In the spring of 2015 it looked as if the 2016 Republican primary season was going to be a near replay of 2012. In 2012, as this year, the campaign drama emanated from the Republican civil war: the party’s “establishment” versus its insurgent Tea Party wing. Tea Party blogs were in agony in 2012: An Obama re-election was nothing short of a horror, the ratification of what Tea Partiers often called tyranny, now Marxist, now Muslim. It was a gut feeling, a taken for granted tenet of everyday dialogue in the movement. Running a “real conservative”, the faithful believed, was the Republican Party’s sure path to the White House. Yet—and this created abiding resentment—the Republican National Committee, acting “like the Central Committee of the Communist Party,” worked to impose Mitt Romney’s, the establishment’s, candidacy. On the primary campaign trail, the result was the rise and fall in the polls of a series of anybody-but-Romney candidacies, among whom were Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and, finally, Rick Santorum.
This year the script was readied with Jeb Bush the establishment choice, and Tea Party stalwarts Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, the Ricks Perry and Santorum and Bobby Jindal arrayed to take him down. After all, “primarying”—running a hard right Tea Partier to topple a RINO (“Republican in name only”) incumbent seen as inadequately conservative—had established itself as a Tea Party’s strength; along with legislative obstructionism it was one of its two prize political tactics. And the movement was coming off one of its most historic primary triumphs in the 2014 elections, having brought down the number two Republican power in the House of Representatives, Eric Cantor of Virginia. By late September, Tea Party obstructionism would succeed in forcing the House’s number one Republican, Speaker John Boehner to zipadee-do-dah his way into retirement.
But on June 16, 2015, things in the 2016 campaign changed. The 2012 script went haywire. Donald Trump, the New York real estate mogul with a passion for the look and sound of his own name, announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. In his eponymous midtown tower, he was introduced by his daughter and surrounded by aspiring actors who had answered a casting call and were paid fifty dollars a head to express joy at the news. Odd as these trappings were, they paled next to the bizarre nature of Trump’s political style. Trump’s speeches are vulgar stream-of-consciousness rambles reminiscent of barroom braggadocio, at once putting down the opposition as stupid, as morons, and lionizing his own wealth, belovedness and deal-making smarts. He invites his listeners to join in omnipotent fantasy solutions, be they building a Mexican-financed wall to keep out Mexicans or extinguishing the chaos in the Middle East through building a terrifying military. With a startling touch of consistency, the man who rails “the big problem this country is political correctness” raised political incorrectness into a winning political formula.
The Tea Party Meets Trump
Despite widespread dismissive responses to his announcement—“Clown Runs for President,” shouted the New York Daily News—Trump, amazingly, shot to the top of the polls. What was missed in the analysis of the day was how thoroughly Trump, who had prepared himself for his presidential run by listening to right-wing talk radio, had grasped the sweet spot of the Tea Party, the Republicans’ deepest well of primary voters. With unprecedented directness, he had addressed himself to the movement’s fiercest 2016 passion—the immigration question. Here’s how Judson Phillips, leader of the Tea Party Nation had put it in April of 2015, where by “Amnesty” he refers to any form of immigration reform:
For conservatives in 2016, Amnesty is the defining issue. There is no middle ground. There cannot be any form of Amnesty. We need a President who will put the interests of Americans first. (emphasis added)
The reaction to Trump’s candidacy throughout the Republican populist right-wing and especially in the Tea Party? As Michael Reagan put it, Trump was just “saying what all of us are thinking.” What to those outside seemed like a parade of gaffe after political gaffe, was truth-telling for the Tea Party, and it was aimed at both liberal America and the Republican establishment. Trump’s most famous gaffe, from his announcement speech, could not have been closer to the Tea Party’s populist heart.
When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. [pointing] They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
The Impasse of Existential Crises
Trump was talking to what we might call Tea Party 3.0. In its seven years, despite notable backing from wealthy far-right supporters, thousands of spontaneously formed local groups and a handful of national coalitions, the Tea Party remained largely inchoate on an everyday national level. Yet on three occasions, the movement spoke, indeed roared, with a single national voice.
