The Decline of the Republican Party
Yesterday evening I attended a wedding. There is nothing more inspiring than seeing young people, handsome young men and beautiful young women, marry and set off to turn a cohort into a new generation. However, these days one cannot go out into the public without encountering the effects of the shock waves that have been sent through the body politic, not only in America but around the world. It is as if Italy’s massive new earthquake had encircled the globe. Whether in the hospital attending my wife and listening to the visitors talking with the patient in the next bed, or engaging in conversation last evening with two well-off businessmen – one had traveled all the way from Oregon to attend the wedding – the spectre of Donald Trump filled the air.
Preoccupation with Donald Trump pours out into the conversation unbidden. What does it mean? What does it portend for America and for the world, even if Donald Trump loses after his last spurt to close the gap? It seems that few expect Donald Trump to fade from the scene quietly even if he loses. The only consolation – I am not the only one obsessed.
Donald Trump has often been portrayed as an outlier to the Republican Party, at odds with its essential nature, principles and many, if not most, of its policies. Donald Trump from Queens has painted a self-portrait of the self-made billionaire taking on the billionaire governing class from Wall Street, the ordinary self-made man from the Bronx, Brooklyn or Queens coming forth as a cast off from the ruling hierarchy to lead his dispossessed followers like Moses towards the promised land. In fact, Donald Trump is the logical extension of the way those principles have evolved and have been expressed in most of the recent policies proposed by the GOP as the essence of what used to be its nature has been hollowed out to contribute to a darker, meaner, stressed out and grumpier America.
Begin with immigration, the initial headline issue with which Donald Trump launched his pursuit of the presidency – build a wall, deport all the illegals, Mexicans are rapists, refugees are security threats, the intake of Muslim refugees should be stopped “until we know what we are doing.” No queue jumping. No amnesties. Immigration law has to be enforced to ensure that anyone who wants to come to America waits in line until he or she is adequately vetted and selected. Fear of the invader – Mexicans and Central Americans, terrorists from the Middle East (even though the vast majority have been home-grown radicalized youth) – is married to the sense that neither the legal system nor borders have been up to the task of securing Americans (or Hungarians or Poles or Frenchmen or Brits). Ignore the reality that 25% of America’s core rite of baseball now has 25% of its players with Hispanic backgrounds. Instead, attend to the important shift in the body politic as the proportion of whites in the population is steadily reduced.
But have the Republican Party principles and policies been any different, at least in the basics? The first principle of the Republican Party platform has been that the RP “believes in immigration laws.” The fundamental criterion for any policy is not American economic self-interest but national security, though the immigration program should fundamentally be a skills-based program for selection and a temporary visa program for the unskilled. The RP advocated putting more resources into keeping people out who have not been granted legal admission to the U.S. Otherwise, they contended, the law is a farce. Amnesties only encourage a future wave of new illegals. And large numbers of illegals on American soil (estimated at 11,000,000), they insisted, place unfair demands on the American social security system. All this is stated as a given truth in spite of the data showing that illegals contribute far more to the system than they extract from it. Nevertheless, the focus is on the need to expand enforcement, the use of a Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlement (SAVE) program and the creation of a biometric data tracking system akin to the one already in place at airports.
Recall that House Leader John Boehner lost his position largely because, in his immigration reforms, he was considered too soft, including even those of his proposals that emphasized border security as the prime criterion. His plan denied any path to citizenship for anyone who had arrived on American soil illegally.
Donald Trump differed in only details – the wall should be higher and stronger. The Mexicans will pay for it. At heart, it was the same hardline Republican Party doctrine on immigration, but blasted out at many decibels higher as a boast rather than an obvious backhanded trick. Further, while the Boehner platform offered no path to citizenship for illegals, he threw them a bone – which drove his more puritanical Republicans in the House crazy, let alone The Donald himself. No legal path to citizenship, except if “they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).” On the other hand, Boehner’s plan was even more radical in some ways than ones proposed by other more radical Republican members of the House. For he would repeal the opportunity allowed for an immigrant to sponsor his wife and children.
