Trump Is Not an Anomaly of Republican Politics; He Is the Inevitable Endgame
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough has penned an op-ed for the Washington Post titled “Trump is killing the Republican Party.” Scarborough, a former Republican member of Congress, recently announced that he’s leaving the party to become an independent (of course), and this piece is a way of further distancing himself from the party he’s long supported.
But there is a deep problem with Scarborough’s piece—and others like it which charge Trump with damaging the Republican brand: Donald Trump is not an anomaly of the Republican brand, but it’s inevitable endgame.
Long before Trump had the chutzpah to make it his actual campaign slogan, the Republican Party was promising to Make America Great Again.
Usually couched in the deceivingly pleasant language of “tradition,” Republican leaders have long traded on the conjured idea of an American golden era, circa 1945 to 1960, after boys who were ripped from the arms of their sweethearts and sent to another continent to fight a great war against tyranny and despair, had returned home as men, as heroes, and set to work, every last one of them, making babies with doting wives and grabbing the American Dream with both hands in the dawn of suburbia.
Scientists in white lab coats and square, black-framed glasses toiled away to make American astronauts the first on the moon, and to fill all the pretty new homes behind perfect white picket fences with fancy, new-fangled household gadgets to make life easier and more fun. Teenagers hung out at sock hops and neon-lit diners, girls longing for lavaliers and boys wondering how to get laid. Elvis’ pelvis was considered a scandal, and Marilyn Monroe a bombshell. Dad had a pension and the promise of a gold watch at the end of a long career with a single firm, and Mom had a Frigidaire. And everyone was happy.
Vote for us — and we will give you that again.
But the Republican promise has always had the very same flaw as their policies: It is contingent on pretending that the complexity and complications of human existence, and the flaws of humankind, do not exist.
It is an empty promise built on an illusion, carefully constructed to conceal that America’s so-called golden age was imperfect like any other, and perhaps even more so than most. Half a million of those boys who went off to war never came home — and some of them were not boys at all, but men, who left wives and children with desperate struggles in the place where their husbands and fathers had been. Some who had come home were never the same, their bodies or minds damaged beyond real repair.
Women who had been called to duty in factories or faraway lands were forcibly driven back into domesticity, segregation was a legal fact, every LGBTx woman and man had a closet of their very own, mental illness was treated with lobotomies, McCarthy was on his Communist witch hunt, and we fought an all-but-forgotten war in Korea for three years and lost over 35,000 soldiers. There were back-alley abortions, and the KKK, and Elvis and Marilyn both died of drug overdoses.
Thus, the real promise is this: Vote for us — and we will restore your waning privilege, so you will maintain the luxury of never having to care about that stuff. About those people who are not like you.
This promise, however, ran headlong into the reality that when you promise an illusion, eventually people are going to notice that you have not delivered.
They kicked the can down the road a ways by telling people it was all about hard work. Just work hard, and you will get your due. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” cried the Republican leadership, desperate to conceal that the entire point was never to enrich the people — including their own middle- and lower-class base — who were the targets of their wealth redistribution upwards plan.
They shouted about bootstraps and work ethic and America’s endless reservoirs of independence and ingenuity while they busted unions, ignored the consequences of automation, and relocated the bootstrap factory to China.
The other flaw in this plan was that marginalized people, on whose continued oppression it was contingent, were not inclined to cooperate. In large numbers, they abandoned the Republican Party, leaving the base overwhelmingly white, straight, cisgender, and increasingly male.
And that base was getting restless and resentful. They started looking for someone to blame.
Republican elites like to own a lot of things, but responsibility is not one of them. It wasn’t their fault that good, godly, white people were working harder than ever and still falling behind. It wasn’t their fault that the only thing the Invisible Hand gave its working class believers was the finger. It wasn’t their fault their enticing promises had come to nothing.
“Don’t look at us!” they said, then happily provided their disaffected base with a road map to where their ire should be directed.
