What the Trump happened to the Republicans?

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, looks at the victories of Donald Trump--and what they mean about the first party of Corporate America.

Donald Trump (Michael Vadon)

ON JUNE 16, 2015, Donald Trump and his entourage descended an escalator at New York's Trump Tower, and the billionaire reality TV star proceeded to deliver a rambling, self-aggrandizing speech--does he give any other kind?--announcing his intention to join the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The shocking headline quote from that speech--that Mexican immigrants were "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."--certainly foreshadowed the type of campaign Trump would run. But if you can summon the fortitude to read the full speech, you'll find the full list of themes that Trump pounded on over the next year.

At the time, the main question about Trump was whether he was actually serious about running to win the Republican presidential nomination. After all, he had mounted faux presidential campaigns before. His record of endorsing and donating money to Democrats like Hillary Clinton convinced many conservatives that he was "too liberal" to win a Republican primary. He was up against a field of candidates that included multiple GOP governors and senators who were popular with the conservative Republican "base."

Even when he led in the polls before the February 2016 start of the primaries, it wasn't clear if Trump would be another Patrick Buchanan or Michelle Bachman--that is, a candidate giving expression to a key faction of the GOP base who would fade when the party establishment and big donors coalesced around a favorite.

But Trump didn't just outlast his opponents. He systematically insulted and deprecated them, and then dispatched them, one by one.

In May 2016, following his win in the Indiana primary, his last two opponents in the primaries, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, threw in the towel. Trump finished the primaries this month as the presumptive Republican nominee, with almost a 1,000-delegate vote lead over Cruz.

In hindsight, it's easy to say that Trump was "inevitable" in 2016. Writing in the New York Review of Books, political scientists who analyzed opinion polls of Republican voters found that none of the other candidates could beat Trump in a one-to-one matchup.

But we shouldn't ignore the series of contingent factors--from the failure of the Republican establishment to correctly grasp the mood of the party's most fervent supporters, to its failure to consolidate behind a candidate, to the fact that GOP hopes like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker turned out to be "not ready for prime time"--that helped to propel Trump.

We have it on the authority of a renegade from the candidate's inner circle that Trump planned "a protest candidacy" that would win over 10 percent of the vote and come in second to the eventual nominee. The operative objective was to continue building Trump's celebrity brand.

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.

From one perspective, we can see Trumpism as 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, which blame immigrants and Muslims for deteriorating living standards, presented themselves as opponents of a corrupt status quo.

But while it's useful to understand Trumpism as a part of a worldwide phenomenon, we should also try to understand the specifically American context in which this is unfolding.

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From a Dog Whistle to a Bullhorn

For more than a generation, the Republicans have depended on solid support based in 20 states of the South, the Great Plains and the mountain West. The Republican trinity of tax-cutting economic conservatism, a bloated Pentagon and security state, and support for conservative social issues such as opposition to abortion generally held the various GOP interest groups and voters together.

The Republicans built a mass base for these politics using what's been called a "dog-whistle" approach to racism--they avoided openly racist rhetoric, but the intended recipients got the message from racially tinged rhetoric on issues like "drugs" and "welfare."

Although ending up on the losing end of the biggest presidential landslide in U.S. history, the 1964 campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater managed to road test that approach. Goldwater actually ran on a platform of opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act as an infringement on private property rights.

While the electorate overwhelming rejected Goldwater, conservatives found that they excited passions not when they talked about property rights, but so-called "cultural" issues that appealed to sections of the population--particularly to white Southerners moving away from the Democratic Party as the civil rights movement challenged the old order.

Later, Paul Weyrich, a leader of the New Right of the 1970s and 1980s, explained the strategy: "We talk about issues that people care about, like gun control, abortion, taxes and crime. Yes, they're emotional issues, but that's better than talking about capital formation."

These social factors made it possible for right-wing pro-business politicians and activists to pose as "populist" opponents of "big government" and the "liberal elite," rather than be seen as water carriers for big business. Right-wing leaders were very conscious of this. As Buchanan wrote in 1977, "If there is any political future for us, it is forfeit, so long as we let ourselves be perceived as the obedient foot soldiers of the Fortune 500."

Today, we think of the Christian Right as the vehicle by which conservatives could oppose women's rights and gay rights. But one of the foundational events in the formation of the Christian Right in the 1970s, led by one-time segregationist ministers like Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, was a fight with the IRS to preserve tax-exempt status for Christian schools, the majority of which were formed as "white academies" in the wake of school desegregation decisions.

The conservative political positions that the Republicans promote regularly garner the support of only about a quarter to a third of the U.S. electorate. The average GOP voter is a middle-aged affluent white person, more likely to be a man than a woman, in a country that is increasingly less affluent, less white and less religious, and where the majority of the population and electorate is women.

That's a central reason why the Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six national presidential elections--while scoring their big political gains in Washington during low-turnout "midterm" elections between the presidential votes every four years.

The Republicans rely on mobilizing a shrinking "base," which has led their key political operatives to turn every election into a death match against nefarious forces who are "taking away" the idealized 1950s version of the U.S. that conservatives embrace.

In that sense, both Trump and his leading rival, Ted Cruz--not to mention plenty of other hopefuls in the early GOP primaries--played different versions of this same hand. Trump succeeded because he openly tapped into two ever-giving fonts of the U.S. right--racism and xenophobia--and used them not only to win votes, but to batter a GOP establishment that he branded as "losers." As Rick Perlstein, historian of the Republican Right put it, Trump turned the dog whistle into a bullhorn.

But while Trump relished his outsider image and used it against Republican rivals to great effect, he won the nomination because he advocated positions that have majority support among the most committed Republicans who vote in party primaries.