The evidential irrationality, the huge barriers to implementation, the enormous costs undercutting any self-interest and the inhumanity of the policy proposals that would send the parents of American citizens back to their country of origin, suggests a far deeper motive that had nothing to do with the importance of upholding the rule of law. This was nativism writ large, the flip side of the undercurrent of racism and of birtherism that has haunted the Republican Party and made every day seem like Halloween.
In economic policy, the Republicans have been the clearest and most puritanical supporters of lower taxes, reduced guarantees for social security (citizens should be incentivized to provide for their own social security, social and medical benefits), minimal government, and offering the most unregulated environment for the expression of capitalism, including increased regulation for and restrictions on labour unions. Who better to choose to represent the party than a billionaire who has evidently paid no personal income taxes for eighteen years? Republicans support fewer taxes on even the rich who are esteemed as the engines of economic growth. Republicans oppose the Democratic Party proposals to institute a $15 minimum wage. Republicans certainly oppose the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. Many in the past opposed Medicaid and Social Security. On all these economic policies, Donald agrees with the economic policies of his party.
There is one exception. The Republican Party has consistently promoted free trade agreements. The Donald has pointed to free trade as the cause of the decimation in the rust belt and characterized NAFTA as “a disaster.” “It’s the worst agreement ever signed” – though that is also how he described the Iranian nuclear deal, but, of course, for Donald Trump, there is no contradiction in declaring a large variety of arrangements as “the worst” Speaking of NAFTA, Trump promised, “We will either renegotiate it, or we will break it. Because, you know, every agreement has an end. … Every agreement has to be fair. Every agreement has a defraud clause. We’re being defrauded by all these countries.” With one stroke, Trump upended a Republican long-standing trade policy and wedded his proposal to conspiracy theorists.
More importantly, Trump had followed a long historical precedent going back to Napoleon III of appealing to those tossed aside or whose security has been reduced by the latest revolution in capitalism, what Karl Marx called the lumpen proletariat. Instead of the Hispanics, Blacks, women and gays that National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus had proposed to appeal to in his March 2013 reform recommendations for the Republican Party that recommended immigration reform and policies directed at the inclusion of minorities, Trump went in the opposite direction and appealed to white males who felt their roles had been undermined by a combination of benefits offered to minorities and opportunities transferred to foreign workers. The hollowing out of America’s industrial core, the thinning out of the middle class and the huge increase in the fat cats versus the working poor, the emergence of the new dot com economy and the financializing of corporate America, the resulting dislocation and insecurities reinforced by a weak social security system, produced an earthquake in which the optimism of the American creed came tumbling down in the face of the new Joshua and his populist trumpet blasts.
In doing so, Trump had collected a base that could offer the Republicans a majority foundation just as they had discovered fifty years earlier in the turn to take the old South away from the Democrats. Count the numbers of social conservatives concerned, for example, with abortion and embryonic stem cell research (12%), but who are disproportionately politically engaged (19%), almost offsetting an equal-sized committed liberal population (15% who would never support the Republican Party and are even more politically engaged (21%). Add to that core economic conservatives (10%), also disproportionately very engaged politically (17%). Add the two groups together and this is where you find Trump’s core support of 36% with some disaffection from economic conservatives upset by Trump’s crass populism and his rejection of free trade.
These losses, however, were more than offset by an appeal to the previously politically disaffected financially stressed members of the population who had been left behind by the economic changes underway. If this 13% of the population could be motivated to participate in politics at much higher rates than their traditional reluctance, Trump will have provided the GOP with a third strong leg and built a new and powerful foundation for its future. To retain the religious right, he opportunistically stressed conservative social values, though he was unable to sweep up large numbers of young voters sceptical of big government but liberal on social issues – Sanders supporters. Nevertheless, he had identified a potentially winning combination. For the latter group of Democratic dissenters forced Hillary initially to equivocate and subsequently support the TPP and TIP treaties only if specific modifications are made. These compromises and blandishments are unlikely to mollify the critics on her left while reinforcing the stature of Donald Trump’s unequivocal renunciation of free trade.
