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Trump The Illusion-Shatterer

A French town, the illusions of the GOP Establishment (Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Jonathan Chait has a pretty good article about why Trump puts such fear into the hearts of GOP establishment intellectuals:

The secret fear lying beneath Rubio’s accurate depiction of Trump as a “con artist” is that Republican voters are easy marks. The Republican Party is constructed as a machine: Into one end are fed the atavistic fears of the white working class as grist, and out the other end pops The Wall Street Journal editorial-page agenda as the finished product. Trump has shown movement conservatives how terrifyingly rickety that machine is and how easily it can be seized from them by a demagogue and repurposed toward some other goal.

He’s on to something, but I would suggest a somewhat different spin on it.

At least since the days of Reagan, movement conservatives have thought of themselves as outsiders, as men (and women) of the people, the Real Americans. Even after they had spent years in Washington, they thought of themselves as in Washington, but not of it. They believed themselves to be representatives and advocates of the patriotic heartland. Unlike liberal coastal elites, they loved America, were proud of America, and defended her and her interests. Elites may try to foist their agendas on We The People, but in the minds of Republican elites, it was they who stood in the breach fighting those Elites. When National Review, in a Clinton-era cover story, crowned Rush Limbaugh “Leader of the Opposition,” they were not wrong. This is what the Republican Party had become. Its leaders saw their interests perfectly aligned with conservative talk radio’s, which represented the views of the People.

In this narrative, to use Bill Buckley’s famous phrase, the liberal Democrats were the faculty of Harvard University; the conservative Republicans were the first 500 people in the Cambridge phone book. Washington Republicans were of the people. Or so they thought, so long as the People were voting for them.

Now it turns out that the People prefer Trump and Cruz. It turns out that the People were actually absorbing all that GOP anti-government, anti-elite rhetoric these past 35 years, and have now turned it on the Washington class that used that rhetoric so effectively to mobilize the People against liberals. This is such a shock to the Establishment Republican class because they really did believe their own story. 

Pascal-Emanuel Gobry recommended the other day, as a guide to understanding the Trump phenomenon, a classic World War II memoir, historian Marc Bloch’s Strange Defeat. You can get it for only $2.99 on Kindle, and I did; it’s worth it. Bloch wrote his analysis shortly after France’s 1940 fall to the Germans. Bloch, a veteran of World War I, had been a French officer facing the German blitzkrieg. He went underground and served in the Resistance, and was captured, tortured, and killed. His manuscript survived, and was published after the war.

PEG sums up the relevance of Bloch’s unsparing analysis of France’s fall to our political situation here:

Even though Bloch is not kind to the common people, it is clear that the biggest problem is a widespread failure of French elites to look to the common good and offer a vision for the future. Similarly, since the Bush presidency collapsed under the failures of Iraq, Katrina, and the financial crisis, almost everybody who counts for something in the Republican Party has been implicated in a failure of imagination and a failure to seek or promote a vision and a governing agenda.

The GOP establishment has been preoccupied by appeasing donors while throwing as few bones as possible to the base. The big money guys have been focused only on winning elections. The Tea Party tried to destroy the establishment, but did not suggest how to replace it with anything better. The GOP has been unimaginative and cowardly and too preoccupied by narrow self-interest. The institution is a stately mansion where decades of water damage have weakened the foundation. It only takes a small storm to bring the whole thing down.

This is the lesson of Marc Bloch for today’s Republican Party. Who is to blame? Everyone.

On that “failure of imagination,” Bloch is relentless in faulting France’s High Command for fighting the last war. As a military analyst, Bloch says that the Germans’ greatest advantage was speed. The German High Command had absorbed the fact that great leaps in technology since World War I had dramatically accelerated the pace of war. Much more ground could be covered in much shorter amounts of time than only two or three decades earlier. Even though there was no reason for the French High Command to be blind to the same lessons, they were — even after the Nazi blitzkrieg against Poland the year before revealed exactly what the German battle plan was: speed and ruthlessness.

Bloch shows that the French High Command was so enamored of the lessons of World War I that it blinded itself to real and important changes in the way war was fought. We all know the cliché about how generals are always fighting the last war. Bloch shows in his short book that it really was true in the case of France’s High Command — and it left them shocked and powerless in the face of the Germans.

