It seems increasingly certain, but still by no means inevitable, that Donald Trump will be the next Republican nominee for the office of the US President in 2016. This defies credulity for many, and his emergence strengthens the narrative in which Americans are cast as naïve and dumb and bullies and racist, insisting on their right of the way and willing to (and able to) defy most international norms. Americans aren’t like that, but the man who aspires to be their mascot is doing little to remove that caricature.
Trump is crude: he has had a string of failures in his business, he has exaggerated his achievements, humiliated Americans who aren’t white, crossed the norms of decency by ridiculing a female opponent’s looks, speculated on a female anchor’s menstrual cycle, and boasted about the size of his manhood. He wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico and he somehow thinks Mexicans will pay for it. He is willing to disregard international laws of war and defy precedents of international diplomacy. He has incited violence by cheering his followers, who are willing to punch demonstrators in the face, and he has offered to cover the legal fees of anyone who carries out his challenge, as though they were his wrestlers or bodyguards on hire. He fits the cartoon character of the Ugly American, the boorish man who follows his own rules even as he goes about making them up. And each time people—including a vast number of Americans—express outrage, he seems to win more supporters.
But listen carefully to his rhetoric, and you find a language that is not a million miles apart from the tone and language of many of his opponents within the Republican Party. The difference between Trump and some of his GOP rivals—most notably Ted Cruz, but he is far from being the only one—is of degree, not of kind. And to understand why this has come to pass—why a party of Abraham Lincoln, and more recently, of senators like Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker, of party leaders like Nelson Rockefeller and former President George H.W. Bush (the senior, not the junior) has come to personify the worst stereotypes about America—one should go back to the 1980s.
That’s when American conservatism moved from its political and economic origins to social issues. From making the case for limited government, reducing engagement with the world’s problems, and relying on individual determination and liberties (with civic sense and charity providing the safety net to those who needed it), it began getting transformed into a faith-based enterprise. In other words, it began to shift from a Norman Rockwell portrait to a divinity postcard from the evangelicals.
There was some reason for that backlash: social transformation in America in the 1960s—the civil rights movement which would seek to reorder social hierarchies, the insolent rebellious young who opposed the Vietnam War (remember Jack Weinberg’s slogan at Berkeley, don’t trust anyone over 30), the challenges to class that Democratic President Johnson’s Great Society represented, the Supreme Court interpreting the right to privacy in a way that legalized abortion, the strict adherence to the First Amendment of the Constitution (which calls for the separation of the faith and the state), which led to prayers not being recited at schools or on state premises, and the permissive culture that Rock and Roll embodied—had enraged many Americans. Conservatives began to regain momentum, first through journals like William F. Buckley (Jr)’s the National Review, and then, under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, through a barnstorming conservative revolution, which led to appointments at lower courts, and the coating of socially conservative policies by layering them with the sugar-like tax cuts—and there was a massive shift among voters towards Republicans, what Thomas Frank describes in his 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. It shows how the working class voted against its interests, swayed by other messages to which it could relate. Emboldening these trends were administrators and judges who said they would listen to their conscience (and not the Constitution), and the rise of organizations like Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum. (She has just endorsed Trump).
The American right was an uneasy coalition, and included those who wanted lower taxes, less government regulation, freedom for business, and the state to get out of people’s lives, and those who wanted to use the instruments of state to push a specific worldview, which drew inspiration from religion. The social conservatives began winning in statehouses and later congressional seats; the party elite were secure that when it came to presidential elections, the new voters would diligently support the approved nominee—who would be popular with big business, Wall Street, and old Republican values. They after all understood the rules of American governance—the notion of advice and consent, the idea of federalism, and the separation of the church and the state.
But that old party began to lose its grip at the turn of the century, and the visceral hatred its leaders showed towards Democrat Presidents—Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—set the tone for others down the line. The persistent disrespect shown to Obama—who won more than 50% of the vote twice—was about party politics, but decent Republicans would be dishonest if they were to argue that a sizeable number of those supporting Republicans were not being racist. The rise of the Tea Party—an ideologically unmoored phenomenon creating impractical litmus tests for candidates and defeating establishment candidates—was inevitable. The Republican establishment liked what it saw while the Tea Party’s guns were aimed at Obama; there was some disquiet when they began dethroning establishment candidates in congressional races—but the White House, they thought, would remain theirs. That was the assumed, unspoken Faustian bargain.
But the Tea Party wanted to aim big. And it is appropriate that Trump, who has drawn the support of many of the disaffected who are angry because they don’t like the world but who have no real solution to offer, is becoming its poster-child, even if Trump’s positions—if he has any—bear little relationship with what little ideological coherence there may be in the Tea Party. Through Trump, the Tea Party is getting its revenge, even if it may share few positions with Trump. When wise leaders don’t step in to shape events, they have unintended consequences that could develop into a fullscale conflict that destroys everything—the historian Barbara Tuchman showed that in her classic work about how the world blundered into World War I in Guns of August. Nobody wanted that war; nobody could stop it—it is a metaphor for the Republicans today—but a purge, or, what economists call “creative destruction” of the party, is perhaps the only sensible solution. Of course, there is every chance that in Cleveland Republicans will have a brokered convention—and that may make the Chicago convention of the Democrats of 1968 look like a Little League Baseball game.
Trump listens to one trumpet, his own. He has no philosophy, no fixed ideas, and is driven by his ego. To understand his rise, it is useful to read Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America. There, an American aviation hero Charles Lindbergh joins America First Party, espouses vigorous anti-semitism, crashes the 1940 Republican Convention, and becomes the party nominee for the Presidential elections. Choosing isolationism over fighting Hitler, he sweeps the poll, and, in this alternate universe, he signs pacts with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Jewish families are relocated forcibly, and many Jews move to Canada. Seeing the world from the eyes of the victim, Roth wrote: “You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.”
A radio journalist who criticizes Lindbergh gets dismissed. The journalist decides to run against Lindbergh and is assassinated. The Ku Klux Klan becomes more powerful. Eventually, Roth lets reality step in (by making Lindbergh’s plane disappear); Franklin Delano Roosevelt wins in an emergency election, and history resumes its normal course. Roth would write, “nor had I understood till then how the shameless vanity of utter fools can so strongly determine the fate of others.”
By pointing out the perils of a messianic leader believing his own destiny, willing to divide people, stigmatize them, isolate them, evict them, and being complicit in grander, darker conspiracies, Roth the novelist showed the perils of handing power to an unbridled strongman. Bemoaning the lack of a leader, and placing trust in one leader above all is a human weakness. Brecht comes to mind. In Galileo, Andrea laments: unhappy is the land that breeds no hero. And Galileo responds, no, Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero.
What Brecht wrote then applies as much to America today as to many other countries which want to reclaim greatness by placing all hopes in one leader.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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