Tuesday, December 8, 2015
Donald Trump and the Republican Party's 2016 Death Spiral
President Obama's speech Sunday night was a simple statement to try to quell the anti-Muslim extremism that the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have set loose in this country. Referring to Obama's speech Trump said: "It's impossible to watch the gross incompetence I watched last night. I watched a president truly that didn't know what he was doing. I don't even know if he knows what the hell is going on."
Not Your Father's Demagogue
Also on Sunday, The New York Times ran a front-page analysis of 95,000 words spoken by Trump out on the stump that the authors find "ominous" that echo "the appeals of some demagogues of the past century." The journalists, Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman, interviewed several historians to try to place Trump in context. Some of the demagogues from the "American Century" mentioned by name are Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace, and Pat Buchanan. Good examples. But Trump today is operating in a entirely different political, economic, and cultural environment.
The Republican Congresses since 2011 are among the worst in our nation's history, far worse than those that existed when McCarthy, Wallace, and Buchanan were hitting their strides. The gap between rich and poor is wider. Labor unions are weaker, real wages for most workers are stagnant. Student loan and household debt is higher. The Great Recession has left in its wake a greater sense of economic insecurity. And when McCarthy, Wallace, and Buchanan were plying their trade there was no Citizens United that legalized political bribery and corruption. The country is more of an oligarchy today.
When Joe McCarthy was destroying liberals' careers by smearing them as "communists," and George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door to bar African American students from attending the University of Alabama, the top tax bracket in America was hovering between 90 and 70 percent and corporate taxes paid for about a quarter of the federal budget. When Pat Buchanan gave his chauvinistic speech at the 1992 RNC there was no Fox News, "welfare reform," or NAFTA, and Glass-Steagall was still the law of the land.
They were odious demagogues but they were still operating in a country that was in general far better off politically and economically than we are today. Trump is working his magic in a target rich environment. He is not only rallying angry white voters in a social context where people are feeling deeply economically insecure, but since our culture tolerates and sanctions Islamophobia in ways that would be verboten if it were directed against any other minority group, he is also fanning the flames of the most dangerous form of racism.
Trump has had a lot of help. Right-wing talk radio, Fox News, and Congressional committees revel in demagoguery. They throw baseless smears at Hillary Rodham Clinton about Benghazi, berate Cecile Richards, the President of Planned Parenthood, and launch endless partisan fishing expeditions at taxpayer expense. Demagoguery runs throughout the entire right-wing ecosystem, it's a little late and disingenuous to start criticizing things just because Trump is at the top of the food chain.
Trump has simply turned up the volume on the same kind of venom Sarah Palin was spewing in 2008 about Barack Obama "palling around with terrorists." And he is no more mendacious than the 2012 Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, which followed a blatant strategy of unapologetically telling lies and flooding the airwaves with attacks on President Obama that had no basis in fact. "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers," the Romney-Ryan campaign pollster, Neil Newhouse, told a panel of stunned ABC News journalists at the Republican National Convention.
The corporate media, always searching for viewers, listeners, and click bait cannot resist covering every aspect of the Trump phenomenon. The summer of 2015 became "The Summer of Trump." Trump receives so much free television airtime compared to his opponents he doesn't have to spend much of his own campaign cash on advertising. Every talk radio or news host wants him on their shows and Trump knows it. In recent years when Trump wasn't on Fox News, or sending "teams of investigators" to Hawaii and Kenya to get to the bottom of Obama's birthplace, he was out golfing with former House Speaker John Boehner.
The Republican Congress, always channeling the id of its base, has shown that it's ready to blow up the government to get its way before it will compromise with Obama. Why not blow up the Party too by nominating Trump?
In the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks the United States was quick to abandon virtually all of its "cherished" values of due process, human rights, and international law. The cliché that we're only "one 9-11 away" from a police state is kind of playing out before our eyes. In the heat of the 2016 presidential race, where every white voter to the GOP candidates is the gold standard, could it be that Trump will win the nomination fair and square by pandering to the lowest common denominator?
At the time of this writing there seems to be no one in charge of the Republican Party with the credibility and gravitas who can put Trump in his place. There's no Edward R. Murrow or Joseph Welch or Robert F. Kennedy to take down the demagogue this time around.
The only way Trump could be sidelined would be if all of the GOP presidential candidates, along with the RNC and down ballot politicians, media celebrities, talk radio hosts, and Fox News, ban together and denounce his racism and tell him: "You're Fired!" But that outcome is not bloody likely since in the process the Republican Party would have to betray its precious but angry base of disaffected whites.
Trump is not alone. There is no shortage of Republican politicians who are in one way or another exploiting the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino to ratchet up anti-Islamic sentiment. Marco Rubio calls the U.S. war against ISIL a "civilizational" struggle. Ted Cruz promises to "carpet bomb" Syria and Iraq. And they all have fetishized the idea that it's really, really important for President Obama to use the term: "Islamic terrorism."
President Obama tried subtly to remind us that all this reactionary chest thumping is exactly what ISIL wants. So it's not just Trump who is playing this demagogic game, but the whole 2016 Republican field, the Republican Congress, and the Republican echo chamber. Their anti-Muslim bigotry dovetails perfectly with their dog whistle racism as they tap into their inner Lee Atwater and play out once again their "Southern Strategy."
If the GOP is content to live off the fumes of Obama hatred through this election cycle, then let the party enter its death spiral. Nominating Trump might finally produce the total washout the Republican brand deserves. Trump 2016!
Joseph Palermo is a Professor of History at CSU-Sacramento
Follow Joseph A. Palermo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/JosephPalermo1