The first occasion, Tea Party 1.0—and what put them on the map as a political force—was the movement’s fierce opposition to Obamacare. The Tea Party came into being in February 2009, a month after Barack Obama’s first inaugural, and by the summer of that year, during the congressional recess, Tea Party members intimidated and overwhelmed Congresspeople at town hall meetings across the country. By January 2010, Tea Party-endorsed Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s old Massachusetts senatorial seat promising to oppose Obamacare.
In the dramas of Tea Party 1.0, the movement enjoyed the backing of the Republican establishment, which had pledged unyielding resistance to Obama policies toward the goal of a one-term presidency. With Tea Party 2.0—the “debt crises” of 2011 and 2013, the latter of which led to a government shutdown—the party establishment demurred: they feared for the business effects of a defaulton the national debt and the political effects of a government shutdown. .
But with Tea Party 3.0, the immigration question, the gulf between the establishment and the movement was unprecedented. For both the Tea Party and for the establishment, immigration raised nothing short of competing and irreconcilable existential crises.
For the Tea Party, and, as it would turn out, a broader swath of the white working class and American nativists,"illegal immigrants" explained the immediate dysfunctions in their environment, like unemployment and fading life chances. But something more profound was going on, a global sense that the country was getting away from them, that their taken-for-granted privileged white identitywas getting swamped by minorities from below and minorities arriving in positions of power above both culturally and—Obama!—politically.
As the right-wing political commentator Ann Coulter put it,
This is not an election about who can check off the most boxes on a conservative policy list, or even about who is the best or nicest person. This is an election about saving the concept of America, an existential election like no other has ever been. Anyone who doesn't grasp this is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
On the other side, the establishment side, what the immigration question put into existential crisis was the very future of the Republican Party itself. The party, they understood, lives under a demographic sword of Damocles, as the population of the U.S. inches more and more heavily minority. They recognized what had happened to the Republican Party in California could happen nationally. The state that had given the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan turned reliably blue in state and national elections after the controversy over 1994’s Proposition 187, which would bar “illegal aliens” from using state services including education. Here is Mitch McConnell, leader of the Senate Republicans, way back in January of 2009, at the dawn of the Obama presidency:
We’re all concerned about the fact that the very wealthy and the very poor, the most and least educated, and a majority of minority voters, seem to have more or less stopped paying attention to us, and we should be concerned that, as a result of all this, the Republican Party seems to be slipping into a position of being more of a regional party than a national one.
As for 2016? Here is Lindsey Graham, briefly a candidate for the Republican nomination who lacked any purchase with the Tea Party nationally:
But if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table and in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party. And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view.
The gap between the party establishment and the Tea Party (in particular its populist base, as we shall see) was irreconcilable. With the immigration issue perceived as existential on both sides—the future of the country versus the future of the party—Donald Trump, the man whose political speeches seem to consist of whatever is on his mind at the moment, had staked his claim to the Tea Party motherlode. His appeal would split the populists in the Tea Party from their free-market conservative partners and realign them with a white working class which had been indifferent to the Tea Party during its Obama-era run.
Tea Party Populism. The New Identity Politics.
Othering is at the heart of populism. The essence of populism is a group antipathy, profoundly felt, toward perceived elites. It is their opposition to the elites, the Other, that gives a populist movement its identity; the movement is defined by its opposition to the Other. Populists see elites as corrupt, powerful and ideologically suspect. In American politics, populism of the left takes aim at, and defines itself in relation to, financial elites. But populism of the right in the US predominantly defines itself against cultural elites; above all on the populist right, the domestic Other is American liberalism, whose dominant figures are the Democratic Party and its “client base,” the “takers,” largely minorities, who support the Party for its “giveaways.” But, among much else, the liberal Other includes Hollywood, university professors, urban life and a host of patterns of consumption.
The Club for Growth is a wealthy political action committee that, like the advocacy groups associated with the Koch brothers, has frequently supported Tea Party candidates in the name of free-market absolutist economic policies. In 2004, The Club ran a famous advertisement attacking presidential candidate Howard Dean that prefigured how Tea Party identity was forged by naming the domestic Other and defining itself implicitly in contrast. When a couple, white seniors, in front of their plainly non-urban house—this would turn out to be the core Tea Party demographic—is asked by an announcer their view of Dean’s tax policies, it turns into an occasion to vent on an inventory of associations with the liberal world:
[Man] What do I think? Well I think Howard Dean should take his tax hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading
[Woman] body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.
