The Trumpification of American politics?

October 26, 2018

Lance Selfa, editor of U.S. Politics in an Age of Uncertainty, a collection of essays on the Trump era, considers why mainstream Republicans are closing ranks behind a president they once claimed to despise — and what this says about the state of U.S. politics.

IT’S BEEN clear for months that the 2018 midterm elections will be “all about Trump.”

For the Democratic Party, this was the case since Trump’s inauguration brought millions into the streets for the first Women’s March. Throughout the last two years, the Democrats’ main message has been for people outraged by Trump to vote — in order to put a check on Trump and the Republicans in Congress.

For the Republican Party as a whole, embracing Trump and Trumpism has been a little slower to develop. But now, there’s no doubt that GOP candidates, from the top of the ticket to the bottom, are either going “full Trump” or aligning themselves with the toxic president.

Toothless Trump critics like Sens. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker are retiring, and other Republicans facing election in November know they can’t alienate GOP voters, 90 percent of whom support the president.

Even if Republicans wanted to separate themselves from him, Trump won’t let them. At his rallies, Trump repeats the same message at every one of his rallies: Republican supporters should vote as if Trump was on the ballot.

Donald Trump speaks at a Republican rally in Phoenix
Donald Trump speaks at a Republican rally in Phoenix (Gage Skidmore | flickr)

These factors have led many political analysts to conclude that the GOP is now “Trump’s party.” The subtext, at least for the more establishment among them, is that Trumpism has defiled the staid Midwestern conservatism that used to define the Republican Party.

An entire cottage industry of conservative pundits and operatives, like George Will, David Frum, Max Boot, Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, among others, circulate through the liberal media, denouncing Trump and exhorting fellow Republicans and conservatives to stand up to him.

Their plaintive cries from the political margins match those of mainstream Democrats who urge their Republican colleagues to come together on “bipartisan” measures to move the country forward. We saw how effective those appeals were in the fight over the Kavanaugh nomination.

WHAT IS unfolding today is hardly a surprise by the standard metrics of mainstream U.S. politics. It isn’t out of the ordinary that supermajorities of Republicans would support a Republican president or that most GOP candidates in the midterm elections would stand or fall based on their relationship to that president.

But are there deeper forces at work? Has Trump managed something truly transformational with the leading party of American capitalism?

Here, we have to ask: What does it mean to say that the Republicans are Trump’s party? We can look at it from below or from above.

From the point of view of rank-and-file Republican voters, it does seem that Trump has a firm hold on a lot of the most fervent GOP supporters. But the media’s incessant focus on Trump’s “base” — which is usually misidentified as the “white working class,” generally defined as whites without a bachelor’s degree — distorts as much as it illuminates.

Many studies have shown that Republicans aren’t a Trumpy monolith — whether the evidence offered is the victory of business/establishment types in GOP primaries or clear disagreements with Trump on foreign policy issues like trade deals or a trade war with China.

Further evidence: A recent Harvard study that attempted to divide the U.S. electorate into what it called “tribes” found that about one-quarter of the electorate stood reliably in two opposite camps: the anti-Trump “resistance” and the conservative Republican side of the electorate. Among the 26 percent of the electorate categorized as firmly conservative was about equally divided between “Make America Great Again” Trumpists and non-Trump Republicans.

Despite the media’s obsessions with Trump’s alleged working class base, it’s clear that vast majority of people who voted for Trump in 2016 were the same people — or at least the same types of people — who voted for stuffed-shirt capitalist Mitt Romney in 2012 or for faux cowboy George W. Bush, the scion the quintessential Republican establishment family, in 2000 and 2004.

Undercurrents of racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and social conservative politics have long coincided among the Republican base with the economic conservatism that more upscale voters support.

But the 2008 economic crisis discredited the kind of elite-friendly, neoliberal politics that the Republican establishment promoted, and shifted a section of the middle-class Republican base in a more extreme direction.

Whether he seriously expected to win the Republican nomination or not, Trump managed to grasp this shift in the political winds, and that allowed him to move from being the candidate of one isolated faction of the GOP to the party’s presidential nominee. As I wrote in the middle of 2016:

If we’re going to talk about Trump’s inevitability, we should really talk about the inevitability of the Republicans — based on their political direction in the past several decades — nominating someone like Trump: an “outsider” to the party apparatus, running on a “populist” or “anti-establishment” platform, who openly advocates nationalist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

In fact, the supposed pillar of bipartisan, serious conservatism — the late Sen. John McCain — foreshadowed this in 2008 when he picked “real American” Sarah Palin as his running mate.

McCAIN-PALIN is a good place to start in looking at the contradictions of the Trump-era Republican Party establishment.

A majority of Republican politicians may be standard-issue conservatives, and their supporters may outnumber Make America Great Again devotees among the Republican electorate, but it makes little difference if all sides of the party converge in support of the same policies.

Case in point: With the single exception of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who voted against confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, all factions of the GOP were held together by the prospect of locking in a conservative majority on the Court for decades.

This has been a constant feature of the Trump era. Leading Republicans like Flake or Corker or Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska — hard-line conservatives all — may issue statements objecting to this or that Trump tweet or action.

But when it comes time to do anything about the policies that Trump is pursuing, they are usually right there with him. Trump has been able to pull this off not because his narrow voting “base” provides him with a Midas touch, but because people in high places have been willing to indulge him in the hopes that he’ll deliver for them.

