After almost six years of campaigning and presidency, suddenly Donald Trump is being denounced by both the political and media mainstreams as an aberration within America’s political process. This tsunami of opinion was triggered not by his refusal to promise, in his debates against first Hillary Clinton and then Joe Biden, to accept the election results, but by his last-ditch rallying cry to his hard-core supporters, which now puts some Republicans whose allegiance to Trump had wavered, to repudiate their support of someone they perceive as likely to drag their party down with him for an election cycle to come. It also provided an escape-hatch for what America calls “centrist” media pundits to distance themselves from their previous enabling of Trump, whom they treated as legitimate even as his actions flouted democratic legitimacy, by wrapping themselves in the ‘sanctity’ of American democracy.
Despite its convenience, positioning Trump as a political outlier ignores reality. After his loss to Joe Biden, his presidency seems to be crashing on a late questioning of his ‘character’, but character is a bullfighter’s cape distracting the herd’s attention from more systemic issues. Trump is far from being an exception, even if you believe exceptions prove rules. Remember, it was only in 2008 that John McCain chose Sarah ‘Going Rogue’ Palin as his choice to stand a heartbeat away from the Presidency. Trump is by no stretch of anyone’s imagination an outlier for the modern Republican party: he is more its distilled 100 proof essence. And the roots of his at least temporary success can be traced to America’s postwar transition from the gray flannel Fifties to what we now call The Sixties.
Politically, Trump is the reductio ad absurdam of a half-century’s decline in America’s relative political balance. Yes, parts of Trump’s personal history and quirks of his performance are unusual for a candidate for the nation’s highest office. But his presidency represents the ultimate convergence of two realignments in American politics which have taken more than fifty years to manifest fully. The Republican party has been devolving, and the resolution of its realignment process is Trump.
The internal conflict among Republicans lay between what the late Carl Oglesby described as the ‘Yankees’ and the ‘Cowboys’. Yankees represented old Eastern aristocracy and money, their Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers. They founded the party before the Civil War, partly through a noblesse oblige desire to end slavery. Their ranks were joined by 19th century robber barons whose wealth gained them respectability and who adopted some of that noblesse oblige. The Yankees tended to be internationalists, though in the traditional sense of diplomacy as well as power.
The Cowboys represented new money: independent Texas oilmen, aerospace and defense contractors, gigantic retailers, the rising power of the Far West. They offered little noblesse and zero oblige, and advocated American exceptionalism, driven by powerful force, a ping-ponging between borderline isolationism and military expansionism if America’s dominant interests so dictated. They included groups like the John Birch Society, funded by the Coors brewing fortune; right-wingers who considered Dwight Eisenhower a communist and Earl Warren as something to Ike’s far left.
In 1964, their standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater of Arizona (‘extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice’) won the Republican presidential nomination. He was trounced in the election by Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, with the country divided over the Vietnam War, the Yankee-backed but Cowboy acceptable Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford regained power. By 1980, the Cowboys had found a more presentable spokesman, and the Iran crisis (and high gas prices) made Democrat Jimmy Carter an easy target. Former television host Ronald Reagan, a huckster you would buy a used car from, defeated Carter by running against the Washington establishment. Does that sound familiar? It’s what Trump called “the swamp” The Yankees thought they could moderate Reagan with George W Bush, son of a Yankee investment banker but turned Texas oilman Cowboy, as his vice-president. But since then, opposition to ‘government’ has become the Republicans’ default position. Career politicians run against ‘Washington insiders’, in pantomime rebellion against the very interests who bankroll them into office and whose needs they service.
Running against “government” provides Republicans with unlimited outs. In the Nineties they hounded Bill Clinton to impeachment over a consensual sex-act, while Newt Gingrich shut the government down rather than authorise Clinton’s government’s spending. When Mitch McConnell refused to let the Senate even consider President Obama’s nomination for the Supreme Court during an election year his party stood firm; the liberals’ darling McCain said if Hilary Clinton won the election a Republican Senate would refuse to accept anyone nominated by Hillary Clinton. Four years later McConnell and his lap dog Lindsay Graham reversed positions to ram Amy Barrett through the Senate and onto the court: when you profess demonization of government, you provide yourself with ample cover to trample the norms of the behaviour upon which democratic government depends.
The second realignment came within the Democratic party, which, at the time Johnson beat Goldwater, was an uneasy alliance of bi-coastal “liberals” and northern, unionized, working class, in alliance alongside the so-called Dixiecrats. Dixiecrats represented the ‘solid South’ which for a century had refused to vote Republican for the simple reason Abraham Lincoln had won the Civil War and freed the slaves. They were conservatives committed to segregation in the guise of ‘states’ rights’; many were also committed born-again Christians.
It was also in 1964 Johnson enacted the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1965 he pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress and as he signed that bill he remarked presciently ‘there goes the South’. Four years later Richard Nixon introduced his ‘southern strategy’ to the Republicans, and by 1980 those former Dixiecratss had moved to the Republicans. When Reagan defeated Carter, the only southern state Carter captured was his own Georgia; fifty years later the South has again proven stubbornly solid, but now depending on massive voter suppression to fight the demographic inevitability of a changing, less-white, electorate.
