Seismic Forces Rock the Parties

White height, © 2016 Susan Barsy
The newspapers I glimpsed while traveling communicated a sense of political calamity, the dismay of wonks, journalists, and miffed members of the GOP.  Trump, the party’s likely nominee, was causing the commotion, but the kerfuffle spoke volumes about the muddled condition of the party itself.  Something seismic is happening: the GOP’s ill-assorted components are about to morph into something new, or break apart.

In ordinary times, politicians, the media, and a vast network of consultants and experts promote ideological order and continuity.  The nation’s leaders use the media, and influential constituents use the leaders, to shape the citizenry’s vision, mapping out choice in a limited way.  A centrist ideology that is pro-corporate and pro-global has dominated both parties since the Clinton era, while ‘hard-liners’ of various stripes have increasingly dominated the GOP.  These modern-day fire-eaters may be against federal debt, reproductive rights, or even religious pluralism, but, collectively, they have skillfully gained sway within the Republican Party, with the dream of imposing their minority views on a moderate mainstream.

Trump has attacked the precepts of this centrist-right ideology, making him anathema to many leaders in both parties.  Are Americans voting for Trump because they are hateful and benighted, or are they supporting him because he alone is promising to jettison a set of ideas that has left much of the population stuck in the past and impoverished?  In either case, his ascendancy shows how completely the GOP establishment has lost touch with the people’s will.  The hegemony of the social conservatives and GOP moderates is over.  Paul Ryan and others who want Trump to shift in their direction hope to perpetuate it.  They’ll fail.

Will Donald Trump allow other GOP leaders to ‘handle’ him?  If he accepts orders from the likes of Paul Ryan, voters will conclude Trump is being co-opted and abandon him.  Ryan claims his goal is to ‘unify’ the party: if so, he could hardly have gone about it in a less auspicious way.  Why grand-stand when more might be accomplished quietly?  This crisis has exposed leading Republicans as shockingly short on political skills.  But then, how can a party whose leaders are famous for digging in their heels suddenly develop a genius for collective compromise?

In general, we can hardly blame Trump for the downward slide occurring in our political culture.  He has divined a set of issues that voters care about most passionately, and his ideological response has been more apt than that of any other prominent Republican.  We can abhor Trump’s crudeness and bigotry, and we can impede him by voting someone else into the presidency.  If I were a Republican party leader, however, I sure would be trying to salvage whatever is feasible about his ideology, and trying to integrate it into that of my party.

Trump’s main talking points have to do with restoring broad economic prosperity, insisting on corporate responsibility, and burnishing American citizenship’s prestige.  Trump’s ferocious hatred of outsourcing and unfair trade, his demand that something be done to relieve blue-collar pain, are oddly reminiscent of the leaderless Occupy movement’s themes.  Trump might not have it in him to be a successful president, but he’s been smashingly successful at reminding us that politics is ultimately about ideas not money.  Those who want to stop Trump need to counter his ideas with a positive agenda.  Can his opponents disavow their complacency?  Can they disavow their role in perpetuating a dysfunctional status quo?

Photograph by Susan Barsy

4 responses

  1. Susan, this is such a well-written post and is spot-on. Even though I may not vote for Trump–but I might!–I am thrilled with what he’s done to shake up the Republican Party and bring people back to the ballot box and the political process–people who have been disenfranchised for years. Bernie too!! Good riddance to the status quo. Now can we figure out how to fire everyone in Congress?


    • This election is truly consequential, and poses issues for people at every level of the political ‘hierarchy.’ I enjoy hearing how people justify the way that they plan to vote, whether they are supporters of Trump, Hillary, or Bernie. Everyone has a logic–it is fascinating. It could also be the nastiest (as well as the most momentous) election we’ll witness.
      Thank you for writing in, Lisa!

  2. Yup, Trump has tapped into a deep well of voter discontent with the political status quo. People are infuriated (as I am) that Congress is such a do-nothing and negative branch of the government. I blame the GOP leadership for that. . . . Also, I think that many folks who have traditionally voted Democrat no matter what are going to vote for Trump. I am very, very worried about his becoming president. Given his crazed statements concerning foreign and domestic policy, it would be a nightmare for this country, and I would get out of the stock market all the way.

    • In order to win, Trump needs to refrain from ignorant statements and prove that he understands and respects the symbolic and political responsibilities of the presidency. Americans are not going to elect someone who might make the country look bad. His ridiculously blithe vision of his first 100 days, when he would get ‘military generals’ in to solve the nation’s problems was hardly reassuring. And his idea of negotiating lower payouts of US bonds was the very opposite of what most people think of as stability! These utterances were all the more damaging because they were unnecessary. Now that Trump is likely to be the nominee, he can afford to retreat and try to study up on what it really means to be presidential. But is it really in his personality? Only if he manages to project a presidential dignity throughout the general election will he win. Otherwise, voters are going to opt for safety and choose Hillary.

      I agree that a Trump victory in the fall could be very upsetting for everyone. But as one congressman pointed out this week, such an event might finally goad Congress into taking the lead in governing again.

      Thank you, Sam.