Meet the “mainstream” Republicans

March 30, 2016

Recent articles about white workers in the National Review show that anti-Trump Republicans can be just as loathsome as the Donald himself, writes Amy Muldoon.

IF YOU can put aside the frightening prospect of a Donald Trump victory in the race for the GOP presidential nomination, there's real satisfaction to be had watching Republicans tear each other apart.

The Onion (of course) captured this sentiment well in its headline after Trump's big success in the Super Tuesday primaries at the start of March: "Smiling Nation Takes Moment To Enjoy Thought Of What RNC Headquarters Like Right Now."

The satirical article reported on hundreds of millions of citizens "feeling an intense sense of delight when picturing a conference room full of sleep-deprived campaign consultants yelling over one another about which candidate needs to drop out and when in order for the 162-year-old political party to remain intact."

Some of the most prominent voices in the Republican freak-out over Trump work at the National Review, a pillar of the conservative establishment founded by William Buckley in 1955.

A week before the Iowa caucuses, the magazine put out an entire "Against Trump" issue, featuring an editorial that blasted the frontrunner as an "unmoored political opportunist" and sneered that "both parties have been infested by candidates who have treated the presidency as an entry-level position. They are the excrescences of instant-hit media culture."

Donald Trump on the campaign trail
Donald Trump on the campaign trail (Gage Skidmore)

The special Trump issue succeeded both in recruiting 20 prominent conservatives to denounce the blowhard frontrunner--and in showing how little it mattered in slowing his momentum. But in the next few weeks, the Review's bile only increased, bringing to the light of day the excrescences (look it up) of its own nasty elitism and hatred of the white working class that it otherwise claims to champion.

In a February 4 article, Kevin D. Williamson described Trump supporters as "economically and socially frustrated white men who wish to be economically supported by the federal government without enduring the stigma of welfare dependency" who "construct for themselves a story in which they have been victimized by elites and a political system based on interest-group politics that serves everyone except them."

The article heaped contempt on Trump's working class and poor supporters, without seeming to notice that middle class and wealthy people are also getting on board. Trump does have disproportionate support from white men without a college degree, but over 40 percent of his backers earn more than the median income.

But things were about to get worse.

A FEW days later, conservative commentator Michael Brendan Dougherty cited Williamson's article as an example of what he viewed as a problematic condescension on the right toward working class Trump supporters.

Republicans, Dougherty argued, haven't done enough for displaced workers and are overly focused on upper-middle-class voters, who he fictionalized as a cocaine-sniffing suburbanite, at the expense of those further down the ladder, who he fictionalized as "Mike," a painkiller-addicted worker on SSI (possibly fraudulently) in "Garbutt, NY," a company town that imploded after its only industry went into decline.

Williamson then fired back with an article titled "Chaos in the Family, Chaos in the State: The White Working Class's Dysfunction," which displayed a raw aristocratic hatred normally only seen in movie villains. If the free-market learned to talk, it would sound like this:

Yes, young men of Garbutt--get off your asses and go find a job...Stonehenge didn't work out, either: Good luck.

And this:

The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.

And this:

Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs...The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump's speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.

Central to Williamson's explanation of the decline of working class life is the influence of "elitist sexual revolutionaries," who are responsible for the collapse of the nuclear, heterosexual family:

The divorce rate doubled over the span of a few decades--even as the marriage rate was declining. Add to that the violence of abortion, which fundamentally alters the relationship between men, women, and children, and what exactly "family" means to those of us born around the time Roe v. Wade was decided becomes a very difficult question.

The result of this imagined crisis, according to Williamson, is a longing for a new family--and a new father-figure who will rule with a firm but fair hand:

The current social regime of illegitimacy, serial monogamy, abortion, and liberal divorce has rendered traditional families optional, at best--the great majority of divorces are initiated by wives, not by husbands--and the welfare state has at least in part supplanted the Mikes in their role as providers, assuming that they have the wherewithal to fill that role in the first place. Traditional avenues for achieving respect, status, and permanence are lost to them...

[They are] waiting for the father-führer figure they have spent their lives imagining, the protector and vindicator who will protect them, provide for them and set things in order.

THERE IS, of course, so much that is horrible about Williamson's piece, but perhaps the worst part of all is that he and his magazine are supposed to represent the "normal" side of the Republican Party.

Donald Trump is frightening, but what are we supposed to think about his Republican opponents? Their vision of 21st century America is one part Grapes of Wrath, with dislocated workers traveling from town to town in search of work, and one part Victorian England, with patriotic wives laying back and thinking of capitalism.