It was the fault of those uppity marginalized people. They’re the ones who are taking your jobs and sucking up all your tax money on hand-outs and telling you that you are not even allowed to be a man anymore. It’s them.
If it weren’t for progressives… If it weren’t for feminists and gays and undocumented immigrants… If it weren’t for that dark-skinned president…
People who bought into the Republican narratives of self-determination, of rugged individualism, who believed in the American morality tales of Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism and the Prosperity Gospel, were left with nothing but impotent anger where their hopes of flourishing used to be.
And, having been encouraged to make no social contract, to depend on no one but oneself, to hoard all the rewards of the success that bootstrapping was supposed to yield and share naught, they were then left with no one to blame but themselves when it all went wrong.
Which, obviously, was not going to do.
After cravenly offering up marginalized people as scapegoats, and attentively nurturing their base’s hatred, the Republican Party then gallantly offered to stand on the line between their base and all of those people who were clamoring to take away their hopes, their very way of life, their rights.
They carefully cultivated a dangerous obfuscation between rights and privilege. Rights are not a zero-sum game: Extending rights to marginalized people who lack them does not erode the rights of the privileged people who already have them. If that fact is clear, there is no anger to harvest and misdirect.
But privilege is a zero-sum game. If you are a person with white privilege, or male privilege, or straight privilege, or any one of a number of other privileges arbitrarily conferred on the basis of one’s identity, you don’t get to keep it as we move toward meaningful equality.
And the Republicans have had an enormous amount of success convincing their base that the insecurities they feel as the result of horrendous Republican policy-making — and the discomfort of losing their undeserved privilege — is really the result of marginalized people trying to take away their rights.
Losing one’s rights is legitimately frightening. I watch with horror as Republican state lawmakers erode abortion access and reproductive rights across the nation.
But the disproportionately white, straight, cis, male Republican base is not, actually, losing their rights. They are just being cynically told that they are.
And the resulting fear has increasingly made this country unsafe for the marginalized people at whom conservative fear-centered hatred is directed.
There is a perfectly, grotesquely tailored blame for every privilege: Men have been urged to fear women’s empowerment and the “feminization” of the culture; white people have been urged to be fearful of people of color harming them and subverting “our” values; straight people have been urged to be fearful of LGB people undermining their marriages and corrupting their kids; cisgender people have been urged to be fearful of trans women sharing bathrooms; Christians have been urged to be fearful of Jews and Muslims and atheists, the latter of whom are often absurdly accused of wanting to criminalize Christmas, given no preexisting stereotypes about global conspiracies on which to trade.
On and on it goes, with Republicans all the while accusing progressives of “political correctness” and “playing identity politics,” for wanting to eliminate fear-driven divisions.
An enormous amount of Republican social policy is based around a phantom “right” to feel safe. No such right actually exists. Being safe and feeling safe are not the same thing. But most of the Republican base is disproportionately insulated, by virtue of their privilege, from actual danger that the very feeling of not being safe is anathema to them.
As a result, there are large parts of the population in this country who do not know how to process fear. And then there is an entire industry dedicated to planting manufactured fear in those very people. The Republican Party. Fox News. A vast weapons industry whose marketing is based on the specious premise that there is something to be afraid of, something from which you need to protect yourself.
The same people whose privilege affords them the luxury of never having to learn how to sit with and process fear are the target demographic for manufactured fear.
And the less privileged among their ranks — the working class men and women of otherwise undiluted privilege — have real fear about job insecurity or healthcare access or how the heck they are going to pay the mortgage next month. They are fears that are out of their personal control, and for which the Fear Manufacturers are happy to provide scapegoats — immigrants and brown people and feminists and kissing boys — lest anyone notice the Fear Manufacturers have been the architects of that real insecurity, too.
What is one to do when one has no capacity to process fear, no ability to sit with it and live with it, no developed strategies for coping with fear?
Well, in a lot of cases, one buys a gun. Or many guns. And then looks for an authoritarian who validates both your fear and your hatred, and promises that he is the only one who can protect you.
