Republicans break the bottom of the barrel

May 5, 2016

Danny Katch analyzes the Republicans' then-there-was-one moment.

THE REPUBLICAN nominee for president of the United States is going to be...(don't make me write this, don't make me write this)...Donald John...(sigh)...Trump.

Trump's decisive victory in the Indiana primary on May 3 had been widely predicted, based on opinion polls in the preceding days--and it was clear enough after equally convincing wins in the Northeast that he was on track toward winning a majority, though a small one, of delegates before the party convention in July.

More unexpected was Trump's closest rival for the nomination, Ted Cruz, dropping out the night of the election, to be followed by the even longer-shot candidate John Kasich.

The big psychic shock, however, is in coming to terms with the reality that Trump--a bigoted, buffoonish blowhard, loathed by 70 percent of the population--will have his name on the ballot in November as the presidential candidate of one of the two political parties that runs the most powerful nation in the world.

Of course, Trump's victory didn't come out of nowhere. For years, the Republican Party has cultivated white middle-class fear and rage--the meat and potatoes of the Trump campaign--to build a rabidly right-wing voting base in support of its traditional ruling-class agenda of promoting corporate power and American empire.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump (Gage Skidmore)

But in this election, the GOP base has refused to heel--despite increasingly desperate pleas from prominent, though not exactly beloved, Republican leaders such as Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham.

In early April, it looked like Republican insiders might finally have hit on a strategy for their #NeverTrump campaign. Ted Cruz rode a mobilization of the Religious Right to several good showings, notably in Wisconsin, while political operatives working for him and others used the Republicans' arcane party rules to get convention delegates selected who would abandon Trump at a contested convention.

At the top levels of the Republican Party, Cruz is widely detested--but at least he wasn't Trump.

But Republican voters rebelled against these underhanded maneuvers, giving Trump a string of crushing victories in the Northeast in April, followed by this week's death blow in Indiana. Trump spent much of April complaining that the nominating system was rigged against him, which succeeded not only in energizing his supporters, but also in turning an additional layer of Republican primary voters against the party leadership.

Political analyst Nate Silver of pointed out an April opinion poll showing that while only 40 percent of Republican voters had Trump as their first choice, 62 percent thought the nomination should go to the candidate with the most votes. Before the April 19 New York primary, Trump had never won more than 50 percent of the total vote. In New York and after, he did, making him the runaway popular favorite.

That was enough to demolish the scheme of stopping Trump at a contested convention.

THE REPUBLICAN Party establishment has been discredited and humiliated. Each attempt to respond to the rise of Trump failed dismally--and now, GOP leaders are struck with a presidential candidate who regularly attacks them.

But while Trump is an outsider who won the presidential nomination over the opposition of most, if not all, top party leaders, he's hardly the "anti-establishment" candidate that the media describe him as.

Trump is often compared to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been based on concrete proposals--from campaign finance reform to free college tuition and single-payer health care--that would make both the Democratic Party and the country as a whole more just and democratic.

Trump, by contrast, is a billionaire real estate tycoon funding his own campaign--and getting billions of dollars in free advertising from a "news" media desperate to fill airtime with his carnival show.

He has no interest in changing the political or economic system in any major way, and his complaints about the Republican Party delegate selection rules and nomination process are strictly limited to how they affect his campaign.

It's also worth noting another hole in the myth of the "anti-establishment" Trump. While there has been much talk in the media about Trump's support among white working-class voters, the median annual household income of his supporters is $72,000. That's lower than many of his former rivals for the nomination, but well above the national median of $56,000.

The biggest weakness with the Republicans' #NeverTrump strategy was the part where voters were expected to vote for one of the other guys.

Ted Cruz actually managed to match Trump in hatefulness--his main strategy in the Indiana campaign was to accuse Trump of not being bigoted enough against transgender people on the question of what bathroom they use. But he coated it with a level of holier-than-thou creepiness that made him, unbelievably enough, more repulsive than Trump.

Kasich, meanwhile, campaigned as an old-fashioned Republican--ready to bust unions and ban abortions with a contented smile. This worked okay with the wealthy--Kasich voters had a median annual household income of $91,000--but it didn't appeal to the majority of Republican voters looking for a leader to validate their insecurities and paranoia.

The shortcomings of the other Republican candidates were symptomatic of a deeper problem.

The party is able to dominate many states in the South, Midwest and West by combining hard-right social policies with mammoth tax breaks for locally based corporations. But it has no coherent message for national elections because its three central tenets have been severely weakened over the past decade.

For one, the ongoing disastrous consequences of the Iraq War, supported by most Democrats but infamously and incompetently led by George W. Bush, has weakened the Republicans' reputation as the party of national security.