The Democrats, in contrast to Trump, relied on a mixture of die-hard liberals (the 21% mentioned above), minorities (12% of voting activists even though they were 14% of the population), and the new millennial left (11% of activists even though 12% of the population) giving the Democrats a 44% base of support, but one which was vulnerable if enthusiasm to vote for “crooked Hillary” were to be suppressed. This became a major goal of the Trump political campaign. Sweep the lumpen proletariat into the party and reduce the turnout for the Democrats by undermining the enthusiasm of the body politic for his opponent. If Trump has a ceiling above which he cannot rise, then lower Hillary’s floor. Get a higher percentage of the population who actually vote to support the Republican candidate. As Nathan Silver has warned, polls that fail to take this enthusiasm factor into account could well be incorrect. The “crooked Hillary” campaign targets the turnout factor for the Democrats while raising the enthusiasm of his own base which does not need any further convincing. His supporters recite the mantra like automatons while Trump runs a do-not-vote campaign targeting voters leaning towards voting for Hillary. You may hate and distrust me, but Hillary is worse.
Then there are the undecided or those who rarely vote. It becomes clear that the goal of each side is threefold: 1) peal away some supporters from the other side; 2) suppress the enthusiasm factor in the opposing camp to decrease the turnout rate of those inclined to support that side’s candidate, and 3) prevent too much slippage to minor party candidates. (For a breakdown in the factions of the American population supporting different candidates with the enthusiasm factor taken into account, but not the slippage element, see “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology, 26 June 2014 published by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press – http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/26/the-political-typology-beyond-red-vs-blue/)
The anti- or pro-immigration bias and the scepticism for or stress on minority rights had already been built-in on each side. “Extremism” on any of these positions might suppress enthusiasm on one side or the other, but the offset would be a boost in one’s own side’s enthusiasm factor. Clearly, we were dealing with a high-risk candidate on one side and a cautious, calculating candidate on the other side. The objective factors mattered far less than how they were perceived. Is it any wonder that substantive issues played such a small part in the debates and the election? Is it any surprise that not one question in the debates addressed the most important issue of our time – human induced climate change?
Take NAFTA. It may not have worked out nearly as well as its architects planned, creating fewer net new jobs than envisioned. But the techies and the skilled who saw their job options increase would not feel as emotional about the new economy as those distressed poorer less educated voters among the 350,000 and 750,000 directly impacted, along with the sales and service personnel that supported them. They fell by the wayside and lost jobs or moved to lower-paying ones. If the latter were combined with resentful whites and religious minorities (as long as one pandered to the social values of the latter), it can be seen that Trump had forged a potentially winning coalition, even though it would be one coming with a handicap. Thus, although the actual impact of the trade agreements and the openness to free trade had been relatively positive, though also considerably smaller than anticipated, the new targeted population became the victims of the relatively modest positive impacts of free trade. Thus, the real potential of an anti-free trade and anti-immigrant posture, whether in the U.S. or in the advanced democracies in Europe that have also experienced the rise of the alt-Right, was apparent to any opportunist.
The contradictions were not so apparent. Increase the number of high value jobs on one side and the number of low-valued jobs on the other side of a border, then not only does each side benefit from the rising tide, but the pressure on immigration is significantly reduced as increased job opportunities open up on the poorer side. Closing off the spigot through coercion rather than through foreign domestic incentives can only come about at enormous direct costs and a multitude of indirect ones so that you end up having a negative sum game for both sides.