[Man] Got it?
The Tea Party was prefigured in the 2008 vice presidential campaign of Sarah Palin. Palin’s rallies were often raucous occasions, where attendees evoked a devotion to the candidate nowhere to be found at rallies for John McCain, who was running at the head of the ticket. While many Americans were baffled by the contrast between Sarah Palin’s political ambitions and what appeared to them to be her stark lack of qualification for higher office, for her supporters her qualifications boiled down to what she embodied: “She is one of us.” Her appearance at the highest levels of public office was seen as a providential deliverance. And her message about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama was plain: “He’s not one of us.” He was the Other.
In the early months of the Tea Party, Palin was the movement’s most revered national politician. She had given the movement an identity that endured beyond her vice presidential campaign; the Tea Partiers called themselves what she had christened them: the “real Americans.” It is no accident that on January 19, 2016 Palin became the earliest big name Republican to endorse Trump. Nor is it an accident that even sympathetic observers found her endorsement speech rambling, bizarre and often incoherent, as befitting the national political figure who most prefigured Trump.
Palin had ushered in an inverted version of identity politics which remained at the core of the Tea Party movement. Typically, in American politics, identity movements have been the province of minority constituencies and have, in effect, demanded a seat at the table. Minorities and women experienced themselves as systematically kept from the seats of power and well-being and justice that others—those at the American table—took for granted. The “real Americans,” in contrast, were objecting to how the new-fangled presence of the Others at the table made them feel that they and their values had become marginalized. If earlier identity politics involved the sense of being locked out—never having been empowered—Tea Party identity politics was about the feeling of dispossession—having their sense of power and entitlement taken away. The “real American” experience is of an internal diaspora in their homeland. The Tea Party’s most enduring expression of their political mission is “taking our country back.”
Populism and Free-Market Absolutism
Looking back further in U.S. history, the Tea Party is the descendent of other notable uprisings of right-wing populism. For example, right-wing populism was influential in the imposition of Prohibition, the ban on the sale of alcohol in the USA between 1919 and 1933. Then “demon rum” explained the dysfunctions owing to immigration, urbanization and industrialization that abounded in the country in the early twentieth century. Populism also rose up against the teaching of evolution in the schools, as this contradicted the fundamentalist, that is, the literalist, word-for-word, interpretation of the Bible. With the repeal of Prohibition and the reverses of the famous Scopes “monkey trial,” right-wing populism lay largely dormant for decades on the national stage.
The “sixties” reawakened right-wing populism in the U.S. Fundamental premises and power relations of traditional worldviews seemed threatened as never before: race (the civil rights movement); gender (the women’s movement, the gay movement); patriotism (the anti-war movement); religion (legalization of abortion and banning prayer in public schools); morality (drugs, sex and rock and roll). The traditional world, the world as they had known it, had begun to tremble beneath their feet. In the 1970s free-market absolutists and populist traditionalists came together in the conservative movement that rose to national power by the end of that decade in the election of Ronald Reagan as president, and dominated American politics for the next twenty-five years.
Conservatism seemed to have run aground with the disasters—Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis—of the Bush administration. Sam Tanenhaus, one of this country’s foremost chroniclers of our right wing, published The Death of Conservatismin 2009. And yet, once again, free-market absolutists and populists of the right made common cause, coming together once more in a powerful movement, the Tea Party, this time with a level of radicalness only seen earlier on the fringes of the conservative movement.
Free-market absolutism arose, especially among conservativecorporate elites,in opposition to the policies of the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt. It has formed the economic ideology of the conservative movement that has worked since the 1930s to dominate the Republican Party and change the direction of social policy in the USA away from New Deal liberalism and its successors. Despite their role in the conservative movement’s domination of American politics since 1980, free-market absolutists found themselves consistently unhappy with the concessions and compromises of conservative politicians in power, maintaining their sense of themselves as insurgents within the party. This sentiment paralleled a similar resentment among right populists, like evangelical Christians, that the Republican Party pandered to their views in electoral campaigns but rarely delivered on their issues once in office. As Garry Wills observed: "The sense of betrayal by one’s own is a continuing theme in the Republican Party (a Fox News poll in September 2015 found that 62 percent of Republicans feel “betrayed” by their own party’s officeholders)."
