You may notice that I have been away from this blog for quite some time. I’m at work on a piece that I hope will see the light of day somewhere in the next month or so, and it includes a brief explanation of my prolonged absence from the world of print. In the meantime I’m also restructuring this site, removing some material that’s no longer really relevant, archiving a lot more, and in general tidying up for what I hope will be a period of renewed activity. This is a work in progress, though, so don’t be surprised as the blog changes form over the next little while until I get it right, or at least more right.
One thing that will not change is this remark from my first-ever post:
I welcome comments and will do my best to respond promptly. Whatever subject I might be working on, my approach is always “conversational”— writing, for me, is about the exchange of ideas. But like anyone who engages with controversial issues, I’m familiar with the respondent whose motivation has more to do with venting his/her weirdly neurotic anger than with intellectual exchange. Comments in that vein will not receive a response. Life’s just too short to tilt at windbags.
More to come!
July 5, 2017
I’m still working on the piece mentioned above, which has meandered into a corner from which escape may be difficult to arrange. Time will tell where that is concerned, but I did want to post something I wrote on Slate today in response to Isaac Chotiner’s interview with Edward Luce, the author of a recently published book on The Retreat of Western Liberalism. Luce is a highly intelligent and perceptive writer, and I have great respect for his work. I’m reading Retreat now and learning a lot from it, but I believe it gets some important things wrong, or at least not quite right. Specifically, I think it overstates the extent to which Trumpism is a response to the same anxieties behind Brexit and other follies of the European right. Trump undoubtedly exploits these things, but he does so in the service of a racially coded program that goes back in GOP circles to the mid-1960s— long before “globalization” became an international epithet.
In any case, you can read the Chotiner interview here:
And then peruse my comment here:
I’m reading Luce’s book now and enjoying it, but I wonder if his analysis puts the emphasis in exactly the right place.
In Germany, as in Europe generally, there is a (more or less) reliable electoral consensus that a significant percentage of national wealth should be reinvested in programs that benefit middle- and working-class citizens. We no longer have such a consensus here, and that is almost entirely because of the evolution of the Republican Party since 1964.
The GOP long consisted of an alliance between robber barons and aspirational middle-class citizens, many of them clustered in the small towns and suburbs of the Midwest and Northeast. The latter saw “the market” as the engine of personal enrichment and social improvement, and generally accepted the robber barons’ argument that low taxes and a light regulatory touch would facilitate these things. They tended to want fewer social protections than Democrats, but did not seek to eliminate the New Deal state entirely; they just wanted it to have a smaller, more efficient footprint.
With the passage of major civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, the GOP recast its traditional appeal to the economic benefits of “small government.” Now the sought-after limitations on federal power were also offered as a defense of “states’ rights”— i.e., of the “massive resistance” of white southerners, and the state governments they supported, to the extension of legal equality to black Americans. The solid Democratic south rapidly became a reliable supporter of Republican candidates in presidential politics, and this presented the robber barons with an historic opportunity. They could now exploit the racial and cultural anxieties of white southerners in pursuit of a harsher, grimmer social policy than more moderate Northeast and Midwest Republicans would ever have approved. Taxes could be slashed, spending could be cut, environmental regulations rescinded, labor protections scanted, and it would not matter that the economic benefits of these changes mostly flowed— often quite transparently so— to the already wealthy. All that would matter was the perception that benefits were being taken away from mostly poor, mostly black citizens.
This has been the template of GOP politics for the last half-century. An insatiable economic elite uses the prejudices of white voters, especially in the south, to drive a policy agenda that augments the wealth of the former at the expense of the latter (and everybody else). Trump offers no innovation here; he is merely following the same blueprint that Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes— especially Dubya— followed. His only novelty is the breathtaking insouciance with which he lies and his realization that you can sell this agenda much more effectively if you incorporate the affect of the untermensch you are deceiving— the reflexive dismissal of “experts” who think they know more than you, the snarling, sneering rage, the paranoia and resentment and suspicion of “outsiders.” All of this rhetoric goes over much better if you drop the namby-pamby diction of Mitt Romney or the Bushes and just let it spray from your mouth like spittle.