To recognize this requires ignoring the lost political opportunity costs. And Donald Trump, with an attention span of twenty minutes, was certainly not interested in that. The same is true of the negative impacts of Donald Trump’s tax policies on the very people he is winning and getting to turn out to his large rallies. This is also true of a decrease in the social safety net for these very populations who will suffer much more than they are suffering now. But if the blame can be displaced and built into the equation from the start, that failure will only result because there is an effort by international bankers, crony capitalists, led by the get-rich-quick through government largesse of the Clinton clan and that of their corporate partners, then the possibility of political victory is enhanced by more economic suffering.
Donald Trump offered an additional new enhancing formula – an anti-imperial and anti-activist American leadership in foreign affairs, but now enhanced by the spectre of an opponent launching World War III. The irony was that Trump preached making America great again as a cover for becoming a mouth piece for the fears that the Putin mafia have been promulgating since 2014 – that of America as the initiators of a new world war. As Russia tests its new ambitions for expansion in the Ukraine and in the Middle East, make America great again became a formula for shrinking America from its global responsibilities. This switchback required extending Barack Obama’s lead in making America small again, retreating from an active interventionist role and paying far more attention to the well-being of one’s own population.
This was a tour de force for it undercut the appeal of the Hillary Democrats to their own left base. But it came at a cost, but one Donald Trump bet would work to his advantage. As Colin Powell, a former Republican Secretary of State, noted in reference to the birther movement, when nativism is combined with “a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party,” the party has to engage in some intense naval gazing. But conspiracy theories obviate the compulsion to do so.
Not one of Donald Trump’s competitors for the leadership of the Republican Party recognized this route to the White House. But they had already built into the party an attraction to demagoguery, an absolute insistence on no compromise, even if the cost was a burning political system crashing down upon their heads, a propensity for constructing conspiratorial groupings aimed to deprive Americans of their second amendment rights joined by a scientific conspiracy of leading intellectual figures to foster on a naïve domestic population a myth about climate change. When fostering ignorance at the expense of knowledge, when blaming others at the cost of assuming responsibility, when creating a narrative of a besieged American betrayed by the ruling establishment, the pathway to a potential victory had been forged by the previous leadership of the Republican Party. Trump had simply upped the ante, driving his rivals out of the game. The Tea Party’s fight with the traditional establishment in the party was not intended to but did serve to prepare the ground for Donald Trump by bringing into the party the power of negative thinking, the enhancement of suspicion, the huge increase in mindblindness and the anxiety and insecurity that now undergirds the party.
So when the enthusiasm factor is introduced into polling so that different voters get different weights depending on that enthusiasm, the result of outlying scientific polls show either a victory for Donald Trump or, on the other hand, a narrow victory for Hillary Clinton when she needs an overwhelming win with the consequent win in the Senate and even potentially in the House of Representatives to actually govern.
Racism, the general distrust of government, the insecurities of white males, particularly those who are less educated, as well as evangelicals primed to expect the immanent end of days, have been linked together to create a toxic brew of fear and insecurity, an emotional maelstrom that bubbles like a volcano about to explode and pour its hot lava through the cracks and fissures of the Republican Party. Hence the focus on the after-effects of the Trump earthquake and the shock waves that have reverberated around the world. Hence the sacrifice of reasoning and evidence-based policies for ones that reinforced passion and unbridled vehemence, that emphasize entertainment more than dialogue, that confers authority on celebrity itself. Hence atavistic nationalism rather than just patriotism, xenophobia married to racism and sexism. Hence a political campaign built on grievances and whining. Hence the politics of resentment. Hence the scare-mongering and the rise once again of the Know Nothings. Hence, the discontent with democracy and the faith in a rational voting population.
For those who believe in attachment, who either esteem or long for a strong community, but encounter one increasingly atomized by technology, Facebook and Twitter, the use of coarser language and a reduction in empathy are used to prove that “community” itself is weak and evanescent. The results of economic, social and technological forces have been devastating and prepared the ground for the takeover of the Republican Party, the rise of Trumpism and a divided and meaner polity with civility driven to the margins. Is it any wonder that this Halloween the main ghost is that of Donald Trump?
With the help of Alec Zisman