Today, rather predictably, Donald Trump won the Super Tuesday primary race by a large margin. He has now amassed a sizable delegate lead and is looking unstoppable, especially while two ambitious losers divide their voters in an attempt to stay relevant to a brokered convention. It’s certainly fascinating watching the rise of a proto-fascist in real time, though I have serious doubts he has any chance of winning the general election and in the long run may be good for American politics, since he in many ways looks like a kind of freeform performance art suicide attempt by the Republican party. My sense of amusement at his escapades will change to one of real fear if he gets the White House, but I can’t see that happening. In the meantime, while we watch his Icarus-like ascendancy, it’s interesting to ponder the reasons why he has suddenly burst onto the scene, simultaneously energizing the Republican base and terrifying its elite. So far I have seen three possible explanations for Trump’s rise, which I’d like to talk about a bit here; all three offer apparently plausible explanations but seem somehow to be vaguely wrong. I don’t have a special explanation for his rise, which I think is mostly just luck and racism, but I think there are specific reasons why it’s happening now, and in particular I think the Republican party has uniquely inoculated itself against rational thought and good sense, and so it’s become very easy to take it over with Trump’s version of charisma, racism and populism. First I’d like to talk about the three explanations I have seen for his rise, and then I’d like to explain why I think that, whatever the reasons, the Republican party is at this juncture uniquely incapable of handling him.
Explanation 1: The schadenfreude explanation
The schadenfreude explanation is very appealing because it involves popcorn and gloating. Basically under this explanation, the Republican party has spent the last 8 years appealing to racism and building up a political logic of obstructionism and anger. As a result, there is an opening for a leader who is uniquely racist and finally willing to say openly what the Republican party has been increasingly clearly dog-whistling in the past 8 years. Usually this schadenfreude explanation starts with the (obvious) unhinging of Republicans after Obama was elected, but it sometimes starts with Bush. It can also be observed in a different, mealy-mouthed form from Republican exiles like David Brooks, who blames it on “anti-politics” and tries to pretend it’s not the GOP’s fault, in the grand tradition of both-sides-do-it. But is the GOP more racist now than in the past? I’m not convinced they are. They ran an actual KKK member for governor one year in the 1960s, and are also the party of Willie Horton and – of course – the southern strategy. Is it possible that the party of Richard Nixon would have had a black secretary of defense, or fielded two hispanics, a woman and a black man in the primary election? Sure they’ve lost it over the election of a black president, but they have also simultaneously fielded a black presidential hopeful of their own, and were generally positive about Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. Also, although Trump has said some fairly crazy things about how he will unleash American power on the world, what America is doing now – and what it did under Bush – is hardly the low point of its moral history. After 9/11 the elders in the Bush administration sternly warned the American people that they might have to tolerate American agents committing violence overseas, a laughable warning when one considers what Democratic and Republican administrations were willing to condone and order in the 1970s and 1980s in latin America. A willingness to waterboard people might seem horrifying to the average observer now, or in 2004, but in 1974 it was standard policy for both parties. Trump’s bombastic claims certainly set the US government back perhaps 10 years morally, but they hardly represent a return to full-scale 1970s violence. He hasn’t, for example, proposed restarting Cointelpro. So far his main outrage – the one single thing he has proposed that really seems to be beyond recent American moral boundaries – is the deportation of 12 million latinos, many of whom would be children and citizens. But against a backdrop of slavery, native American genocide, Japanese internment and Wounded Knee, this is hardly a new moral low for America. The problem, of course, is it’s hard to tell if he’s serious about this. But aside from this one piece of unhinged rhetoric, what he’s proposing isn’t out of step with past American policy and most of what he has said so far is consistent with historical Republican positions. So I’m not convinced that recent Republican Obama Derangement Syndrome and obstructionism is a sufficient explanation for his development.