Forbes writer Steve Denning put it this way: “While much of the discussion in Washington, D.C., is about how Donald Trump has taken over the Republican Party, what’s more striking is how effectively the leadership of the Republican Party has used Donald Trump to enact its own long-held agenda.”

So before we expect a Justice Department investigation under former FBI Director Robert Mueller to deliver a President Pence, let’s remember that there are plenty of political and business leaders who are willing to prop up the administration.

That’s especially true when we look at the constituency that Republican politicians care about the most: big business and its donors.

In a perceptive analysis of Trump as a “lumpen-capitalist” at Jacobin, Sam Farber pointed out that the capitalist class may not like Trump, but they’ve gotten a lot out of him, so they have an incentive to stick with him. As Farber notes:

Capitalist support for Trump increased substantially after he took office. His right-wing tax policies and even more extreme right-wing policies of drastic deregulation in the key fields of the environment, labor and consumer protection have won over large sections of the capitalist class. The American capitalist willingness to support Trump’s administration is not only due to his tax cuts and deregulatory policies, but because his regime coincides with a continued cyclical economic expansion.

While the majority of capitalists may be opposed to Trump’s tariffs and trade wars with China and the European Union, they are muted in their opposition to the administration because, and as long as, profits continue to rise. But they don’t trust him and cannot build with him a relationship with mutually agreed rules.

Of course, the irony here is that Trump — the supposed “populist” standing up for the “forgotten American” — has delivered as much, and probably more, for big business and the rich than any establishment Republican could have.

Trump’s con game is so transparent — and, to date, so successful — that the rest of the party are following suit.

For this reason, Republican candidates have generally abandoned campaigning on the Trump tax cuts because even a strong segment of their own voters can see they only benefitted the rich and corporations.

Instead, the Trump megaphone is blaring out about “leftist mobs” and “hordes at the border” to gin up Republican enthusiasm for the midterms.

EVEN IF the Republicans suffer a drubbing in the midterm elections — a far-from-guaranteed outcome — no one should expect Trumpian politics to disappear. In fact, if the Democrats make gains in the House, it’s most likely that the remaining Republicans will be even more conservative than the current House majority.

But it isn’t just the dynamics of U.S. politics that will preserve Trumpian “populism” as a viable right-wing politics in the Republican Party. Trumpism is part of a worldwide phenomenon that has particularly taken hold in the aftermath of the 2007-08 Great Recession.

In country after country, the recession reinforced a shift in mainstream politics to the right.

Longtime governing parties, from mainstream conservatives to social democrats, embraced neoliberal austerity, while right-wing “populist” parties like the National Front in France and the Freedom Party in Austria, blaming immigrants and Muslims for deteriorating living standards, presented themselves as opponents of a corrupt status quo.

As author Neil Davidson has written, these forces have filled a vacuum created when the two major political blocs in capitalist politics — the traditional right and the social democratic or liberal “left” — converged around acceptance of neoliberal economic policies.

With substantive differences over economic policy taken off the table, differentiation between the two blocs often came down to differences on “cultural” issues like religion, race and immigration.

The 2007-08 Great Recession shattered whatever popular appeal (Lower taxes! Less government!) neoliberal economics had, while breaking up the stable bipartisan regimes that had dominated in most rich countries. As Davidson put it:

The revival of the far right as a serious electoral force is based on the apparent solutions it offers to what are now two successive waves of crisis, which have left the working class in the West increasingly fragmented and disorganized, and susceptible to appeals to blood and nation as the only viable form of collectivism still available, particularly in a context where the systemic alternative to capitalism — however false it was — had apparently collapsed in 1989-91.

The political implications are ominous. The increasing interchangeability of political parties gives the far right an opening to appeal to voters by positioning themselves as outside the consensus in ways that speak to their justifiable feelings of rage.

In many countries, one part of the broader conservative side of the spectrum has sliced off in an anti-immigrant or “populist” direction, with the mainstream right accommodating itself to that.

In the current presidential election in Brazil, for example, in the wake of a huge economic collapse, the far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has won over sectors of the traditional right, like agribusiness, and a radicalized middle class that used to form the base of the mainstream neoliberal party of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The U.S. is both similar and different. The same global forces are at work, but its national particularities remain.

Despite the seriousness of the 2007-08 recession, the U.S. did not plunge to near-depression levels like Greece or Spain — or Brazil. So the echo of the far right was fainter in the U.S., and it found a hearing in and around the main conservative party, the Republicans.

So far, at least, the polarization that, in the Spanish state, cracked the previously bipartisan regime into at least four main parties, has mostly remained within the confines of the two main parties in the U.S.

Indeed, as Farber warns, “The alliance of religious conservatism and white nationalism that Trump built may turn out to be more solid and enduring than the Republican neoliberal-religious alliance that preceded it.”

The hope that Democratic victories in 2018 and/or 2020 will wipe away the Trump stain is in vain.

Without a mass upsurge in working-class struggle that alters the political balance of forces in the U.S., the same pressures will continue to batter the two-party system.

If the Democrats in power think that they can resume their normal, wonky bipartisan ways, they are in for a rude awakening. They will face an even more extreme right-wing opposition, whose leaders will be far more competent — and thus more dangerous — than Trump and his entourage.

Further Reading

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