As long as these voters think you hate the same people they hate, they will support you even as your policies deepen their misery. The pressures of globalization and automation play right into the hands of this time-honored GOP strategy. We have a much higher hill to climb than the Europeans, and I’m not quite sure Luce appreciates that.
September 15, 2015
There’s a nice piece in today’s NY Times by the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice. Check it out when time permits. I strongly recommend his recent book, Rule and Ruin, for anyone who wants a detailed account of how the Republican Party of Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Steve King emerged from the GOP of Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller. Here’s a link: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/29/opinion/anarchy-in-the-house
October 13, 2015
Generally I assign a special circle in Hell to writers who quote themselves, but— today I’m going to make an exception. As the Republican Party’s death spiral deepens, I can’t help but recall these two pieces from Salon. They ran a couple of years ago, if memory serves. I’m not saying “I told you so,” mind you, but…..
November 2, 2015
I hope everyone is well today— even Mets fans!
I’ve pasted in two links below. The first is to a wonderful piece in The New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz on Henry David Thoreau. It does a better job than anything else I’ve read of exposing the very real problems with the Thoreau cult. Along the way it raises some absolutely essential questions about how we should understand democratic politics and the tensions between individuality and community. The second link is to a piece of mine that ran in Salon yesterday. I don’t think it breaks any new ground, but I believe the points it makes are important and I had a lot of fun writing it.
November 4, 2015
Below is a link for those of you who are, like moi, lovers of hardboiled fiction and film noir— and just plain, old-fashioned good writing. Ronald Tierney is an author of many mystery novels, most notably of a series featuring an older (late 60s), semi-retired detective named Deetz Shanahan. His prose is direct, uncluttered, seemingly simple, but with very subtle writerly touches that stand out for a careful reader. Plus he maintains a wonderful blog (“Life, Death, and Fog”) where he posts about film and books and (occasionally) politics. His opinions are generally left-wing and always sensible; the October 31 entry, for example, talks very intelligently about gun safety. Check him out when you have a chance!
March 5, 2016
Hello Everyone— long time no post. It’s been a busy fall and winter in the Messick household, but spring in on the way and that means warmer weather, longer days, exhibition baseball, and lots of other good things.
I’ve let far too much time pass between posts here. My only excuse is the usual one— too much to do, too little time. I have a number of writing projects going— more about that later— and also need to do a wholesale rework of this website, moving some older stuff to an archive and making it generally more user-friendly. While that’s underway, here’s a link to a new piece of mine running today in Salon. I hope you find it interesting!
March 29, 2016
There was an interesting piece in yesterday’s NY Times by Nick Confessore on the current state of GOP politics (“How the GOP Elite Lost Its Voters to Donald Trump”). Confessore is a fine reporter and his story contains a wealth of insights, BUT— like much mainstream journalism on this issue, he mostly avoids the elephant in the newsroom: namely, the role of race in the evolution of today’s GOP. I’ve written about this issue many times before and won’t rehearse those arguments here, but I did want to make a few quick points.
A classic complaint about political journalism is that it focuses on the horse race rather than policy— who’s up or down in the polls, who’s ahead in delegates, that sort of thing. But when political journalists actually pivot to policy— and it does happen, though not as often as it should— their default position is often some kind of economic determinism: a conviction that filthy lucre, and the distribution thereof, is the main driver of political behavior. That is essentially Confessore’s theory in this new piece. While he nods in passing at the racial animus behind much of Trump’s appeal, his answer to his titular question comes down to this: the GOP elite has for decades systematically undermined the economic interests of its white working-class voters, and finally, in the wake of the Great Recession, the latter have risen up in righteous anger against said elite. Trump is the vessel of their outrage.