Operating through such organizations as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, free-market absolutists mobilized quickly to exploit the 2008 financial crisis to further their long-term goals of lowering taxes to a bare minimum, dismantling the American welfare state, including Social Security and Medicare, and routing labor unionism. These activists saw in the financial crisis a historic opportunity to score a decisive victory in their long-running history of trying to supplant Keynesian economics with the doctrines of Hayek, Friedman and Laffer. They swiftly seized on the “Tea Party” theme, creating national networks, often internet-based, which convened regularly and coordinated with conservative mass media in the U.S. As Tea Party groups sprung up by the thousands across the country, these right-wing power brokers offered financial, strategic and political assistance to many of these new organizations, and helped raise some local leaders (especially those focused on fiscal issues) to national prominence.
The activist constituency of the Tea Party—the people who attended meetings, participated in Tea Party websites, and are the most dedicated primary voters—is overwhelmingly white, middle class, and late middle-aged (50s-60s-70s). The financial crisis, with its accompanying huge drop in the value of people’s homes, created a panic among this constituency that their relatively stable and secure economic condition might suddenly be in jeopardy. Tea Partiers, the “real Americans,” see themselves as those who have worked hard all their lives, earned everything they have, and view liberals, unions, and often minorities, as forces trying to take away what they possess and redistribute it to the “undeserving,” the poor who haven’t worked hard, who pine in the Tea Party’s view for a life of government dependency. This sentiment led to a profound convergence between the populist base and the free-market absolutists. That liberal social policy now seemed to Tea Partiers an attempt to take away their economic security meshed perhaps as never before with free-market absolutists’ goal of doing away with the welfare state. As we shall see, this convergence held the Tea Party together until the 2016 campaign when it too has been sundered—a split given voice by the Trump campaign.
But back in 2009, the election of a Democratic president—an African-American Democratic president—turned the panic deriving from the financial and housing crisis into a political movement. The long-standing resentment of Democratic “cultural elitism”—the sense on the populist right that liberals “think they know better and want to tell us how to live our lives”—combined with the fear of economic dispossession—taking away what “we” have and giving it to “them,” the Other, the takers—to produce a motivation powerful enough to mobilize millions under the Tea Party banner.
From the point of view of the populist right, the liberal elite has long been associated with a client base—a force felt pushing from the bottom—the poor, the working poor, welfare recipients, and, often, minorities. This perception paralleled a classic form of left American populism, called producerism, where the populists saw themselves trapped in a vice, squeezed from top and bottom by parasitic forces which lived off the populists’—the producers’—hard work. Above were economic elites: bankers and monopolists. Below were the lazy and shiftless. In effect, for populists of the right in 2009, for the emerging Tea Party voters, the election of a black president and the assumption of power by the liberal Democratic party transformed the vice-like effect they had felt in their perceived alliance of elite liberals and the “underclass.” Now, both the liberal elite and their client base were on top! The experience was less one of being squeezed between top and bottom, but rather one of being flattened from above, by an Other more powerful than ever before. As one Tea Party activist put it, “The people I was looking for [as a policeman] are now running the government.”
Resentment and Contempt
Resentment is the classic emotion associated with populist movements. The modern investigation of the place of resentment in politics dates back to Nietzsche’s treatment of ressentiment in his On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche’s famous division between nobles, slaves and priests highlights the hierarchical component necessarily involved in the feeling of resentment. Resentment is anger directed at those perceived as above oneself or one’s class. Contempt is anger directed at those people or classes seen as below.