Donald Trump’s entire campaign was built around such a promise. He positioned himself as the savior the Republican Party has always promised, but never delivered. And he expressed as much contempt for the party leadership over that failure as the agitated base has long felt, reflecting and validating their anger at having been ignored.
Way back in December 2015, I noted: “The truth is, when Trump asserts he’s only saying out loud what other people believe, he’s talking about the other candidates. Those are the things that they believe. It’s frankly the most honest thing he says. The biggest difference between Trump and the other GOP candidates isn’t policy; it’s how they talk about that policy. Trump doesn’t dogwhistle. He marches through town decorated with bells banging pots and pans. But the policies are mostly indistinguishable. Trump isn’t a punchline. He’s the Cliffs Notes.”
Trump ascended as the uncensored id of the Republican base, which is why we were obliged to read story after story about Trump voters in Middle America commending him for “telling it like it is” and “just saying what everyone is really thinking.”
He channeled and amplified the bigoted, fear-drenched rage that the Republican Party had carefully cultivated among their base for decades. Trump is not a betrayer of their values, but their most shameless promoter.
Now people like Joe Scarborough have the temerity to publicly lament that the genie won’t go back in the bottle.
“What happened to my party?” wonder the vanishing moderates of the Republican Party, shaking their heads gravely and publicly wringing their hands, before shuffling off to wash them of any responsibility.
But they are what happened to their party. Their reckless exploitation of the darkest prejudices, the worst of human nature. Their greed. Their careless fearmongering. Their cynical scapegoating. Their endless denials of injustice.
They happened, with their insatiable appetites for more wealth, more power, more influence, more control. Their voracious need to win.
They happened. They and their bumper sticker sloganeering in a complicated world.
They happened. They held out that Leave It to Beaver bullshit chimera to their base, as if the typical family once was, and should be again, a model of white Christian perfection that never fought, never struggled, never suffered — and never had to be subjected to interactions with people of color, or LGBTx folks, or any women besides Mom and maybe a nice lady to help sons take out books on the Boy Scouts from the local library. They have held it out as if it has actually been, and as if it could be again.
And they did so even knowing that the fantasy of this nonexistent perfect America is the very thing that created the beloved “traditions” of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Christian Supremacy in the first place. It has been the dangling enticement of a happy family, supported by a single secure and well-paid job, in which no one is wracked with disillusionment, dispossession, or a lack of opportunity — an invitation to join for which most Americans are never given the chance to RSVP — that created the resentment and scapegoating that are the very foundations of social conservatism.
Some of them did it as true believers with their own aggressive and oft-expressed biases; others (like Scarborough) merely tolerated this vile and cynical politicking as a distasteful necessity of selling rich people policies to any exploitable soul they could convince to vote against their own best interests. An obscene complicity, either way.
Now they shamelessly deflect blame by pretending to be mystified by why their base rallied around a billionaire malice magnate with his transparently bigoted slogan stitched in gold thread on tacky hats.
Behold your roosting chickens, Republicans: “The political leadership taught their base too well whom to blame for what ails them, and thus cannot now move them from their fixed gaze and finger-pointing, even as it isn’t helping the party anymore — and stands likely to hurt the party for the foreseeable future. They sowed the seeds of prejudice for decades, and now they reap nothing but the only crop such seeds can yield.”
They prefer deflection to accountability. Which is exactly what got us here in the first place.
It’s just so much easier for Scarborough and others to say that it’s Trump who has alienated them from their party, rather than admit the truth: It was them who not only made Trump’s rise possible, but inevitable.
And, in the end, these new “independents” are only leaving behind their association with a brand tainted by Trump’s use of a bullhorn instead of the dogwhistles that better suited their delicate sensibilities. They still like the policies. They still want the tax cuts.
I’m sure they’re still happy to tell you the bedtime stories about how they are self-made men who never took a handout from anyone, and I’m equally sure they don’t understand — or care — how their threadbare anecdotes prop up the leader they claim to despise.