Now this explanation isn’t simply wrong, which is to say it’s not wrong in a simple way. These people— like everyone else who isn’t part of the 1%— have been devastated by the GOP’s economic royalism. We used to hear a lot about “trickle down” economics, but at least that idea gestured at a non-zero sum conception of economic growth. The economic malaise of the 1970s, globalization, the ascension of finance capitalism in the 1980s— along with a determined Republican assault on organized labor— gave the plutocrats means and motive to ditch the idea that all Americans should benefit from economic growth. Now they would grab as much as possible for themselves. In 2010, for example, an astonishing 93% of all income growth in this country went to the wealthiest 1% of the population. (Bernie Sanders sprinkles this statistic into his stump speeches all the time, and who can blame him? It’s enough to make anybody into a socialist.) But plutocratic greed, like the poor, is always with us. It didn’t prevent an unprecedented improvement in working- and middle-class incomes from the mid-’40s through the mid-’70s, as the benefits of post-war growth were allocated much more equitably. So what changed? What event, or events, intervened to skew the income distribution so decidedly to the already fabulously rich? A generation of political dominance by the GOP, increasingly determined to abet the oligarchic ambitions of its corporate masters. And that dominance, in turn, was secured through a consistent strategy of (more or less) coded appeals to the racial anxieties of the white working-class, especially that portion of it resident in the American South. (Yes, yes, I know: the story of the rise of income inequality is actually more complicated than this. But complexity is not always inconsistent with culpability.)
The irony, of course, is that no group of Americans has fared worse in the world wrought by Republican economic policy. As bad as it’s been for the rest of us, low-skill workers without a college degree have been carpet-bombed (to borrow a phrase from Ted Cruz) by this new world order. The plausibility of Confessore’s argument derives from this fact, and from our natural inclination to think that money, if not the root of all evil, will seldom turn up far from the tree where politics is concerned.
But this plausibility is compromised by other, more inconvenient facts which Confessore largely ignores. Probably the most apposite is this: in poll after poll, about two-thirds of Trump supporters identify themselves as birthers— as proponents, that is, of the utterly insane view that President Obama is some kind of Manchurian Candidate who came to the presidency by way of Kenya. The kindest thing you can say about this is that it betrays an appallingly defective epistemic filter. The most obvious— but telling— thing is that it signals a mentality disturbingly sensitive to racial identity when it bestows (or withholds) social trust.
This last point chimes with most other things we know about Trump’s supporters— their venomous attitudes toward Hispanics and Muslims, for instance, and the frequency with which they display sympathy (if not outright support) for white supremacist tropes. Trump, a self-promoter of genius, understood this aspect of his intended audience with preternatural clarity. That is why he opened his campaign, back in June, with a vicious attack on the character of Hispanic immigrants— not with a lecture on the neoliberal outrages of Republican economic orthodoxy. Trump realized that the economic frustrations of these voters (which are very real) are filtered through their racially inflected worldview, rather than the worldview being shaped by their economic struggles. Here Confessore was led astray by the economic determinism he shares with writers such as Thomas “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank. When a party tells voters that their problems result from the anti-social tendencies of people whose appearance, lives, and religion differ from their own— and when it repeats this message relentlessly for the better part of fifty years— it ends up with a “base” that imputes its economic situation to brown-skinned immigrants rather than to unchecked corporate power. Anyone who can’t buy this has by now become a Democrat or an Independent. The GOP created the electorate it wanted, and that electorate, in 2016, may very well become the instrument of the Party’s dissolution.
Of course, this leaves one-third of Trump voters who may very well be motivated more by economic than racial anxiety. Presumably they account for most of the potential “Trump – Sanders” crossover vote we keep hearing about. While it’s hard to imagine the Democrats attracting much support from the birther crowd, they might— just might— find a way to appeal to this relatively sane one-third. It would take a commitment to populist but economically realistic policies, policies that recognize the importance of constraining market power in the name of widespread opportunity and prosperity. I hope the Clinton and Sanders campaigns are listening.
As the fortuitous concourse of circumstance would have it, there is a wonderful piece in the NY Times today by Thomas Edsall on some of the themes I discussed in yesterday’s post. Edsall, a professor at Columbia University, is doing some of the finest writing there is on the demographic and other paradoxes of the 2016 campaign. Read it here.