As a general principle, when populist resentment, especially on the right, gets mobilized into a political movement, the resentment felt toward elites is transformed into contempt. Emotionally, this is the step, the flip-flop, that empowers the movement to act, that enables it, psychologically, to confront the Other. It is the cure for the pervasive and festering one-down sensitivity that is resentment’s characteristic mood. On December 7, 2015, in the first round of its regional elections, France’s far-right National Front had an historic electoral breakthrough, outpolling both of the established conservative and socialist parties. That evening, the movement’s leader, Marine Le Pen, observed:
I believe that the National Front's incredible results are the revolt of the people against the elite. The people no longer support the disdain they have been (subjected to) for years by a political class defending its own interests.
In America, much of the play of one-up/one-down takes place over questions of intelligence and education. The Tea Party right is acutely aware of, and deeply resents, an attitude in the liberal world that regards them as the backward, almost pre-modern, fraction of American society. In popular culture, this attitude is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in the television show Real Time with Bill Maher, which is relentless in its characterization of the American right as ignorant and superstitious. A typical, if understated example: “I'll show you Obama's birth certificate when you show me Sarah Palin's high school diploma.”
By asserting over and over that he is smarter than his competition—either Democratic or Republican—Trump hits this deeply felt chord of resentment on the Republican populist right. Turning the tables on the educated liberal elite by claiming superior intelligence is by now a long established trope on the right among talk-show opinion leaders who have developed extremely loyal followings. Rush Limbaugh, long the master of this medium, regularly offers his listeners (his “dittoheads”) variations on the following:
Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain, this is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth…doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair because I have talent on loan from . . . God.
Michael Savage, one of Limbaugh’s major competitors, takes this one step further, as indicated in one of his book titles: Liberalism is a Mental Disorder. These tropes are a daily constant on Tea Party blogs. As with his over-the-top emphasis on immigration as the defining issue of his campaign, Trump hit another sweet spot for mobilizing Tea Party support. By putting down the elites—which, for Trump includes the Republican establishment—on grounds of intelligence, Trump flips Tea Party and other populist resentment into contempt.
Tea Party blogs to this day regularly recall with resentment a 2008 phrase then-candidate Obama, uttered at a fundraiser in that most liberal quarter of the U.S., San Francisco, to characterize what happens to people in de-industrialized small towns in America:
They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Here is Sarah Palin in her endorsement speech for Trump, flipping “bitter and clinging” from a trope of resentment to one of contempt, this time directed at the Republican establishment:
Now they’re concerned about this ideological purity? Give me a break! Who are they to say that? Oh, and tell somebody like Phyllis Schlafly. She is the Republican, conservative movement icon and hero and a Trump supporter. Tell her she’s not conservative. How about the rest of us? Right wingin’, bitter, clingin’, proud clingers of our guns, our God and our religions and our Constitution. Tell us that we’re not red enough? Yeah, coming from the establishment. Right.
By late summer, Trump’s commanding lead over the Republican field began to yield to the rise of black neurosurgeon turned presidential candidate Ben Carson. What happened here was that Tea Party voters, after the first blush of enthusiasm for Trump, began to see more of themselves in Carson than in Trump, especially after their presentations at the Family Research Council’s Value Voters Summit in September.
And they were not mistaken in this. Despite his success in basing his campaign irresistibly on the hottest of Tea Party hot buttons, Trump comes from a populist lineage distinct from that of the Tea Party’s largely exurban and evangelical base. Rather, Trump’s is a notably urban populism. It is the “hard hat” populism that famously showed its face in New York City when construction workers attacked antiwar protesters during the Vietnam War. It is the vein of urban resentment that was exposed in the presidential campaigns of George Wallace, which would be relabeled by Richard Nixon the “silent majority”—a phrase Trump has fittingly resurrected; and were transformed a few years later into “Reagan Democrats.”
And it is a populism Trump comes by honestly. Trump’s father, who made the family’s first real estate fortune building middle class housing in Brooklyn and Queens, taught his son the business. This meant dealing with contractors, laborers, building superintendents, renters, and it is Trump’s adoption of their Archie-Bunker-like manner and mores that marks his political style. There is long-standing cultural and political resentment—it goes back at least to the administration of mayor John Lindsey—outer-borough New Yorkers feel for the Manhattan “elites.” In effect, if the Tea Party’s is the populism of “fly-over country”—the America that feels ignored by the elites of the east and west coasts—Trump’s populism reflects the resentments of “fly-over New York.”