Explanation 2: Tribalism
At Crooked Timber blog John Quiggin (with whom I have often disagreed on issues of agnotology) attempts to explain Trump’s rise in terms of a fragmentation of American politics into three groups: Tribalists, neo-liberals, and leftists. In this formalism Trump represents an uprising against neoliberalism, in which society falls into tribal or left-wing components. The tribalists try to protect their rights through racial exclusion while the leftists try to reclaim their rights through some kind of class action, and Trump represents the inchoate expression of rage of the tribalists. I think there are a lot of problems with this explanation, which I have expressed over there. Firstly tribalism=right wing in his formalism, and tribalism seems to be happening only within parties, e.g. blacks vote for Clinton and don’t even break for Sanders, let alone Trump, so it doesn’t seem like the tribalism trumps parties – it just seems like a weak attempt to rebrand right wing politics as tribal politics. Also what is neoliberalism? Is neoliberalism in America the same as elsewhere, and is Obama a neoliberal? If so, given that Obama and Clinton have presided over record jobs growth, expanded the welfare system for the first time in 50 years, and brought about a new settlement with long-term enemies, it seems that America has benefited enormously from their neoliberalism. But if Obama represents a break from the past pattern of Clintonesque politics, perhaps he isn’t neoliberal? And can you express the glacial pace of presidential politics in America in terms of neoliberal politics? There has been one previous Democrat president during the 20 year period in which neoliberalism is generally seen as having arisen, so how can we really say anything about the relationship between neoliberal politics and presidents? And can we say Bush was a neoliberal, with his various political settlements and massive expansion of corporate welfare? Unless neoliberal=corporate welfare, we can’t. And if neoliberal=corporate welfare, I’m fairly confident Trump will turn out to be the ultimate neoliberal. His rich friends are no doubt going to make a killing. I don’t find the term “neoliberal” useful as an analytical category, though it can be a convenient shorthand for modern capitalist practice at times, and I’m not convinced by a theory in which right wing people are tribalists but left wing people are principled opponents of inequality and neoliberalism. So I don’t accept this theory.
Explanation 3: Authoritarianism
This is the Vox take on Trump. Under this theory, America has seen a rise in the number of voters who have authoritarian ideals, they have clustered into the Republican party through its increasingly strident policy positions over the past few years, and in times of economic uncertainty they are vulnerable to racist and oppressive cues. This is an interesting, powerful and well-researched theory, and I’m thinking to read the Stenner book referenced to see what I think of it, but I’m not fully convinced by this theory. In particular, the timing is an issue. The GOP has always been authoritarian, so why is it happening now? When you look back at things like McCarthyism, it doesn’t seem like the modern GOP is especially authoritarian. Of course it’s hard to say, because there’s no objective standard of authoritarianism, but what’s lacking from this theory is an explanation of why this happened now rather during, for example, the era of McCarthyism, or the Cold War. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that Trump’s ban on all Muslims entering the country is no worse – and probably better – than previous acts, such as the China Exclusion Act, which was maintained even for the first year during which China was America’s ally against Japan (and resulted in significant Chinese military figures being barred entry to the USA during this war). Even his plan to deport latinos is hardly going to be unique if enacted – it will surely involve internment camps, which have been used before against American citizens. Obviously maintaining segregation required a highly authoritarian government, so it hardly seems like Trump’s ascendancy is unexpected against the flow of mainstream politics.
So what is the answer?
Solution: The GOP has finally sealed itself off from reality.
The rise of Trump is not an unexpected phenomenon, and the only reason he appears unexpected is that mainstream political thinkers on both sides of the political fence have accepted two myths about America: 1) that it is a unique and ideal place and 2) that the Republican party are not a deeply racist, authoritarian party. Given the general shift in American politics after the Southern Strategy, a fairer way of describing point 2) is: there is a strong racist, imperialist under current in American politics, and when it finds a home in one party all hell will eventually break loose. The particular reason that he is so effective in this electoral cycle is one of simple stupidity. The Republican party has recently enacted a process of exclusion from reality that is unique in its history and that uniquely inoculates it against the kind of basic protective measures that would enable it to inform its voters that Trump is beyond the pale. It is this new intellectual isolation that has made it so easy for Trump to seize the nomination without any coherent policies except anger, hatred and naked power.