This vision is rooted in more than a personal bias against poor people--what some would call "classism." It's an attitude necessary for any ruling class towards those it exploits: You're at the bottom because you deserve to be there. It's not the system, it's you.

When Williamson's article touched off a predictable storm, fellow National Review contributor David French doubled--and then tripled--down on the argument, clearly stating that the failings of white workers are moral, and cannot be addressed by any government action:

These are strong words, but they are fundamentally true and important to say... For generations, conservatives have rightly railed against deterministic progressive notions that put human choices at the mercy of race, class, history, or economics. Those factors can create additional challenges, but they do not relieve any human being of the moral obligation to do their best.

WILLIAMSON AND French both display an unwavering commitment to the ongoing project started in the 1970s (sometimes called neoliberalism) to free up business from the constraints of any restrictions on trade or labor--and the centrality of sexism to that project.

The result has been the largest transfer of wealth from the bottom of society to the top, with the costs of living and raising a family pushed more and more onto the family unit. At the same time, women's control over our bodies has been under relentless siege, as even birth control has become fair game.

What is perhaps most disturbing in reading these articles is that the authors are well aware of the devastating impact of neoliberalism--Williamson even quotes a recent Washington Post report that found a correlation between counties with high support for Trump and those with falling life expectancies for non-college educated whites--but they persist in blaming those trampled under its wheels.

Usually, this kind of naked ruling-class cruelty comes out in response to outbreaks of struggle, when workers are forcing their humanity into the face of the rulers. In this case, it's the Republican Party's internal crisis--which Trump didn't create, but skillfully exploits--that is forcing the brazenness of their entitlement into the light.

While the ruling class has continued to thrive economically, politically, it has lost credibility. The financial crisis and resulting bailout of 2008 made plain the unjust priorities of both political parties. Combined with George W. Bush's massive failure in Iraq, the Republicans fell from favor, and the Democrats stepped in to stabilize the system under Barack Obama.

The now-discredited Republicans turned to the one section that was energized following Obama's election--the Tea Party--to help them claw their way back to a majority in Congress. Reading the National Review, it's clear that many establishment Republicans would like to teleport back to the 2001-07 era, and forget this whole thing ever happened.

The ideologues of conservatism preach that the free market provides equal opportunity, so any claims of disadvantage within that system are simply liberal whining and claims of oppression are the result of a false sense of "victimhood."

After decades of depicting the main culprits of this "victim mentality" as people of color supposedly defrauding welfare or jumping border fences, anti-Trump Republicans are now turning some of their fire on the white working class, particularly those who have been hit by deindustrialization.

In an ironic twist, white workers who support Trump--many of whom have accepted at least some of the Republicans' racialized stereotypes about "the undeserving poor"--are now being pathologized with the same stereotypes, at the hands of the very same Republicans.

And in an ironic twist on an ironic twist, those same Republicans are embarrassed by Trump and his supporters for being so unrefined that they won't follow the GOP's time-honored "Southern strategy" of using coded language to promote racism, and instead embrace bigotry more openly.

WILLIAMSON REPEATEDLY mocks Trump supporters for blaming "wily Orientals" and immigrants for their predicament, but it isn't voters who came up with idea of blaming China and immigrants. For years, Democrats have promised to stop offshoring of jobs, while Tea Party Republicans hounded immigrants for "stealing" work.

Racism and nationalism as a response to job losses and plant relocations have been used to get votes and to deflect attention from the much more complicated story, which includes relocations within the U.S. to right-to-work states in the South, rising productivity from increasingly mechanized and computerized means, and a political agenda to destroy collective bargaining and the welfare state.

We need a re-emergence of the kind of class struggle to take back what they have stolen piecemeal over the last several decades. The dichotomy of working class life isn't between amoral, self-indulgent communities on the one hand and hard-working, law-abiding, morally upstanding communities on the other. It is between organized and unorganized, between powerful and powerless, between hopeful and demoralized. And that is a question of politics and organization.

Williamson and his ilk have made it clear that they think the system needs to stay the course on disorganizing and impoverishing the working class. Trump is capitalizing on the crisis of the Republicans and the increased legitimacy in recent years for anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas.

The developing polarization in the U.S. needs a stronger opposition movement that can defeat both Trump's hate-mongering and the attitudes of the supposedly more rational mainstream conservatives, who direct their condescension toward the entire working class even while championing policies that immiserate it.

Our side should be equally clear that there is no place on the left for any glimmer of superiority toward white working people, as has been exhibited in some sneering articles about Trump's support.

We have to build on the class struggle that has lately put the city of Chicago on the map--from the protest that scared away Trump earlier this month to the one day teachers' strike set for April 1.

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