“Trumpism” is America’s Problem, Not Just the GOP’s

It’s often been said that Americans have been sheltered from history. 

The absence of a feudal past meant that Americans were “born free without having to become so” in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, thus sparing America from the bloody upheavals that convulsed much of Europe during the “age of democratic revolutions.” 

The splendid geographic isolation America has enjoyed meant that the world war fought to subdue the Napoleonic dictatorship emerging out of the French Revolution largely passed us by while America was a reluctant late-comer to the two world wars fought in the 20th century.

And America’s two-party political system – or “monopoly” to its critics – meant that the radical parties of the right and left that created so much tragic history elsewhere were denied the oxygen they needed to breathe life into their racial, ethnic, religious or ideological utopias.

The subplot of the 2016 election is whether that last democratic bulwark against political extremism has crumbled away.

That is why the vote next week is less a choice between Republicans and Democrats than it is a referendum on American democracy itself.

Donald Trump does not represent a political program per se but rather an angry (and potentially violent) protest against the Washington “establishment.”

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, carries the burden of being an avatar for a broadly-defined “status quo.”  It is a status quo that for her critics represents the present state of partisan dysfunction and “corruption” while for her supporters is synonymous with long-standing American political values, norms, institutions and traditions.

The much talked about “civil war” currently raging within the Republican Party, and likely continue long after the election whether Trump wins or not, is wrongly seen as a conflagration confined to the GOP alone as that troubled institution decides what kind of party it wants to be and then struggles to find the means to unite warring factions around that central vision.

There are certainly short-term political opportunities that Democrats can exploit stemming from current Republican divisions. Yet, it would be a mistake for Democrats to cheer (too much) the GOP’s present weakened condition.  That is because the civil war that now pits Republican against Republican is less a Republican-only problem than it is a symptom of larger forces tearing apart America’s democracy more generally.

The hardcore Trump support that belongs in Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” predates Donald Trump and in many ways is older than the Republican Party itself. 

Like the poor, the anti-social and undemocratic reactionary right has been with us always.

Elements of this mindset could be found among the so-called “Anti-federalists” of the 1780s who fought so hard against the Constitution and the Republic for which it stands in favor of states’ rights. 

It could be found among the Southern plantation slaveocracy that dragged the nation into a bloody civil war rather than surrender political power after a presidential election did not go its way.

In the 1950s, the “Radical Right,” representing in Richard Hofstadter’s words no more than a modest fraction of the electorate nevertheless was able to set a tone of “punitive reaction” throughout the country in which many American values as inclusiveness, open-mindedness and non-conformism came under relentless assault.

The latest iterations of right wing reaction have appeared under brand names like the “Tea Party,” the several varieties of “Constitutional Conservatives” and, more recently, “Trumpeteers.”

All of these right wing movements have been wholly-owned subsidiaries of the Republican Party.  But right wing conservatism has been an equal opportunity party crasher. White ethnic nationalism has destroyed every political party it's been associated with because its tendencies cannot peacefully co-exist as part of the broad coalitions major political parties must build in order to succeed in our two-party system. 

White nationalists, like most reactionary movements, equate compromise with cravenness and surrender and so inevitably must destroy every institution they cannot control.

The Whig Party collapsed as a national organization over the South’s uncompromising defense of slavery.  During the the civil rights movement in the 20th century, the Democratic Party twice split in two with the “Solid South” going its own way – first with the Dixiecrat movement in 1948 and again with Alabama governor George Wallace’s segregationist presidential campaign twenty years later.  And now, thanks to Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to woo reactionary Southern Democrats over to the Republican Party, the jackboot is on the other foot.

Democracy requires certain cultural prerequisites, as conservatives like to remind us, which can be best summarized by the idea that self-government begins with the governing of self.  Democracy requires disciplines that do not come naturally, namely support for tolerance and civility, respect for differences and the legitimacy of other parties, a willingness to be governed by one’s political enemies and by an appreciation that persuasion and propaganda or prevarication are not the same thing.

Needless to say, each of these fundamental norms is violated by a candidate who thinks he is the messianic leader of a “movement” instead of the candidate of a political party; or refuses to say ahead of time whether he will accept the results of an election; or who tells supporters that the system is rigged against them; or promises to imprison his chief political rival if he wins; and who believes that his standing as a celebrity entitles him to grope women and otherwise behave like a sex criminal.

There is no denying that Republicans have been playing with fire for more than 30 years as they've sought political power by pandering to anti-democratic elements that have always been there.  And so Republicans must take full blame for the personification of political extremism in the nomination of Donald Trump as the GOP’s standard-bearer. 

But returning right wing extremism to its rightful place on the lunatic fringe is not merely a Republican problem, it’s also an American one.     

Views: 146

Comment by Maui Surfer on November 3, 2016 at 1:23pm

America's problem is fowl- the chickens are coming home to roost. As your posts routinely include actual facts and events I'm reminded of a fictional one based on meticulous research, a scene from Rutherfurd's "London" where the King, running low on Knights, recruits a commoner with the promise of royalty following victory. The battle is lost; the recruit among the victims.

As LBJ noted about Trump variety white Americans directly to Bill Moyers:

'We were in Tennessee. During the motorcade, he spotted some ugly racial epithets scrawled on signs. Late that night in the hotel, when the local dignitaries had finished the last bottles of bourbon and branch water and departed, he started talking about those signs. "I'll tell you what's at the bottom of it," he said. "If you can convince the lowest white man he's better than the best colored man, he won't notice you're picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he'll empty his pockets for you.'"