May 4, 2016
The Day After…
I’ve spent most of today reading various responses to Donald Trump’s Indiana win last night, a win that essentially guarantees him the GOP presidential nomination. The best of these, unsurprisingly, is Thomas Edsall’s piece in the NY Times (“The Great Trump Reshuffle”) about how Trump’s victory reveals the GOP to be a party dominated by the sensibilities of largely uneducated working-class whites— a party, in other words, that looks a lot like the Democratic Party before the New Deal. Elsewhere in the Times, Ross Douthat navel-gazes the various “theories” of the GOP that Trump’s “presumptive nominee” status disproves, and the ever-fatuous Thomas Friedman sees Trump doing “the work of the Lord” in breaking up an obstructionist Republican Party. (He expects Trump’s GOP to be any less obstructionist?) Meanwhile, in Slate, Isaac Chotiner calls Trump a fascist and Jamelle Bouie dispenses (as usual) some smart words of cool wisdom (“Donald Trump Will Never be President of the United States”).
There are lots of insights here, but also a great deal of stale thinking. This operates at the level of particular judgments and also— more importantly, maybe— at the level of method. There seems to be a general blindness (and blandness) about exactly what kind of thing Trump’s victory is, and therefore about what could possibly count as an adequate explanation of it.
For starters, Trump is not a fascist. Fascists have ideas— repellent ideas, to be sure, but ideas nonetheless. Trump does not. He’s an upscale Willy Loman— a salesman whose ultimate brand, he knows, is himself. Casting about for an underserved market, he found one in the decidedly downscale white proletariat lured into the Republican Party by long-standing cultural, racial, and religious resentments. Because he is also a preening egotist whose nihilism knows no bounds, he did not think twice about the repercussions— for the Republican Party, for the country as a whole— of dedicating his campaign to a relentless stoking of those resentments. Trump is a huckster, pure and simple, whose bottomless opportunism charts the point where American salesmanship meets the American darkness.
Chotiner is right, though, that the chattering classes generally fail to grasp the magnitude of what just happened. This is because they have largely spent the last ten months clutching at “normalizing” explanations— a natural response to trauma, but singularly unhelpful in this case. And so we hear about reality TV and celebrity culture, we hear about the influence of right-wing media and the impact of Twitter and Facebook, we hear about the gradual erosion of party authority. We hear a great deal, too, about the declining fortunes of the white working class. All of these things have salience here, but they simply cannot explain how this man became the presidential nominee of a major political party.
Take the oft-invoked “decline of the white working class” trope, for instance. Yes, this demographic has been shattered by the Great Recession and globalization generally. Yes, they have been poorly served by the Republican Party they’ve supported since the mid-’60s. This kind of explanation appeals because it is safely conventional and mainstream— it invokes material interests, which we’re all supposed to know are always at the heart of political behavior. We vote our pocketbooks, right?
But if economic discontent lies behind Trump’s success, why did it take him so long to expand his share of the vote beyond 30-40%? And why does he trail far behind Hillary Clinton in almost every national poll? After all, there is a LOT of economic discontent in America right now. Plenty of people have been scorched by the Great Recession, globalization, and income stagnation. Between 1979 and 2007, 90% of American households saw income growth that lagged the national average— an average that was itself severely inflated by enormous growth in incomes at the very top. 90%! Shouldn’t Trump actually be doing much better than he in fact is?
The clue here is not the discontent Trump appeals to— it’s his explanation for it. Trump hasn’t captured the hearts of minds of economically stressed Americans per se, but of that subset of economically stressed Americans who are prepared to believe certain things about their situation. In their minds, it doesn’t stem from a rapacious global capitalism aided and abetted by its servants in the GOP, but from “big government” rewarding the unproductive and undeserving at the expense of hardworking “true” Americans. The problem isn’t robber barons like Trump and their excessive influence on our political process— it’s Mexicans and Muslims and African-Americans and “disgusting” women and everyone else who rejects the authority of white Christian male America. If we just bring these people to heel and return to the old dispensation, all our problems will be solved and America will be great again.
These voters have always been a slice of the electorate, of course, but until now they have rarely been able to control the nominating process. What changed? How did they become such a force within the GOP— a force powerful enough to wrest control of the party from the Reince Priebuses and Jeb Bushes and Mitt Romneys of the world and hand it over to Donald Trump?
