch McConnells and Georges Bush of the world are as pure as the freshly fallen snow.
Is this all new? The strongest argument that Trump is a new phenomenon lies in his stance on trade, which genuinely does depart from years of GOP orthodoxy about the virtues of free markets. After all, making bogus and impossible-to-enact promises about trade deals was supposed to be the Democrats’ thing. (Remember both Clinton and Obama saying they would renegotiate NAFTA back in 2008, knowing full well that no such thing would ever happen?)
Apart from trade, what is new here? His tone may be coarse and even vulgar, though that is not entirely unprecedented either. Was it not unseemly in the past for Republicans to dismiss San Francisco as a delirious hothouse of interracial, gay disco dancers; to say that there were legitimate and illegitimate rapes; to imply that a black Democratic candidate lusted after white women of dubious character; or to tell voters that their wives and children would be raped by black predators if the other guy won? Oh, Civility – you capricious sprite!
Again, I can’t believe there’s gambling going on here.
The maverick Trump also offers economic proposals that are right out of the GOP playbook: big tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, and a rollback of social welfare programs. Admittedly, Trump has voiced unusually robust support for maintaining Social Security and Medicare “as is.” But he is a standard Republican when he calls for an end to Obamacare, which happens to be the biggest expansion of social welfare spending in the United States since 1965.
Indeed, Trump’s hostility toward expanding health insurance to those who need it does not bode well for what he would actually do to Social Security and Medicare, especially if he had a unified Republican Congress leading him by the nose.
Last but not least, Trump has coalesced and coagulated all the ugliest impulses that the GOP has raised, trained, and let loose over the last eight years, if not longer. His whining about a “rigged election” is in part about fears that people of color, especially in cities, will vote against him—a thinly disguised argument for further disenfranchisement, which Republicans have pursued with glee throughout the country since taking control of state governments during Obama’s presidency. (Republicans have been up to this a long time—a young William Rehnquist was helping “monitor” minority voters in Phoenix in the early 1960s. Voter suppression “is in the GOP’s DNA,” as the Intercept recently put it.)
Pretending to care about voter fraud, Republican officials have made it harder for people to register and vote, taking advantage of a ruling by a conservative Supreme Court that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The poor, elderly, and minorities are those most affected by stringent rules requiring birth certificates and other, multiple forms of ID to register to vote—to say nothing of arbitrary purges of the voter rolls in states such as Florida.
Some Republicans have openly admitted that the intention is to ensure that Democratic-leaning groups are less likely to turn out, but most hide behind an innocent concern about the integrity of the electoral process. Trump’s thundering denunciations of corruption and voter fraud are just those same old arguments amped up on a particularly virulent Rogaine and Viagra cocktail.
One could say that the voter-disenfranchisement craze is just a nervous tic of the Palin/Trump/Tea Party era of conservatism, a departure from a soberer and more responsible past. The argument does not hold water. Republicans have been demonizing people of color for electoral advantage for decades, from Nixon’s coded appeals to “law and order” in the late 1960s to George Bush Sr.’s parading of Willie Horton in the 1980s to Fox News stoking fears of the New Black Panthers in the 2008 election. The vote-rigging allegation is just the latest salvo from people who think that minorities voting is a threat to the Republic, to those who think the same.
Beyond that, Trump has simply appealed to an authoritarian personality that has coursed through conservative politics since time immemorial. (Corey Robin has written extensively on this subject.) It’s no surprise that he borrowed Nixon’s rhetoric of “law and order.” He’s the tough new sheriff in town who will crack some skulls and straighten things out—much as Gov. Ronald Reagan promised in California during the tumultuous late 1960s. He’ll “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. He’ll keep you safe from Mexican rapists. He’ll put this uppity bitch—I’m sorry, “nasty woman”—in her place.
This is not new, no matter how much GOP elites try to clutch for their smellin’ salts. Republicans have spent years demonizing African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants and foreigners in general, gays and lesbians, trans people, and countless other groups for decades.
As Patti Smith once said, in a very different context, “We created it—let’s take it over!” That’s what the GOP base and Tea Party officials and Trump have done in 2016. It’s far too late for denials of responsibility and avowals of innocence. The conservative movement created this beast—or, more precisely, the beast believes it has created the contemporary GOP. Now it has taken over.
This post is part of our roundtable series about the meaning of Trump. The initial post can be found here, with opening remarks from Adam Gallagher. You can also feast on more of ToM’s tip-top, classic coverage of elections and politics here.
- Adam Gallagher, “Is Trump Sui Generis?”
- Alex Cummings, “There Is a There There: Trump Is Hardly Sui Generis”
- Gary Gristle, “Reckoning Trump through a Didion Lens”
- H. Robert Baker, “Trump doth bestride the world…”
- Timothy Lombardo, “New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism”
- Casey Baskin, “Sorry, Folks, But Trump Really Is Different”