Don't Blame the Republican Party for the Rise of Trump
Until a few early polls started coming out showing Donald Trump pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton, liberals could be forgiven a certain amount of schadenfreude. After 20 years of relentless partisanship and personal attacks, the monster that Republican leaders created had broken free of its chains and was hell bent on destroying its former master.
Or maybe those liberals shouldn't be forgiven so easily. I’ve been pondering these theories -- advanced by everyone from Barack Obama and Harry Reid to Bill Maher -- and the thing is, they don’t make a heck of a lot of sense. They seem to posit a Republican electorate that is, on the one hand, so malleable that the GOP leadership could create the emotional conditions for a Trump candidacy -- and on the other hand, a Republican electorate so surly and unmanageable that it has ignored the horrified pleading of conservative leaders and intellectuals, in order to rally behind Trump.
Perhaps because I have spent the last 15 years trying to convince other people of my opinions, I have an alternate theory. My theory is: You don’t put ideas in peoples’ heads; they just grow there. Consider the five major planks of the “Everything is the fault of the Republican Party” argument:
- Talk radio and Fox News made conservatives crazy. Now, I don’t particularly care for most talk radio. (There are plenty of exceptions, which can be roughly inferred from finding out which conservative talk radio shows I have appeared on.) The name calling and buzzwords are juvenile, and the level of policy debate is not high enough to hold my interest, regardless of whether I agree with some of the chatter. And blissfully freed from the necessity of actually governing, or getting elected, talk-radio folks are prone to urge counterproductive tactical extremism that is great for their ratings and terrible for the political causes they are allegedly trying to advance.
That said, media follows its audience, rather than leading it. Opinion columnists who spend any time at all interacting with their readers are well aware of how pitifully rarely we manage to change anyone’s mind about anything. I’m not saying that it never happens, because it does. But mostly, folks read us because they agree with us, and they enjoy having us agree with them. The best evidence that conservative media has any impact on the opinions of its audience shows that the introduction of Fox News to cable systems very slightly moved those election districts to the right -- by about the margin in a white-knuckled squeaker of an election. This can’t explain the last 10 years of electoral results or the current cycle.
- Blocking president Obama’s legislation. This theory, as advanced by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, holds that by relentlessly delegitimizing Obama, Republicans somehow paved the way for the rise of Trump and his “no holds barred” style of politics. Now, again, I have been pretty harsh on some of the more theatrical exhibitions of pointless political power over the last eight years. But this explanation for Trump's rise is absurd. First of all, the leadership was frantically trying to stop those folks, and was unable to because the conservative base elected hard-liners who wouldn’t cooperate. Second, as this implies, the impetus for the shutdowns and the legislative blockades came from very conservative voters in the Republican base, the kind who can swing House primary races, yet Trump’s support was strongest among moderate Republicans. You could theorize that Republican obstructionism paved the way for Trump by alienating those voters, except that there’s no evidence for this; few Trump fans seem to be wildly outraged bygreen-energy initiatives, health-care expansions or the failure to cut taxes deeper and faster. When I've asked them what they’re most mad about, it’s that the leadership seemed too cooperative with Obama on immigration reform.
- Personal attacks on Democrats. This is just -- I have no words for what it is. At least, not words that can be printed in a family-friendly column. It is triple-distilled balderdash … high-test twaddle … self-congratulatory swill … nonsense on stilts. It suggests that the Republican leadership could have somehow shut down all such attacks, which would have, at the very least, involved both government censorship and flagrant violation of our nation’s campaign finance laws. And of course, it suggests that climbing further up the moral high ground would have somehow instilled a sense of shame in Trump or the folks who enjoy his outrages, a theory which has been thoroughly and conclusively disproved by the events of the last six months. Should the Republicans have been more forthright in denouncing Donald Trump’s birth certificate nonsense? Absolutely, and while they’re at it they should call their mothers more, and donate more of their personal funds to global malaria eradication. But it’s a pretty big stretch to suggest that any of these things would have somehow impinged on his popularity.
- Fox News gave him so much air time. C’mon. C’mon. Every time I tuned into MSNBC or CNN, I thought I had mistakenly woken up in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, where television stations were legally required to air hours of the off-the-cuff ramblings of their local strongman. There is a lively debate to be had over whether the networks should have chased ratings by giving Trump a couple of billion dollars' worth of free airtime. That debate does not end in the conclusion that somehow, it’s all the fault of Fox News.
- The Southern strategy. In this theory, the original sin was the GOP’s Southern strategy, in which they cynically decided to go after the South’s angry white racist vote with a code-word-laden campaign about law and order. Eventually, this culminated in the nomination of an outspoken racist for the party leadership.
I have a somewhat more nuanced view of the Southern strategy. First of all, the idea that law and order concerns were all about appealing to Southern racists is frankly nuts; law and order concerns were mostly about appealing to voters who were appalled by the explosion of violence and disorder from the '60s to the early '90s. We can certainly argue about whether the policies enacted in response to that explosion were just, right or effective, but the idea that Republicans somehow invented this to cover up their attempt to reinvent the KKK as a major political party is just shockingly ahistorical.
And second of all, to the extent that Republicans were tapping into such sentiments, some of it was simply because with crime and welfare benefits unequally racially distributed, any party that favored tough law enforcement and was skeptical of social spending was going to appeal more to whites than to minorities, and especially to whites who had strong negative feelings about the minorities who committed a disproportionate share of the crimes and collected a disproportionate share of the poverty benefits. This makes the “Southern strategy” look more deliberate than it was; part of what we’re looking at is simply a party realignment away from regional blocs and the old business/labor split and toward ideological size-of-government and culture war fault lines. The fact that small-government policies appealed to racists doesn’t mean that this was the motivation of the folks pushing those policies.
Which brings me to my third point, which is that to the extent that it was deliberate, the Republican Party was chasing those voters, not leading them. The racial animus behind Jim Crow was not created by political leadership; it was often reinforced by law, but it was a culture-wide systematic bias that caused, rather than reflected, Jim Crow, and which outlived the demise of its legal manifestation. You can argue that Republicans should simply have declined to have those voters in their coalition but … how? The rest of the party really did want small-government policies for a variety of ideological and personal reasons. Were they supposed to abandon the policy positions because racists also liked them? Better shut down Planned Parenthood, then, because Margaret Sanger had some incredibly unappealing views on eugenics. (Hint: She was for it.)
I don’t like the fact that there are virulent racists and anti-Semites in our electorate. I don’t know how big a percentage they compose of Trump’s support, but they are obviously some portion, because I, like other right-leaning columnists, have been enjoying a bile fountain from those folks for months. I would rather those people let go of their vile hatreds and embraced better, kinder ideas about the world and the people in it. But they’re still my fellow Americans, and they have exactly as much right as I do to have their votes count. And there’s no way to keep their preferences out of the policy process unless you’re prepared to advocate that both parties should systematically collude to disenfranchise these folks, and split the remaining vote between them. That’s both impractical and more than a little creepy.
So whose fault is Trump then, if not the leadership of the Republican Party and the conservative movement?
I tend to think that’s a bad question. It is politics-as-novel, rather than politics-as-system. We are a large, fractious nation full of clashing interest groups and wildly differing opinions, as well as differing levels of engagement with politics. That system will often spit out results that most of us don’t like very much. Trying to ascribe those results to a person, or even a small group, is like blaming the weatherman because it’s raining, or an economist for a recession. You have selected the most visible target, not the most likely one. And, in the case of Democrats who fault Republicans for Trump, a very convenient target as well.
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