Since the mid-’60s, when the Party saw a chance to scoop up white voters repelled by the Civil Rights movement, it has been engaged in a relentless effort to placate their anti-modern sensibilities. The world changed around them, and the GOP said soothingly that it was the world’s fault, not theirs— America was headed in the wrong direction! We have to stand up for freedom! We have to take back the country! Over a generation, this strategy drove liberal and moderate voices out of the Party and left it dependent on an increasingly shrill version of “conservatism.” What had been a pragmatic political philosophy shaped by Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower hardened into dogma and doctrine. Anything that appeared to contradict the pure faith must, therefore, be shouted down or wished away. Reason, critical thought, evidence— all were tools of the Devil. What mattered were the sacred truths of supply side economics and the depredations of “welfare queens” and their “strapping young bucks.” Later came the murder of Vince Foster and then WMD in Iraq and then democracy in Iraq and then “garbage” climate science and then birtherism and socialism and death panels and Ebola and so on and so on.
What GOP leaders never grasped was that in cultivating this obscurantism they were sealing their own fate. They created the electorate that eventually turned against them. When you tell people for a generation or more that facts don’t matter and expertise is an elitist illusion, you end up with voters whose grievances are at the service of their ignorance and credulity— and who are therefore ripe pickins for a cynical demagogue like Trump. They won’t think twice when he tells them about the wall Mexico will pay for, or that he can “ban” Muslims from entering the country or singlehandedly reverse the effects of globalization. They’ll lap it up like milk, because that’s what you’ve trained them to do. They will cheer his bluster and swagger and ignore his vacuous rhetoric. There will be no scrutiny of his logic and no second thoughts about “the evidence.” They will vote their prejudices just as you’ve always told them to do. And they will deliver your party to a ruthless huckster to shatter and destroy.
What happened last night was that the Republican Party got the nominee it deserves from the electorate it created. And now the rest of us will pay the price.
June 3, 2016
Well, we live in interesting times, no?
We’re used to hearing that elections are “turning points,” but this one, I think, really is.
The GOP’s 50-year project of radicalization left it with a base that looked at Donald Trump and saw, incredibly, a potential president. Now every other Republican has a choice to make, and the country will— or at least, should— hold them accountable for years to come. If there is any justice in this world, the Paul Ryans and Marco Rubios of the GOP just forfeited their right to be taken seriously as political leaders.
This isn’t a matter of the party picking someone, like Nixon, who was professionally accomplished but personally damaged, nor of it selecting a figure, like Reagan, whose knowledge was limited but who had the support of an intellectual movement and of highly pragmatic, experienced professionals— and who had demonstrated a willingness to listen to them.
No, this is a matter of a party falling under the spell of a cult of personality— of it acquiescing in the personal rule of a soulless vulgarian whose bluster and bravado cannot conceal a desperate emptiness of self. For it to offer this man up as its candidate— to make him one of two people who might become the most powerful human being on the planet— is an act of breathtaking irresponsibility.
Imagine if George Wallace had captured the Democratic nomination in 1968. Then every Democrat would have faced the kind of choice every Republican faces now. Don’t think it’s any different, folks— if anything, our present dilemma is worse.
Thucydides said that war is a stern master. History is an even sterner judge.
July 20, 2016
The conservative writer Reihan Salam, a practitioner of the kind of thoughtful, intellectually serious conservatism that— gasp!— used to be fairly common in the GOP, has an interesting piece up on Slate today. (I’ve posted a link below.) It deserves an equally thoughtful response, so I will refrain from describing this Republican Convention as the biggest collection of cranks, kooks, paranoids, racists, con artists, cretins, and militarists since the last Lyndon Larouche soiree.
Ooops— guess I won’t.
But seriously— Salam is making two rather different (though not logically inconsistent) points. The first is that politics is a volatile game, with lots of opportunities to get into trouble and lots of opportunists too. Hence coalitions come and go. The second is that tensions always simmer among the various elements of a coalition and have a way of eventually boiling over. Hence coalitions come and go.
I think both arguments are correct, but to infer that disaffected members of the Democratic coalition will automatically flee to the GOP assumes there will be a GOP for them to flee to— that is, a functional political party that can legitimately contend for national office. That may not be the case after this election cycle.