When right and left were mixed between two parties, the art of compromise was the essence of politics. But now all of the hard right was in one party, soon joined by the staunchly conservative evangelical Christians, and these radical, religious and racist Republicans shared a commitment to ideological purity. Within the party they exerted extreme pressure on ‘moderates’ to tack firmly to the right or face challenges, funded by unlimited money from backers like the Koch brothers, in the primaries. Mere cooperation with the Democratic party became anathema.
Into this maelstrom, Trump’s advantage over his 16 opponents in the 2016 primaries was his very lack of a political ‘paper trail’; he replaced positions with personality and with not-so-subtle dog whistles aimed at “states’ rights” as well as “right to life”, reversing his own publicly held position on abortion. Polls before the first primaries showed that although he commanded less than 30% support, none of the other candidates ran ahead of him one on one. A party united only in its opposition to government failed to offer from within any leader attractive to its hardest core, leaving a vacuum for a would-be demagogue to fill. Once he won the nomination, his campaign attacked blacks and Latinos, and a thrice-married and self-confessed Lothario accused of numerous sexual assaults somehow convinced religious leaders like Pat Robertson to channel messages of support from God to him.
Trump benefited from one last evolution of politics since the Sixties. In 1960 a televised debate helped propel John Kennedy to victory over Richard Nixon. In 1964 a TV commercial broadcast only once, showing a little girl picking flowers before being obliterated by an nuclear bomb, killed the Goldwater campaign. Fifty years later Trump realised shrewdly that modern American electioneering is exactly the kind of ‘reality’ television in which he had been a star for the past decade, playing a poor person’s idea of a billionaire. In a system dependent on hundreds of millions of dollars to fund TV ads, Trump’s celebrity and outlandish behaviour guaranteed him a fortune’s worth of free exposure, as the 24-hour news channels shamelessly covered his every rally start to finish and watched their ratings climb. As one network chief said, ‘he’s horrible for America, but he’s great for us’. This proved a boon until the focus narrowed into a head to head battle, and the spotlight began to show Nixonian sweat beneath the makeup; Trump dominated the debates with Clinton by marching around the stage like one of Jerry Springer’s bouncers; against Biden, constrained by the corona virus, he was limited and ineffective, and indeed dodged a repeat on his first negative performance.
As Trump’s legal team, led by an increasingly unhinged Rudy Giuliani, loses challenges to the vote in state and federal courts, the strategy seems to be to find just one of their denied motions which they can appeal to the Supreme Court, which they still believe is stacked in their favour. Assuming a Trump loss, what happens next? In 2016 many saw Trump’s campaign as a jumping off point for a move toward his own television news channel, fuelled by his Manichean view of ‘the establishment’. He has been increasingly critical of his former staunch allies at Fox News; even Sean Hannity, the Fox star who has been Trump’s broadcast Sancho Panza throughout his campaigns, seems faltering. But with his own, further right, Trump News Network, Trump could declare for the 2024 election and aim at making himself an American Silvio Berlusconi, complete with bunga-bunga and an overturning on term limits.
For a Republican party facing four years of fighting a rear-guard action in Washington, Trump TV’s appeal to their hardest core by questioning the very legitimacy of government could be a fatally divisive wedge. The Republican Party ia so committed to the agenda Trump has championed that finding any other leader who could both pull voters who refused to support Trump back to the party, while somehow holding firm his hard core supporters who believe that Trump’s remains the Republicans’ real message. It is a message that implicitly recognises that their right-wing, white supremacist, Christian values of guns and abortion, is a minority position in the United States, and thus, as even Trump admitted during the campaign, knows that if they make voting too easy for everyone, the Republicans lose. So any loss must the result of rule-breaking that allows those unfit to vote to actually cast their ballots.
It is a commonplace to note that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight American elections. It is less common to recall their electoral methods: the re-count stopped in 2000 Florida by the “Brooks Brothers Riot”, where Republican congressional staffers stormed the election centre; the massive voter disenfranchisement, featuring “Project Crosscheck”; the manipulation of electronic voting machines hooked by modem to partisan companies in other states. The same demographic anomaly which kept the South over-represented in Congress from the start of the Republic, originally devised to protect slavery, continues to this day as the Senate becomes the consistent voice of minority government, and its imbalance in the electoral college provides an avenue for minority rule.
In fact, minority rule demands authoritarianism in order to succeed. Perhaps winning the next election would require the Republicans to find another candidate as comforting as Ronald Reagan, but as committed as Trump to their 80-year agenda of reaction, and the authoritarian means necessary to achieve it, someone perhaps a better actor than the Massapequa Mussolini.
Note: this is an updating of an article, with the same title, which I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement in October 2016, just before Trump became president. The basic thesis remains, but I have made a few new points to adjust to four years, another campaign, and the current disputed election. I also adjusted a couple of predictions which didn’t manifest themselves fully.