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