What the Trump event exposes is the party’s fragmentation into (at least) three disparate pieces. There is a large white nationalist element consisting mostly (though not entirely) of former Democrats who migrated into the GOP after the Democratic Party’s embrace of racial equality in the 1960s. These folks are eaten alive by racial, religious, and cultural anxieties, but have no ideological problem with federal economic activism so long as it targets hardworking, productive Americans— i.e., white people. There is a large group of educated suburban voters who are socially moderate (if not liberal) but like the Republican emphasis on upward mobility and national security. And there is a small but powerfully influential set of robber barons— the “donor class”— who couldn’t care less about the working class, the middle class, or Jesus but who demand ever lower taxes and lighter regulation of business.
This coalition held together for the better part of 50 years, but fell victim to its own success. The GOP’s neoliberal economic agenda created the conditions for the Great Recession, which revealed to the white nationalists just how screwed they really are in today’s economy. The problem is, the party’s leadership, tethered as it is to the donor class, simply has no alternatives to offer— neoliberalism is conservatism as far as they are concerned.
So I really don’t see how they put this thing back together. The cat is out of the bag where the effects of GOP economic policy are concerned, which means you probably can’t lure the untermensch back in with renewed appeals to their racial resentments. But without the rural South (and, to a lesser degree, the rural Midwest) you can’t harvest the votes needed to win national elections. On the other hand, the more you spout vile calumnies against minorities, homosexuals, and women, the more you alienate suburban voters. And there just aren’t enough millionaires and billionaires to elect presidents and senators.
So we may be looking at a future in which the place of the GOP is taken by two successor parties— one that panders to white nationalist anger, another that represents bourgeois sensibilities. The robber barons will scuttle from one to the other as inclination and opportunity provide. The GOP may continue to prosper in state and local elections for some time— just as the Whigs did— but there, too, will eventually come under the same demographic pressures now unraveling the national party.
As noted above, we live in interesting times.
August 26, 2016
Isaac Chotiner is doing some good work at Slate, conducting a number of thoughtful, serious-minded interviews with people who think and write about politics. Yesterday’s interview with J.D.Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, is a good example. (Link provided below.) Vance and Chotiner talk at length about the travails of the “white working class” and how its struggles might be related to the political fortunes of Donald J. Trump.
One point that emerges from their discussion, I think, is that we need to distinguish two questions: (1) Assuming there is some kind of pathology afoot among the white working class, what explains it? (2) Some members of the white working class, predominantly those who are older and male, account for most of Trump’s electoral support. What explains that? And does it differ from the explanation of (A)?
I think the failure to see these questions as analytically distinct has given rise to multiple confusions, some of which Vance shares.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to believe that white working class malaise is rooted in economics— principally in the disappearance of the kind of semi-skilled manufacturing work (often unionized, at least in the North and upper Midwest) that gave non-college whites an entree into bourgeois life. As these jobs were lost to automation and globalism— and as government failed to invest in any sustained, effective program of retraining and reeducation of these workers— the economic basis of their personal and communal lives collapsed. (I’m from North Carolina and have seen this process up close and personal in my own home town.) This collapse, and the hopelessness, frustration, and resentment it engenders, explain most (if not all) of the social pathologies Vance mentions.
But not all of these persons end up being Trump supporters. A recent Gallop study of 87,000 Trump voters revealed that they are not more likely to be economically distressed than non-Trump voters among Republicans. In fact, they tend to be a bit better off than the average. Nor are they more likely to have been recently laid-off, or to have been directly affected by free trade or globalization. The study did isolate three markers that make it more likely such voters will support Trump: (1) They live in areas with high mortality rates among whites, (2) These areas exhibit low rates of socio-economic mobility, and (3) They are areas with little in the way of racial diversity— white enclaves, if you will.
If you put these findings together with the racialist cast of Trump’s rhetoric, I think the most obvious interpretation is this: his voters consist of those white working class citizens who are most inclined to view their situation, personally and communally, through a racially inflected lens. They see the decline in opportunity for their children and younger people generally, they see the drug use and indolence and broken homes, and their instinct is to blame these things on the Racial Other— on brown people stealing across the border, on black and brown people who receive unwarranted benefits from a government content to abandon them, the virtuous white remnant, to the tender mercies of global capitalism.