The “real American” identity is worn more lightly among urban populists than among Tea Partiers; it is less of a total identity. Nor does the urban populist share all the Tea Party populist’s concerns. One example is the Tea Party’s widespread rejection of science, like evolution or climate change. When Carson invoked the Bible as a guide to history, as in his suggestion that the Egyptian pyramids were grain silos, he endeared himself to the evangelical base in a way foreign to Trump-style populism. The urban populist is nowhere as exercised over the “gay agenda” as are their Tea Party brethren. Nor are second amendment questions as vital. The urban populist does not follow the Tea Party down some of the paths that seem oddest, even paranoid, to American liberals, like the conviction that the Obama government plans to disarm Americans, or that U.S. military exercises, like Jade Helm, were designed to impose martial law on a red state like Texas.
Toward the end of 2015, Carson faltered. A combination of his mild personality and his plain lack of knowledge of foreign affairs seemed to take the air out of his campaign and his poll numbers began a steady decline. In his rise and fall, Carson resembled the Tea Party favorites of the 2012 primary campaign. But that was 2016’s last semblance of the 2012 model. In fact, by the time voting began in February 2016 the 2012 model had been turned on its head. Instead of a series of Tea Party candidates chasing the establishment favorite, the 2016 race turned into a handful of establishment candidates chasing a pair of Tea Party favorites, Trump and Texas senator Ted Cruz..
Muslims and the Emergence of the Strong Man
In 2011 Trump flirted with the idea of entering the presidential race to oppose Barack Obama. His was a peculiar trial balloon. He became the country’s most prominent proponent of “birtherism”—the crackpot notion that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Succinctly put, in a country that had become sufficiently “post-racial” that explicit attacks on Obama for being African-American were beyond the pale, birtherism emerged as the primary vehicle for expressing racial unhappiness at Obama’s accession to the office of the presidency. This was Othering at its most straightforward. And given the constitutional prohibition against a foreign-born president, it allows its adherents to dismiss Obama’s entire presidency as illegitimate.
Closely related to birtherism was distrust of Obama’s Christianity and the belief that he was a secret Muslim. Polls in Alabama and Mississippi in advance of their primary elections in 2012 found that only twelve and fourteen percent of Republicans respectively believed Obama to be a Christian. As late as September 2015, 43 percent of Republicans nationally believed Obama was a secret Muslim according to a CNN/ORC survey. In the worldview of Obama as Other, Obama as Muslim added a venomous dimension to the illegitimacy owing to his “foreignness”. In this thinking the Muslim world was the successor to the great American enemies of the twentieth century, Fascism and Communism. In a mindset that sees the U.S. engaged in an epic battle against the Muslim world, against an asymmetrical enemy that operates via terrorism, this puts Obama (and liberalism generally) on the side of the enemy. They are the enemy on the homefront. The domestic Other meets the foreign Other.
Five days after San Bernardino (and two weeks after Paris), having watched his lead in the polls soften, Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. until we “figure out what’s going on.” The response to this reprised and in many ways exceeded the response to Trump’s attack on Mexicans and his proposal to build a border wall in his campaign announcement speech.
On the one hand, the political and commentating classes were again dumbfounded. Trump’s opponents for the Republican nomination and virtually the whole of the Republican establishment responded with sharp criticism. But this time the criticism turned darker. Trump’s scapegoating now brought forth considerations of the relationship of his politics to fascism. Martin O’Malley twice called Trump a fascist in Democratic presidential debates. Conservative writers wondered whether looking at the history of fascism might explain a bit of what was going on with Trump. New attention was drawn to Trump’s support, often enthusiastic, on white supremacist and neo-Nazi web sites. Trump himself dithered before rejecting the support of unrepentant Ku Klux Klansman David Duke, though he found nothing wrong with having retweeted a quotation from Mussolini he found particularly congenial. His call at a March rally for hands raised to pledge support for him created a tableau that conjured up a Hitler rally for many observers. And, most telling, Trump consistently spoke approvingly of violently handling protesters at his rallies and defended violence by his supporters when it, inevitably, made its appearance.
