Friday, February 19, 2016


By Ronald T. Fox

Republican establishment leaders are scratching their heads over the Donald Trump phenomenon. They seem shocked that so many party faithful would gravitate to such a reckless demagogue whose acidic rhetoric has managed to alienate, among others, women, Latinos and young voters--constituencies the party needs to attract if it hopes to win in November.  Worse yet, perhaps, it has confounded the billionaire fatcats that have been bankrolling the party.  The Trump insurgency is threatening to unravel the GOP and the conservative principles it holds so dear.  Try as they have, party leaders and many of its deep-pocketed supporters have so far not been able to stifle the Trump juggernaut.

Many Republicans leaders see the insurrection among traditional party faithful mainly as a product of Trump's unique, larger-than-life personality, his ability to dominate the airwaves, and his deftness in appealing to voter anger with tough-sounding promises.  They're not seeing the bigger picture.

What explains the rebelliousness among the GOP ranks?  For an answer, the party's establishment needs to look in the mirror.

Trump draws his support mainly from lesser educated, lower-income, white working class Americans who have long harbored xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist, sentiments.  This voting bloc has been stifled from openly expressing deep-seeded bigoted beliefs by a political culture rife with restrictive laws on “incorrect” speech, social pressures, and elite strategies that have kept them in check.  Though suppressed, these core prejudices have smoldered under the surface, waiting for the appropriate moment to explode.  

The bigotry of these white folks didn’t manifest itself in the political arena as long as most of their economic needs were satisfactorily met.  When the sluggish global economy left them struggling with unemployment, stagnant wages, growing income inequality, and little hope for a better economic future, their ferment grew.  With an increasingly liberal culture challenging their core beliefs about race, gender, marriage, life-style choices, and the sanctity of traditions, they began to look for a political alternative to the established parties and arrogant political elites they believed had betrayed them.  Their anger intensified as they watched political donors, lawmakers and lobbyists financially prospering while they struggled to make ends meet.

The Tea Party was first to tap into this wide pool of white, blue-collar resentment when it began its grassroots organizing campaign.  Small and modest at first, the TP movement quickly got co-opted by corporate billionaires, like the Koch Brothers, who, although they didn’t necessarily share the xenophobia, chauvinism, nativism, racism, or fundamentalist religious beliefs of many TP followers, saw an opportunity to piggy-back the mushrooming movement into political power.  Their cause was backed by former GOP heavyweights like Dick Armey, and strongly promoted by conservative media celebrities like Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity. 

The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican ConservatismWealthy businessmen, incensed at the excessive reach of the federal government, had been trying to build a “counter-establishment” movement since the 1970s.  They saw a window of opportunity to use the TP movement as a vehicle to at long last mobilize popular support for their libertarian, anti-government agenda: lower taxes on wealth and less government spending and regulation-- all of which, by the way, would promote their financial interests.  If this required playing to TP bigotry, so be it.  The Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity was instrumental in providing the financial and organizational wherewithal to enable the grassroots TP movement to grow into a national political force. (See Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, and also Dark Money, by Jane Mayer.

Thus began a systematically orchestrated campaign by the GOP establishment and its biggest financial backers to tap into the populist uprising and turn it against blacks and Latinos, welfare recipients, immigrants, intellectuals, science experts, the governing system, and anything else on the white working class hate list.  It was a marriage of convenience.  

Imagined demons conjured up by 9/11 facilitated manipulation of the fears and hatreds of disgruntled white folk, helping turn them into the anti-government, establishment, immigrant, Muslim, and generally anti-Other, rebels they've become.  President Obama became a convenient scapegoat for what ailed America.  Tea Partiers became the shock troops that fired up anti-Obama and anti-liberal enmity.  Fox News carried their water.

An essential part of the scapegoating strategy was for Republicans in the Congress to oppose any initiative promulgated by the president and his fellow Democrats.  They believed this would tarnish the Democratic Party and make Obama a one-term president, hence boosting Republican electoral fortunes in 2012.  If things became bad enough, voters would surely turn to the GOP to set things straight.  The scapegoating strategy didn’t produce a 2012 Obama defeat, but it did prove a winning formula in other races.  

