This is one of the two major political parties in the most powerful nation in the world. Don’t laugh. It’s not funny.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) July 20, 2016
I get this. I really do. It’s mostly how I feel, though the one consolation I take from this debacle is that genuine creativity may emerge out of Trump’s destruction of the old GOP. It’s a small bit of comfort, but I’ll take what I can. If Marco Rubio or any other of the GOP bunch were being nominated now, I would not be excited at all, or even interested. I prefer that to being freaked out by the prospect of a Trump presidency, but I would prefer to have someone to vote for, instead of against.
But then, I’ve wanted that for years.
Because I’m feeling contrarian, I want to give Donald Trump his due in this, his hour of triumph. He pulled off something that nobody imagined he would do. I remember watching him give a political speech for the first time — my first time watching him, I mean. He was addressing a big crowd in Mobile. I watched the thing nearly gape-mouthed. I could not believe the crudeness, the chaos, and the idiocy of the speech. This won’t go anywhere, I thought, but it’s going to be fun watching him implode.
I laughed a lot at Donald Trump back then. Who’s laughing now?
A year ago, Trump was a joke. A media circus. A novelty. We assumed – I assumed – he was in it for the giggles. I thought he’d drop out like he’d down twice before. I thought his total lack of experience, his profanity and his recklessness would count against him in a primary among conservatives. But the very nature of conservatism has changed.
It was likely the rise of Sarah Palin in 2008 that made this possible – a candidate who suggested there was a choice to be made between intellectualism and common sense, and who inspired deep devotion among those who identified with her. Folks don’t identify with Trump in the same, personal way as they did with the hockey mom from Alaska. How can they? He flies everywhere in a private jet and has a model as a wife. But his issues did strike a chord. The Wall cut through.
Trump didn’t just defy the establishment. He defied what we thought for years were the outsiders: the ideological conservatives who hitherto cast themselves as the rebels. By beating Ted Cruz, Trump actually ran an insurgency against the insurgent. He demonstrated that what people wanted wasn’t something more ideologically pure – as Cruz assumed – but something that was totally different.
That is one big positive we can take from this campaign. If Trump can win when challenging the Republican position on trade and war, maybe someone in the future can win while challenging their positions on other things.
Donald Trump did, in fact, beat the hell out of the GOP Establishment. But let’s also note here that the GOP Establishment beat itself. If you haven’t yet, check out conservative writer Matthew Sheffield’s evisceration of the Republican Industrial Complex. It was e-mailed to me by a Republican friend who until fairly recently was part of that world, and knows about it intimately.
This is also a good time to return to Tucker Carlson’s great Politico piece from January, talking about how the failure of the Republican Industrial Complex created the opening for Trump. Key excerpt:
American presidential elections usually amount to a series of overcorrections: Clinton begat Bush, who produced Obama, whose lax border policies fueled the rise of Trump. In the case of Trump, though, the GOP shares the blame, and not just because his fellow Republicans misdirected their ad buys or waited so long to criticize him. Trump is in part a reaction to the intellectual corruption of the Republican Party. That ought to be obvious to his critics, yet somehow it isn’t.
Consider the conservative nonprofit establishment, which seems to employ most right-of-center adults in Washington. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. (Someone better at math and less prone to melancholy should probably figure out the precise number.) Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
Pretty embarrassing. And yet they’re not embarrassed. Many of those same overpaid, underperforming tax-exempt sinecure-holders are now demanding that Trump be stopped. Why? Because, as his critics have noted in a rising chorus of hysteria, Trump represents “an existential threat to conservatism.”
Let that sink in. Conservative voters are being scolded for supporting a candidate they consider conservative because it would be bad for conservatism? And by the way, the people doing the scolding? They’re the ones who’ve been advocating for open borders, and nation-building in countries whose populations hate us, and trade deals that eliminated jobs while enriching their donors, all while implicitly mocking the base for its worries about abortion and gay marriage and the pace of demographic change. Now they’re telling their voters to shut up and obey, and if they don’t, they’re liberal.
It turns out the GOP wasn’t simply out of touch with its voters; the party had no idea who its voters were or what they believed. For decades, party leaders and intellectuals imagined that most Republicans were broadly libertarian on economics and basically neoconservative on foreign policy. That may sound absurd now, after Trump has attacked nearly the entire Republican catechism (he savaged the Iraq War and hedge fund managers in the same debate) and been greatly rewarded for it, but that was the assumption the GOP brain trust operated under. They had no way of knowing otherwise. The only Republicans they talked to read the Wall Street Journal too.
On immigration policy, party elders were caught completely by surprise. Even canny operators like Ted Cruz didn’t appreciate the depth of voter anger on the subject. And why would they? If you live in an affluent ZIP code, it’s hard to see a downside to mass low-wage immigration. Your kids don’t go to public school. You don’t take the bus or use the emergency room for health care. No immigrant is competing for your job. (The day Hondurans start getting hired as green energy lobbyists is the day my neighbors become nativists.) Plus, you get cheap servants, and get to feel welcoming and virtuous while paying them less per hour than your kids make at a summer job on Nantucket. It’s all good.
Apart from his line about Mexican rapists early in the campaign, Trump hasn’t said anything especially shocking about immigration. Control the border, deport lawbreakers, try not to admit violent criminals — these are the ravings of a Nazi? This is the “ghost of George Wallace” that a Politico piece described last August? A lot of Republican leaders think so. No wonder their voters are rebelling.
Read the whole thing. Let it sink in that Carlson wrote this before a single vote had been cast in the GOP primaries.
This year, and this week, in Republican Party politics and in American conservatism has been about nothing but moral, intellectual, and institutional decadence. It did not happen because of Donald Trump. Donald Trump emerged because the institutions were rotten. It is an almost Shakespearean twist that Roger Ailes is being defenestrated from atop the Fox News empire even as Trump receives his crown in Cleveland.
Trump didn’t steal the Republican Party. It was his for the taking, because the people who run it and the institutions surrounding it failed.
When Trump loses in November, maybe, just maybe, some new blood and new ideas will rebuild the party.
And if he wins? We will have far bigger things to worry about than the fate of the Republican Party. We will be forced to contemplate the fate of the Republic itself.