Second, the global financial crisis and bailout of the banks that caused it has undermined the dogmas of the free market and capitalism--also shared by most Democrats, but traditionally most associated with the Republicans.

Lastly, the historic victories of the movement for LGBTQ equality, both legally and culturally, while incomplete, have deprived the Republicans of their favorite of the culture wars on anything beyond a regional level.

THE REPUBLICAN Party establishment has a complicated relationship with Donald Trump. They hate him because he isn't one of them, and they hate him because, in a lot of ways, he actually is.

Trump does challenge Republican orthodoxies on issues such as trade and national defense--attitudes also shared, and I know this is getting repetitive, by the Democratic Party establishment.

Trump has long opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement--"The Mexicans want it, and that doesn't sound good to me," he said back in 1993 (in case you were wondering whether he was always such an ass).

And while Trump is lying when he says he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq before it happened, he did turn against the war within a year--faster than a lot of Democrats--and he caused probably his biggest dustup with the party's elder statesmen when, early in the primaries, he again attacked George W. Bush's handling of the war.

But in a lot of other ways, Trump is a quintessential 21st century Republican, both in policy and style.

He's a nativist Islamophobe who wants to cut taxes for the wealthy at a time of the greatest wealth inequality in almost a century. He combines the bullyboy persona of Chris Christie, the billionaire arrogance of Michael Bloomberg and the endless conspiracy theorizing of Glenn Beck.

Trump is a mirror that proper Republican Party leaders hate to look at because it reminds them of what a national joke the GOP has been for a good long while.

After all, it was a full eight years ago that Sarah Palin swept the Republicans off their collective feet as John McCain's vice presidential nominee--even while she blatantly stabbed her running mate in the back to further her own future career and couldn't answer a basic question about what newspaper she reads.

Then, during the 2012 nomination race, it took Mitt Romney months to overtake Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, even though both seemed more interested in using the campaign to sell books or land gigs at Fox.

According to many accounts, Trump had similar plans to Cain and Gingrich--a vanity campaign that would also be lucrative in advancing the Trump business brand--until, as the months went by with no party-approved insider capable of beating him, it became apparent that he could actually win the nomination.

Corporate America has historically preferred the Republican Party to represent its interests within the U.S. two-party system, and one part of the shock at Trump's victories is that business interests haven't done more to prevent it.

"But then again," as Alan Maass wrote last month for, "as the Republicans have lurched into crisis, the Democrats have become a more reliable and responsible pro-corporate party."

AS HILLARY Clinton--having succeeded in establishing herself as the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting, despite the continuing successes of Bernie Sanders--works overtime in the coming months to play on people's justifiable fears of a Trump presidency, this last point will be one of the most important political arguments for the left.

The rightward-moving, pro-corporate direction of the Democrats over a period of decades is an essential part of the overall conservative shift of U.S. mainstream politics. In that sense, the Democrats have contributed to laying the groundwork for Trump's triumph, just as the Republicans themselves have.

While figures like Trump and Cruz have pulled the Republican Party further toward the right-wing extreme, the Democrats have followed in the same direction with their modus operandi of giving ground to Republicans, decrying them for refusing to compromise, and then giving up more ground.

This has been less apparent during the primary season as Hillary Clinton paid lip service to progressive issues that appeal to the Democratic base, such as raising the minimum wage and combatting racist policing--both because Democratic leaders always do this during primary season, but also to fend off the left-wing challenge from Sanders.

But once the party convention is over, Clinton will be free to move back to the right, appealing to middle-of-the-road independents and even Republican voters considering supporting her over Trump in November.

What's more, Clinton will be urged to do this by liberal Democrats who have more in common with the agenda that Sanders has put forward. Expect to read a lot of apologies from politicians and pundits with a liberal reputation claiming that this is a necessary evil for Democrats to keep the White House and maybe even win back Congress.

On the contrary, their appeals will contribute--disastrously so--toward making the final months of Election 2016 into a contest between the right and the further right.

Preliminary opinion polls show Trump trailing far behind Clinton in the November election. But that doesn't mean that he isn't a threat.

It might seem impossible for Trump to overcome his unpopularity, but he's already proven that he knows how to take advantage of the corporate media's hunger to put him on camera. He will appeal to both the vile sexism and well-founded hostility that have given Clinton a likewise high unfavorability rating of 55 percent. And there's the threat of the unknown--a sharp downturn in an economy that is already weakening or a large-scale terrorist attack.

Whatever the case, though, there will be six more months of Donald Trump spreading his racism, sexism and Islamophobia across the airways, legitimizing those politics and creating a more hateful and potentially violent country for years to come. The millions of people who despise Trump and everything he stands for will be right to challenge him wherever and however they can--while also recognizing that they can't trust the "lesser evil" to stop the "greater evil."

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