Yet on the other hand, the Republican base responded to Trump’s call to halt Muslim immigration with a new round of enthusiasm. Once again Tea Partiers felt as though he was channeling their thoughts. And Trump rose higher in national Republican polls than ever before, establishing a twenty point cushion between himself and his nearest rival, Ted Cruz. Trump maintained this lead throughout the primaries. As Trump began rolling up delegate margins national conversations broke out over the possibility of a brokered Republican convention.
Splitting the Evangelicals. Splitting the Tea Party.
One after another the establishment candidates failed. Jeb Bush’s campaigning seemed to confirm Trump’s belittling of him as a “low-energy.” Chris Christie’s tough-guy appeal proved no match for Trump’s eccentric high-wire mastery of those arts. Ironically, with Jeb Bush out of the race, Marco Rubio became the establishment’s great hope to beat Trump for the nomination; ironic, because Rubio had arrived in the Senate in 2010 as a Tea Party candidate. But he was never able to repair his breach with the Tea Party around his early work in the Senate trying to collaborate on immigration reform. Rubio was undressed by his hollow and repeated word-for-word repetition of talking points at the hands of Chris Christie in a debate preceding Super Tuesday. This was a humiliation from which Rubio never recovered, tough he attempted to do so by turning from his choir-boy persona to meeting Trump in the latter’s gutter speech, including, finally, penis size remarks.
Once the voting began, for the Republican establishment, the likelihood of a Trump nomination gathered momentum with the seeming horror and inevitability of a Greek tragedy. The remaining establishment possibility, Ohio Governor John Kasich, was never taken seriously as a winner by the Republican establishment, though with the walls closing in on them they hoped he might win enough delegates to throw the convention into a deadlock. Cruz, an extreme Tea Party conservative and evangelical, whose entire political career deeply alienated the party establishment, based his electoral strategy in the primaries on dominating the evangelical vote. As the Greek tragedy unfolded, establishment figures began reluctantly endorsing Cruz as a means to deny Trump the nomination.
Yet Trump, the thrice-married vulgarian, again confounded analysts by holding his own against Cruz, with polls showing an almost 50-50 split among evangelicals. Some point to the distinctions among evangelicals in religiosity and church attendance. Others suggest that a historic sense of confusion among evangelicals has them seeking a strong leader. Ben Carson endorsed Trump after dropping out of the race. So too Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell Jr.
Trump also split the Tea Party, perhaps irrevocably. The populist and free-market absolutist forces that came together to form the Tea Party turned severely at odds with one another and daily fierce debates on Tea Party sites and on talk radio raged between supporters of Cruz and supporters of Trump. Cruz supporters argued in terms of fidelity to conservative principles:
Real conservatives have a message for the Trump campaign. We are conservatives first and then Republicans. We are Republicans because the Party is allegedly the conservative party.
Exasperated, the Cruz supporters argued:
Trump’s deranged rantings make any sane person question what he would do when he had the power of the federal government behind him. If you insult the Donald, are you going to have the IRS knocking at your door?
There is something Trump supporters need to realize. He is playing you….If you are a Donald Trump supporter, he is marketing to your outrage, not to any notion of liberty, freedom or conservatism.
And the pro-Trump Tea Partiers? The populist Partiers?
Cruz [is a] politician.. Smooth talking fraud... Donald Trump is the one that will help to bring this Country back…Looking at how divided this room is, should frighten all of us…Hearing that Donald is going to build up the Republican Party should tell you a lot…WE NEED DONALD TRUMP....He will be our Patton, Eisenhower, etc., he will be strong, and he will get done what he has promised…Illegals, the Wall, China, Mexico, the Economy, Jobs, ISIS and Protecting our Country from all evil and sharia law…If you elect cruz [sic]…you will be condoning everything obama [sic] has done while in office…and your getting politics as usual…
The End of the Republican Coalition
Like the Cruz advocates in the Tea Party, what agonizes the Republican establishment most profoundly is Trump’s considerable deviation from the very cornerstones of modern conservative ideology: free markets, free trade, neo-conservative foreign policy. Trump does not share mainline American conservatism’s contempt for the welfare state; he even speaks well of universal health care. He is an unabashed fan of government use of eminent domain. His unrelenting use of lawsuits in both business and politics makes a mockery of establishment Republicans long-held animus toward “the trial lawyers.” In foreign affairs, although he is for a no-holds barred approach to ISIS (waterboarding and more; going after terrorists’ families), he is contemptuous of neo-conservatism’s signature endeavor, the invasion of Iraq. He has even breached the taboo about criticizing George Bush for allowing the 9-11 attacks on his watch.
