The Trump Party
A New York Times correspondent takes a less than balanced look at the Trump years under the guise of “history.”
Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party & Got Everything They Ever Wanted, Jeremy W. Peters, (Crown: February 2022), 432 pages.
There is a narrative favored by America’s liberal elites that reduces Republican political activism to anger, hate, racism, or outright paranoia. The classic example of the genre was Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics, a thinly veiled attack on Americans who voted for Barry Goldwater. Since then, we’ve seen myriad pundits over the years rehash the same argument: voters for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Donald Trump are driven by status anxiety, imagined grievances, or the “dog whistles” of unscrupulous Republican strategists like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.
If you subscribe to this interpretation of political history, then Jeremy W. Peters’s Insurgency is the book for you.
In Peters’s words, the current GOP is “the Trump party.” “Populist, no-compromise renegades” have usurped the power of “the party insiders who wanted a softer, more inclusive approach,” transforming Republicans into a party “hostage to paranoid politicians” and motivated by an “outrage-fueled brand of politics.” And behind it all is the menacing figure of Donald J. Trump and his exceptional talent for “identifying and inflaming cultural war battles.”
Peters, a New York Times correspondent and MSNBC contributor, argues that opposition to Democratic governance is rooted in what he calls a “no-apologies culture of rage and grievance.” In this telling, Democrats and their policies are never accountable for the complaints of Republican voters, nor do Democrats ever espouse “identity-based wedge politics.” In fact, Democrats barely appear in Insurgency, except as innocent targets of Tea Partiers, Roger Ailes, Rush Limbaugh, Steve Bannon, Fox News anchors, Breitbart journalists, and consultants such as Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. This wide cast of characters, Peters insists, were Trump’s enablers, guilty of the political “ugliness” that supposedly dominates the GOP today.
Peters’s political bias notwithstanding, Insurgency is worth reading and full of details about Trump’s turbulent climb to power. Remarkably, Peters was able to interview numerous Republican staffers, consultants, elected officials, and even Trump himself. The picture that emerges is a GOP often roiled by feuding, personality clashes, and naked self-interest. Former Trump insider Steve Bannon in particular, obviously happy to indulge in some score-settling, told Peters that Trump would go down in history as one of the two or three worst presidents of all time. Trump was such a bad candidate in 2020, Bannon said, that Joe Biden’s election was a slam-dunk. All Biden had to do in 2020 was “issue a proof-of-life video every six weeks,” Bannon contended, and Trump was toast.
Some key Republicans, Peters also reveals, made the ascent of Trumpism possible with decisions they lived to regret. In 2008, Bill Kristol, an editor with the now defunct Weekly Standard, urged John McCain to pick Alaska’s governor Sarah Palin for McCain’s vice-president, thinking the move would merely “accent” McCain’s race for the White House. What Kristol “didn’t count on was that Palin’s accent wasn’t the issue,” Peters observed. “She was speaking an entirely different language.”
Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, similarly got “whiplashed” by the Tea Party “and eventually by Trump” when he green-lighted positive coverage of the Tea Party on his network. According to Peters, this “devil’s bargain” with the rebellious wing of the Republican party was just another case of the deals numerous establishment Republicans made only to discover to their chagrin that “they were helpless to reel it in.”
Peters begins and ends his book with the January 6, 2021 events at the Capitol, what he calls “a singularly devastating moment in the country’s history.” Things looked so much simpler to democrats back during the heady days after Biden’s win on November 3, 2020. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman hailed a coming “Biden Boom” in the U.S. economy and as late as March 2021 the Times called Biden a “transformational president.”
But, as the saying goes, history marches on, and as January 6 recedes into the past, recent events might cause readers of Insurgency to pause and reflect.
When completing the final drafts of his book, Peters probably never imagined the utter disaster Biden’s presidency would soon become. Compared with even Trump’s chaotic four years, Biden’s road to 2024—should he even make it—so far reads like a Mel Brooks farce, complete with pratfalls, bicycle mishaps, instructional cue cards, and inappropriate touching. Even Biden calls himself a “gaffe machine.”
Biden’s policies haven’t fared any better. More Americans died of Covid-19 under Biden in 2021 than under Trump in 2020, when there were no vaccines. As of summer 2022, Biden’s popularity ratings have fallen below 35 percent, inflation is surging, gas prices are soaring, and store shelves are emptying. To boot, the White House faces a historic illegal immigration crisis on the southern border, rising rates of violent crime, and a war in Ukraine that appears likely to end in some sort of grim victory for Vladimir Putin.
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In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Roe v. Wade, it is supremely ironic that Peters accuses Trump of “four years of chipping away at the credibility of the institutions at the heart of a free and functioning republic.” With many Democrats urging Biden to override the landmark Dobbs ruling and prominent Democrats like Elizabeth Warren saying that the justices “burned whatever legitimacy they may still have had,” one might well ask: which political party is actually doing the “chipping”?
Peters might object that his modest aim in Insurgency was simply to write an internal history of how the GOP has evolved since Pat Buchanan’s legendary speech at the 1992 Republican national convention. But for those with an awareness of American history, Peters’s hand-wringing, alarmist rhetoric about “the Trump party” sounds tiresomely familiar, a standard trope wielded by Democrats who, while pushing abortion on demand, gay marriage, transgenderism, the 1619 Project, critical race theory, drag queen story hours, and Title IX campus inquisitions, still insist they represent the real mainstream.
Future historians may not anoint Trump as a candidate for Mount Rushmore, but meanwhile we can recognize that books like Insurgency fall into a category of partisan reporting whose history is as shopworn as the spectacle of Joe Biden’s long tenure in the Beltway.