Polls of primary voters who backed Trump showed that supermajorities of between 88 and 95 percent supported Trump's most inflammatory proposals to: a) ban Muslim immigrants from the U.S., b) build a wall on the Mexican border; and c) deport the undocumented. But these positions also scored overwhelming majority support--no less than 63 percent in favor--among primary voters who supported the other GOP candidates.

Trump's victory signifies that the "chickens are coming home to roost" in a Republican Party whose operatives and media adjuncts have fed their most committed partisans a steady stream of nonsense about the president's birth certificate, Obamacare "death panels" and the like for year after year.

This is the dirty secret about the Republican base that the Great Recession uncovered. Not only did economic devastation push at least a section of the conservative middle class to embrace more far-right politics, but free-market economics has delivered less and less to them. So to keep them hitched to the GOP coalition, the Republicans amped up their "culture war" and turned it not simply against liberal policies like abortion rights, but into a defense of what the liberal historian Allan Lichtman called a "white Protestant nation."

Despite media speculation to the contrary, Trump's base is not the "white working class." It is really a new incarnation of the 2010 Tea Party--specifically, in the words of Kate Aronoff writing for Jacobin, "voters the [Tea Party] movement activated [who] are partial to candidates that buck the establishment, and thus extremely receptive to the billionaire's appeals."

Research has shown that these conservatives are less concerned with free-market nostrums ("Hands off my Medicare!"), but "worried about sociocultural changes in the United States, angry and fearful about immigration, freaked out by the presence in the White House of a black liberal with a Muslim middle name, and fiercely opposed to what they view as out of control 'welfare spending' on the poor, minorities, and young people," writes political sociologist Theda Skocpol.

In fact, Corey Lewandowski, Trump's campaign director--until he was fired this week after being accused of assaulting a reporter earlier in the primaries--is a former official of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-backed group that provided funds for many Tea Party groups.

Trump exploited existing GOP fault lines and turned his celebrity and media savvy into a presidential nomination. And once he clinched the nomination, dozens of Republican politicians--including ones who had vowed never to support him--jumped on the Trump train.

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To November and Beyond

Throughout this month and last--the crucial weeks leading up to July's Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Trump has been losing ground.

The billionaire blowhard's racist attacks on a Mexican-American federal judge and his doubling down on a call for banning Muslim immigration in the wake of the Orlando massacre has outraged anyone who isn't already a dedicated supporter and given more conventional Republicans heartburn.

Trump has little in the way of a campaign infrastructure and seems indifferent to building one. He seems to assume that the same strategy that won him the GOP primaries--where the audience was composed of the most conservative regular voters in the country, and he exploited the media's fascination with him and his campaign--can be applied to the much more politically and racially diverse presidential electorate.

With Trump's unfavorability ratings reaching an unprecedented 70 percent in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the evidence clearly shows that he's in trouble. Even 55 percent of Trump's supposed core supporters--whites without a college degree--view him unfavorably, according to the poll.

Given this, many leading Republicans seem to be having "buyer's remorse" about giving up on any earlier attempts to block his nomination. Like the huckster that he is, Trump--whatever his other drawbacks--did put out the hope to other Republicans that he could put Democratic-leaning states like Michigan and Pennsylvania in play for the GOP. But that prospect seems increasingly far-fetched, and mainstream politicians who endorsed Trump may now be wondering if they are stuck with an "unelectable" candidate.

This will fuel rumors of various coup attempts and plans for shenanigans to have the Republican convention choose someone else to head the presidential ticket. But if historical precedent is anything to go by, these straws in the wind will fail, and Trump will be the Republican nominee.

Despite the long, strange trip of the 2016 election campaign since it began more than a year ago, the November presidential vote is shaping up to be the same as usual--predominantly a choice between the "lesser evil" (Clinton) and the "greater evil" (Trump).

Clinton's partisans will do everything they can to make choosing Clinton a vote to save the republic from the "fascist" barbarian Trump. When the choice is put this way--between "fascism" and "democracy"--there will be enormous pressure on anyone opposed to Clinton on the basis of her ties to Wall Street and her hawkishness, among other things.

The tide of "lesser evilism"--the argument for voting for the Democratic lesser evil to stop the Republican greater evil--will be huge.

Starting with last month's partisan attack on Trump disguised as a speech on foreign policy, Clinton has sought to contrast her steady and experienced hand against an immature, unhinged Trump who can't be trusted with the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

It's a page from an old playbook. President Lyndon Johnson won that 1964 landslide election against Barry Goldwater by successfully convincing voters, including "moderate Republicans," that his opponent was a dangerous--and possibly unstable--warmonger. Meanwhile, Johnson was secretly readying the massive escalation of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, which came to dominate the politics of the coming decade.

The U.S. socialist Hal Draper, in his classic article "Who's Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?" explained the lessons of the 1964 election:

In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater...Many of them have realized that the spiked shoe was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for "actually carried out Goldwater's policy."...Who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups in which the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.

This is the context in which we should understand Clinton's campaign. She'll keep the focus on the disaster that would befall the country if the orange-wigged racist and con man somehow made it to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, she'll assure corporate boardrooms and the Pentagon that she intends to chart a steady course. She has no intention of moving U.S. politics in a fundamentally different direction.

That Democratic defense of the status quo is what allows characters like Trump to pose as "populist" outsiders. With the prospect likely that the next administration will face a recession early in its term, the White House will be driven to carry out policies that further hollow out living standards for millions of people.

If the unions and liberal organizations that are currently mobilizing for "anyone but Trump" refuse to challenge the Democrats in office, the Trump phenomenon may be a signal of worse to come.