The GOP has completely isolated itself from reality in the past 10 years. Birtherism, flat tax madness, balanced budget amendments, gun nuttery, and AGW denialism are signs the party has completely lost touch with reality. Denying AGW now requires complete immunity to reality, requiring conspiracy theories about NASA fudging all its data and inevitably leading to the idea that stunts like snowballs on the senate floor can substitute for serious debate. Trump was famously a birther, of course, but by the time he became a birther the party was so drunk on its own reality that birtherism had reached the senate. It’s still easy to find commenters and diarists at websites like Red State who refer to Obama as “Hussein” in an obvious dog whistle to this ludicrous theory. AGW denialism is the ultimate example of this, with activists at every level – up to and including every single presidential contender – claiming it is a myth cooked up in support of big government (this is an actual Cruz quote). Maintaining this kind of delusion in the face of a world going mad with climatological craziness obviously requires a special commitment to making your own facts. Republicans have shown themselves uniquely able to take a side on a scientific issue purely on the basis of its political convenience, and once you start doing that you really need to build a whole intellectual architecture devoted to denying reality.
Republicans even deny their own policies, as seen with the debate over who was or wasn’t in the Gang of Eight, and Rubio criticizing Trump’s individual mandate plan and the Obamacare individual mandate when his own plan involves an individual mandate. Even their attempts to understand Trump are thick with this isolation – they honestly seem to believe that GOP racism is a fiction of the left wing media rather than a simple, obvious fact. Right now the National Review is running a retrospective on William Buckley, the founder of that magazine, who said this:
The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.
Yet recently in the Washington Post, we have Jennifer Rubin writing this:
The media, licking its collective chops, cannot wait for the GOP to become the party of racists, misogynists and authoritarians that liberals have always portrayed Republicans to be
That’s right, in the conservative journal of record (which, incidentally, recently hosted an article advocating shooting all Guantanamo detainees, apparently as a joke) William F Buckley advocates violence against black people because they’re inferior and Jennifer Rubin thinks liberals have a fantasy of Republicans as racists. The current Republican movement is so committed to denying reality that they cannot accept the racism of their own history.
The GOP are swimming against a series of global currents that call into question everything they stand for. AGW, the crisis in the middle east that George Bush created, inequality in the USA, and the need for universal health coverage (UHC) are all issues that they simply don’t have a policy answer to. If you listen to any of the presidential candidates other than Trump on these issues, they’re just talking shit. AGW isn’t happening, ISIS is entirely Obama’s fault, inequality is not an issue and UHC just doesn’t work even though every other country in the OECD has it. These are crises that for rich donors and GOP activists are easily avoided, but for ordinary Americans are increasingly becoming insurmountable. These ordinary Americans want solutions, and for years Republicans have fed them the same thin gruel of free markets and Jesus. Now that they are really starting to need to provide solutions – or argue against the real solutions the Democrats provide – they find themselves struggling because for years the intellectual foundations of their movement have been oriented around justifying away these problems rather than facing them. Without any real solutions, they fall back on authoritarianism and dirty tricks at every level, – e.g. banning state officials from using the term “climate change,” refusing to even hold nominations for a judge etc. These struggles in turn draw in people for whom this crazed logic, authoritarianism and deliberate ignorance works, and then when the party followers reach a critical mass, the party is itself so inoculated to reason and common sense that it can’t defuse the crisis and indeed can barely even understand what caused it. As a result they deny that the problem is even there. All it takes then is for a single charismatic, short-fingered vulgarian to walk in and say that he has a real solution, while actually bothering to talk to the people about their real concerns. The problem here is not that the modern GOP is uniquely racist or authoritarian – it always has been – but that it faces a new set of challenges that it is uniquely incapable of adapting to. It is also such a vehicle of power for the wealthy and privileged that they don’t even understand their voters have a problem, let alone care to fix it. Trump is talking to those voters about what they really feel, and offering racist snake oil as a solution. There’s no sense in which his racist deportation solution is less realistic than trickle-down economics or getting a third job, and in any case there’s no intellectual framework supporting Republican political theory, so why would his voters not believe it?
The Republican party has built an intellectual infrastructure on sand, and Trump has simply come in and seized it, using the unique Republican ability to think a million crazy things before breakfast to his political advantage. All he had to do to seize the party was talk to voters about their real concerns, and offer a racist solution. It doesn’t have to make sense, because nothing in modern Republican politics does. In order to solve this problem the party leadership need to walk back from the illogical and destructive framework they’ve built up, but doing that is going to be a hugely challenging and ultimately destructive process, a purge that will probably completely change the entire party. It’s too late for them to do that in time to stop Trump, so he’s going to seize the nomination and destroy the party.
What a crying shame.