Reading Bloch puts all this idiotic Reagan worship of the GOP High Command in perspective. The devastating failure in Iraq, the massive structural changes in the economy over the past 20 years, the skyrocketing illegal immigration from 1990-2010 — none of this penetrated their thinking.

Again, consider how crazy it is that until Donald Trump broke the taboo on stage earlier this year in the South Carolina debate, no Republican presidential candidate from 2008 onward had ever dared to say the Iraq War was in any way a failure. This is not a healthy party. This is not a healthy party elite. I don’t believe that this election is all about Iraq, or even mostly about Iraq, but the way the elites (candidates, consultants, Congressmen, party officials, intellectuals, et al.) have handled, or failed to handle, the Iraq issue is indicative of their entire approach.

They were still living in the glory years of Reaganism, oblivious to the many failures of the party’s leadership. For the French generals in Bloch’s narrative, it was perpetually 1918, because those were the days of their youth, and those were the days where the memories made on the Great War’s battlefields were seared into their minds. But they became old men, and because they were old men, they led their nation’s army into catastrophe. In terms of the Republican Party, you think back to 2008 and 2012, with the GOP candidates standing on debate stages trying to outdo each other in posing as the heir to Reagan, and you realize in retrospect that you were looking at French generals who thought they were gearing up to re-fight the Great War.

As for the rest, PEG is right: Bloch spares no one. He says that parochial interests prevented not only France’s leaders, but ordinary Frenchmen, from thinking about what was best for the country, and laying their own interests aside for the sake of the common good. For example, in his section talking about how the trade unions weakened France, he talks about a neighbor of his who went to work in a factory that was ramping up for wartime production. Other unionists hid the man’s tools to prevent him from working as hard as he was prepared to do; they didn’t want to do more work than the union work rules required of them. Bloch says this was suicidal for France, given the peril it was facing, but typical of French trade unions. It wasn’t only the unions, either. Industrialists had their own part in the collapse, as did the media, and others. Everybody was thinking about themselves; nobody was thinking about the common good.

There’s a lot to learn from Bloch’s analysis. PEG concludes his column like this:

Whatever happens next, the house is in ruins. Does anyone have what it takes to rebuild it?

That will be the key question going forward. First, we are going to have to see if the GOP Establishment — the generals of the Republican Party, and the industrialists of Conservatism, Inc. — can yet bring themselves to grasp the magnitude of their failure. We will see what happens when they gather on the Meuse in Cleveland in July.

The crisis reveals the rot in the Republican Party today. If I were the Democrats, I would be careful with the Schadenfreude. Hillary Clinton is the epitome of the Establishment, whose hold on the Democratic faithful seems solid today. Just wait.

UPDATE:Great piece on RCP by Bruce Haynes, tracing 25 years of policy and events that brought us Trump. Excerpts:

The surge in foreign imports, driven by the North American Free Trade Agreement and by China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, has unquestionably hurt job availability and wage growth for the American middle class. The jobs that were supposed to replace them have not come into being or have been replaced by automation or with upper-middle-class jobs in engineering, chemistry, biotechnology or skilled service-sector jobs. A “cut and sew” textile worker can’t easily transition to a biopharmaceutical plant. These lower-skilled workers did not just lose their jobs — they lost their dignity.

These were the policies fought for and advocated by the political and cultural elites of both parties. In the minds of voters, those elites are squarely to blame. Trump holds up a mirror to this and says he’s going to stop it. And that is just one reason they are drawn to him.

That’s one. “Make America Great Again” means “Make Me Great Again”. Haynes talks about rapid and destabilizing cultural change, and then about how the elites responded to the Wall Street crash and Great Recession:

The belief was and is that the political, cultural and financial elite in America sold the country down the river. They’ve profited from economic globalization, downsizing and outsourcing jobs to Mexico and China. They’ve lectured and hectored us in print and on television and social media about the triviality of our views on traditional societal norms and institutions. Struggling Americans saw the laws they passed in response to the Great Recession as feckless talking points that did nothing to help. Other laws, like the bailout and Obamacare, seemed to help the upscale and downscale, while doing nothing to improve middle America’s economic outlook or, in the case of Obamacare and the subsequent rise in health insurance rates, straining its resources even further.

The prevailing view was that when the anvil came down, the elites used their money, power and influence to raid the U.S. Treasury to protect their wealth. Middle-class Americans got nothing. Worse, they lost overnight what they had fought and worked to build for generations. They worked hard, played by the rules, and got screwed.

Read the whole thing. 

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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