And Trump-like high resource individuals, and to be fair this method goes back to the beginnings of "civilization" and is hardly exclusively American, began using this to divide, and thus keep conquered, an impoverished labor workforce demanding better conditions 400 years ago.

And what a job they did, what a story they wove. Creating, as Baldwin notes, the idea of the N-word and who it represented and how, the notion of one group as "entertainment" from minstrels to coon callers became, intentionally, embedded into the fabric of what is now the Trumpeteer "point of view" ... but, those were for the good times. In the bad it comes back to what LBJ, the ultimate 20th Century Southerner, describes.

Auwe (Alas)

Comment by Ron Powell on November 3, 2016 at 3:43pm

Can I get an AMEN?!!!!

Comment by JMac1949 Today on November 3, 2016 at 3:46pm

Amen!!  R&L

Comment by koshersalaami on November 3, 2016 at 4:02pm

It is an American problem but it is not, strictly speaking, a bipartisan problem at the moment. I don't think there's a significant Democratic constituency for anything like this kind of disgust with the law itself. Democrats are more likely to hate that the law is being gamed than to want to throw it all out. 

Racism is bipartisan, just not overtly, and not remotely equivalent. Classism is largely Democratic, which is one of the roots of the current problem. 











Comment by nerd cred on November 3, 2016 at 9:22pm

Brilliant. Thank you.

Comment by Dandy Lion on November 3, 2016 at 10:59pm

Great article Mr. Frier.  As opposed to a Republican problem, it’s an American one all right though the USA is not unique in this.  Most European countries have similar movements though few have as unhinged core as the Trump supporters. 

I don’t see this winding down anytime soon.  When you read what passes for discussion in practically any forum, it’s a blizzard of attack points.  There’s little common ground so on the more important consequences of who gets elected, like whether Roe v Wade should be overturned; whether further tax cuts for the richest help the economy; whether abrogating trade deals such as NAFTA help the majority; whether scuppering NATO and the Iran agreement makes the world a safer place; whether the vast majority of the world’s scientists are wrong or worse on climate change; all these issues and more are shunted aside. 

The Trumpeters’ media sources like Fox, Breitbart, RW talk radio and worse don’t just portray a fake world where Obama remains a Kenyan, Muslim socialist; where global warming is a hoax; where the Clintons have had several killed to protect their nefarious activities etc.; they shape the political discourse into a friends or enemies; patriots or traitors mode.  I’d like to think that in my lifetime things will get better but I’m pessimistic.  At best Hillary’s election staves off a worse outcome, but how many days before the Repubs begin impeachment proceedings?

Comment by Ted Frier on November 4, 2016 at 4:30am

Thanks everyone for reading my piece and for your thoughts.  On Morning Joe right now they are talking about Republican Senators like Cruz and even McCain who are promising not to ratify ANY Supreme Court nominee of a President Clinton because having once had a 5 to 4 conservative majority the right wing will not allow the Court to fall in liberal hands to undo everything the Court has done to solidify a permanent Republican majority in the United States with rulings like Citizens United allowing unlimited corporate contributions and Shelby that weakened the Voting Rights Act creating just the sort of attacks on minority voting we are seeing today.  It's the abandonment of democracy with its inherent ups and downs by a significant faction of the American electorate.

Dandy Lion, you are right: there is a right wing movement across the world as national ties weaken in favor of more tribal ones.  The world is coming to look more and more like the dysfunctional Middle East where Republicans and Democrats cannot come together any better than Sunni and Shia.

I also love the argument Republicans are making in the waning days of the election.  Republican committee chairmen are threatening constant investigations of Clinton as soon as she becomes president, so Trump is saying we should elect him to avoid a "constitutional crisis" because all those investigations will be so destabilizing.  Shameless!     

Comment by Ted Frier on November 4, 2016 at 5:41am

Steel Breeze, I am not sure that that is true.  There were several strong and viable candidates in the GOP primary -- but all of them were conventional candidates and we are in what I would call a "revolutionary" environment in which only Trump came across as wanting to raze everything to the ground.  Someone with less baggage than Clinton might have had an easier time, but support for Trump has nothing to do with Trump, which is why his support doesn't drop much no matter what new outrages we learn about his lecherous past.  

This is a "change" election only in the sense that a large group of voters on the right do not want change.  When you hear a conservative say they support the Constitution they do not mean they revere the actual document as if it were the product of divine inspiration, or else they would not be such promiscuous amenders of it, with any number of amendments they want to pass to change it -- even in such core sections as popular election of US senators that some conservatives would return to the state legislatures.  

What right wing constitutionalists mean is that they want to take all the issues we debate about as part of regular democratic "politics as usual" -- like the budget, or abortion, or gay marriage -- and then pass a conservative leaning "balanced budget" amendment, or "right to life" amendment, or "family protection" amendment so that we never have to debate about those things ever again and liberals can't get their hands on it.  To "constitutional conservatives," in other words, the Constitution is just a metaphor for right wing absolutism, it's a form of authoritarianism that puts an end to democratic politics and a culture that changes as it becomes more ethnically diverse.  When you ask them what they mean by the system being "corrupt" you often hear that they mean it passes liberal programs that benefit people unlike them who do not deserve it.

The Trump movement is cultural, not political.  I don't want to call it racist though racism is a big part of it. Mostly it is a protest by aging white Christians who want to recapture lost influence or destroy those institutions of cultural change, like the federal government -- whose leader today is a black man.  Trump is just a symbol for this anger, so I am not sure another candidate no matter how qualified would significantly reduce Trump's core support.  At the margins, yes, but not his core support.  


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