Trump’s criticism of free-trade agreements proved essential to his enduring appeal throughout the primaries. The economic dispossession of the white working class has been a forty year wave that seems, in politics, to have broken this electoral cycle. A widely publicized study published this December showed that epidemic rates of suicide and substance abuse--alcohol, heroin and prescription opiods—have combined to increase the mortality rate for whites between the ages of 45 and 54, with high-school education or less, in a manner paralleled “only [by] HIV/AIDS in contemporary times.” As with evangelicals, Trump’s hard-hat populism has proven to have profound crossover appeal (“I love the poorly educated”) with this demographic, which one might label the Joe-the-Plumber populists. Trump’s appeal with white working class men held up in the polls and in the primary voting. In effect, we watched his hard-hat populist base expand.
The redoubling of Trump’s support when he added Muslims to Mexicans as those he would use exceptional measures to keep outside the country’s borders confirms that the populist-establishment existential standoff over immigration has been the most significant through line of the Republican nominating race. Trump’s appeal—one is tempted to call it Trumpism—expands the party’s potential base by upping its support among the white working class. This is ironic, since the establishment’s support for immigration reform was based on the party’s need to expand its base—by including Latinos. But it is doubtful, as the party’s establishment recognizes, that even a robust expansion of the Joe-the-Plumber demographic will not keep pace with minority growth in the American electorate.
But the movement of the white working class toward Trumpism is significant in its own right. One is reminded of the migration of working class voters from the French Communist Party to the anti-immigrant National Front in the 1990s. It appeared that, finally, the French working class wore its ideology lightly. Italian political observers have used the term epidermic (epidermico)—we might say skin deep—to understand the transition of political actors who move suddenly from left to right. As though apparent decades-long ideological commitment can, suddenly, be discarded and even its opposite taken on.
For decades no problem has befuddled progressives more than why white working class voters seem consistently to vote against their own interests by their support of Republicans: What’s the Matter with Kansas? famously explored this question. “The chickens voting for Colonel Sanders” has expressed it popularly. Trump’s support among the white working class, their rejection of the Republican establishment, suggests that their commitment to Republican ideology all this time might have been of the epidermic variety—as it seemed readily discarded in favor of Trumpism. And if it was not the ideology that kept them in the Republican fold since the days of Ronald Reagan what was it? The likely conclusion is that, prior to Trumpism, the available alternative, liberalism—the Democratic elites and their minority “clients”—was even more disagreeable, often viscerally more so, than their unhappiness with the failure of the Republicans to come through for them. Why were the chickens voting for Colonel Sanders all that time? It would seem it was the how distasteful the domestic Other was all along.
The Republican primary season has established Donald Trump as the party’s presumptive presidential nominee for the general election. A Trumpian Republican Party resembles less the Reagan-coalition party of the past 35 years than the European far-right anti-immigrant parties that have agitated at the edges of national power, and sometimes more in countries like Hungary and Poland, since the end of the Cold War. These are parties which, in the name of anti-immigrant resentment, as with Marine Le Pen’s French National Front, have long inveighed against Europe’s established political classes.
Like the Northern League in Italy, the UK Independence Party in Britain, or the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, these populist parties have never been followers of the free-market ideology that has seemed until now to be the very bedrock of Republican identity and ideology, the sine qua non of American conservatism. If the Trump Republican Party defies the long odds against it (as Trump’s primary campaign has done) and prevails in the general election, this will become the new face of the Republican Party going forward. If Trump and the Republicans lose, and especially if much of the Party’s downticket candidates are taken down along with the national ticket, the party’s future will be a battle royale the likes of which have not been seen in American politics since the crises over slavery that gave rise to the Republican Party 160 years ago, and which may give rise to a novel political confection which even now, as Yeats put it, “Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”