Blessed with friends at Fox News and on talk radio, mountains of campaign cash, and hyper-rich conservative friends with the wherewithal to move public opinion to the right, the Republican establishment in 2014 succeeded in turning white resentments into GOP votes, enabling the party to take control of both houses of Congress as well as a solid majority of state and local governments. It was a formula that had worked well in the past, reminiscent of Nixon's southern strategy. (I also recall Republicans exploiting hatred of immigrants in California with Proposition 187 in 1994, which helped re-elect Pete Wilson as governor.)  Now there was an opportunity for it to be more systematically implemented.  The future looked bright, or so it seemed. 

What the GOP establishment didn’t count on was that the new political base they were carefully nurturing by appealing to the baser instincts of the disaffected would rebel against them.  Summoning up prejudice to support its electoral prospects, the Republican Party is now facing an insurgency from the mob they helped create. They are reaping what they sowed.

The Democratic Party establishment has also largely failed to provide solutions to the problems that concern much of its traditional base.  Its steady movement to the right both philosophically and in its policy positions (spun as "moderation"), and its cozy relationship with Wall Street and with neoconservatives, has disconnected it from many young people who take their democracy seriously. Not surprisingly, these more idealistic voters have gravitated to the candidacy of Bernie Sanders.  Like Trump, Sanders has directed his pitch to disillusioned populist voters, but in contrast to The Donald he is playing to their hopes and ideals, not their fears and hatreds.  Sander's vision of a more just and equitable America resonates well with insurgent Democrats as does his commitment to improve government, not tear it down. Recent polls show him closing in on Hilary Clinton and running better than her against all Republican candidates.  A Trump-Sanders contest? Wouldn't that be something?

The anti-establishment insurgencies within both parties are reshaping the fabric of American politics. Where this will lead is anyone’s guess, though there's good reason to believe it could lead to the demise of the two-party system as we have long known it.  It promises to only widen our polarized national divide. 

Even if Trump doesn't win the nomination, and heaven-forbid the presidency, he has already transformed the tone and temper of American political life.  The other GOP candidates, who have all similarly tapped into white working-class rage, and who are on board with most of Trump's policy positions, are no less dangerous.  Principled conservatism may be gone forever.  The trends also portend an erosion of moderation in the Democrat Party.  Another victim appears to be presidential campaigns that feature ideas and issues and provide citizens lessons in civic education. What we have now is pure spectacle. 

The popular discontent that many of the Republican elite helped foment has taken on a life of its own.  Whipped into a frenzy by incendiary right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Stephen Bannon at Bretibart News, populist angst turned against the Republican establishment itself.  The party's big wigs couldn't understand what was happening.  But, it really shouldn’t be all that hard to understand.  When you piss off white folk, sending them chasing after inner-city blacks, Mexicans on Medicaid, immigrants, non-Christians, welfare recipients, women’s health and reproduction centers, and nearly everything done by the federal government, what you get is a disorderly mob that defies logic and refuses to fall into line.  What you get is …. Donald Trump!  


1 comment:

  1. I think a big chunk of this is economic angst and who to blame. Trump has gone nativist and blames immigrants (mostly) and an incompetent federal government for their woes. His followers are not the traditional economic conservatives that have dominated the Republican Party since Reagan. They don't necessarily believe that tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations will improve their economic lives. They sense that the economy is rigged against them and that current establishment Republicans have something to do with the rigging.

    Sanders followers are also rejecting the current establishment economic system that they know is rigged to favor the wealthy. They blame Wall Street and a corrupt establishment political system for their economic woes.
    Sooner or later the current economic regime is going to be overthrown (it may not be this election or the next, but soon) We will have to choose between two econmic solutions. Sander's solution will be more socialistic (he is still a Capitalist) and would resembe the economic ideas of FDR and Lyndon Johnson. This is only "radical" because we haven't done it in awhile.

    What Trump and the grassroots Tea Party are offering are more protectionist trade deals, an aggressive stance against immigrants to prevent them from undercutting wages, further cuts to welfare (but not entitements like Social Security and Medicaee which they see as earned, paid for benefits) and humanitarian aid, and fewer benefits for government bureaucrats which they see as unearned.

    Both of these economic visions will cause pain to the current economic winners (Sanders especially) and will be fought against on every front. This group really wants an establishment Democrat (Hilary Clinton) or establishment Republican (Bush, Rubio) but if forced to choose between Trump and Sanders, would take Trump as "the lesser of two evils"

    Regardless of who wins, the current economics are going to be rejected. Big changes are coming.


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