The white working class predicament is rooted in economics. The belief that Donald Trump can remedy that predicament is rooted in race. The debate we hear so often in the media— and that Vance and Chotiner, to some degree, rehearse— is whether Trump’s support is driven by economics or by prejudice. But this is, as the logicians say, a false dilemma.What we have here is economically inspired anxiety filtered through racial suspicion and paranoia. The racial element is invoked to explain the economic problem.
Vance also muses helpfully on the future of the Republican Party. I don’t know any more than he does about how it will play out, but I am not sanguine.
Right now the party, as an electoral entity, consists of two major parts— rural, mainly working class whites in the South and Midwest, and more affluent, better educated suburban whites in those regions and elsewhere. The GOP’s strategy since 1964 has been to leverage the racial and cultural anxieties of the former in order to drive an economic agenda of benefit mainly to the latter (and to the donor class, financially important but electorally insignificant.) The Great Recession finally awakened working class whites to the devastation that agenda had brought them, thus driving a wedge between the party’s two electoral blocks. Trump is the tribune of that awakening.
After Trump loses (probably substantially) in November, the party will have to decide how to move forward. There will be enormous pressure from its leadership, donor class, and commentariat to interpret the election as a referendum on Donald Trump and not as a repudiation of conservatism. But this is far too facile. As I argued in an earlier piece for Salon, Trump’s animating concerns, especially on issues of race, immigration, and gender, locate him securely in one (very powerful) strain of American conservative thought. The question won’t be whether the voters rejected Trump or conservatism; they will reject Trump, in part at least, because they rightly associate him with a kind of conservatism. The real question will be whether the GOP has the stomach to think through, clearly and honestly, what this might mean.
And here, of course, is where my pessimism comes in. There isn’t a lot of historical evidence that political parties are very good at this sort of thing— at clear-eyed self-critiques in the wake of electoral disaster. After the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater was trounced in 1964, there was a fair amount of Republican hand-wringing over the lessons of that defeat— but a mere 12 years later the party nearly gave its presidential nomination to the arch-conservative Ronald Reagan over the sitting president, the more moderate Gerald Ford. (And of course Reagan did capture the nomination in 1980.) After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, GOP worthies commissioned the famous (or is it infamous?) “autopsy” to try to figure out where the party had gone wrong and how it might make things right. And now Donald Trump is the Republican nominee.Do you see a trend here?
(I suppose one could argue that a counterexample is the work of the Democratic Leadership Council in steering the Democratic Party back to the center after the horrors of the 1988 election. But that is a question for another time.)
There is a solid strategic reason for parties to avoid any especially rigorous self-scrutiny of this sort. In our winner-take-all electoral system, political parties— successful ones, anyway— tend to be broad coalitional concerns. When you start openly musing about whether one part of your coalition consistently causes you to lose elections, you run the risk that they will jump ship— moving to another party, perhaps, or simply staying home on election day. And if this coalitional segment is very important to you— because of its size or intensity, say— its defection could be even more ruinous for you. From a purely strategic point of view, your best bet, in such a situation, is always to try to find a way to keep them inside, while doing what you can to mitigate the damage they inflict.
This is precisely the dilemma the GOP faces with Trump’s supporters. That segment of the Republican coalition is now powerful enough to have wrested control of the nominating process from the party “establishment” and leadership. They simply represent too many votes for the GOP to wash its hands of them and walk away. There aren’t enough suburban voters to sustain the GOP as a competitive national party; electorally, it is far more dependent on large numbers of rural whites in places such as Texas, Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas— the very folks, that is, who awarded the nomination to Trump.What is more likely to happen, I think, is that some slippery but suitably shiny rhetoric will be sprinkled over an elitist economic agenda— some gossamer words about “opportunity” and “fairness”— and the party will then turn to the one thing it knows its disparate elements can converge on: opposing Hillary Clinton at every turn.
In other words, four more years of the same old crap.