My father was a life-long Republican. Pragmatically, it was not a particularly effective affiliation. We lived in the “solid South” wing of the Democratic Party. For a hundred years, that party was home for moderate working-class voters, as well as for post-Civil War Southerners enforcing Jim Crowe segregation – the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party. The Democratic hold on southern political power was so complete that through the 1960s my father’s Republican vote never elected a Republican to office.
The national Republican Party was founded just before the Civil War. Anti-slavery was its main cause; Abraham Lincoln was its first President. After the North won that war, the wealthy of the country took hold of the Republican Party and never turned loose of it. Through the 1950s/1960s, political and financial control of the Republican Party was predominately located in the northeast, with a moderate Eisenhower its first president since The Great Depression. But the times were changing. Party control was moving westward; a new breed of conservative Republicans was emerging. Their political leader was Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater; their intellectual leader was Willian F. Buckley, founder of the National Review; their soul was given voice by author Ayn Rand; its spokesperson was actor/California Governor Ronald Reagan. Goldwater lost the 1964 presidential election by a landslide; the movement succeeded with Reagan’s election in 1980.
Meanwhile, the party’s voter base shifted underneath its leaders. Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, thereby tearing down the Jim Crowe voting barriers in the South. For the Dixiecrats, it was the ultimate betrayal by their Party. In 1968, some found a new home in Alabama Governor George Wallace’s segregationist 3rd- party presidential run; others found it in Republican Richard Nixon’s “law and order” candidacy in the throes of the Viet Nam War and civil rights protests. Over approximately 20 years, the Democratic South migrated to become the new (and dependable) Republican South. The weeds of anger and distrust of the American federal government – planted in the post-Civil War Reconstruction period – were now rebirthed as the southern wing of the Republican Party.
Following Presidents Reagan and Bush, Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker after the Republican takeover of the House in 1994 after 40 years in the minority. Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was his declaration of war on the old politics. No more bi-partisan government solutions. It was now “our way or the highway,” either/or, me versus you. Republicans would now run the show on a “conservative” (i.e. not “Democratic liberal”) agenda. Where the Party had been built on a business-friendly / government-hands-off agenda, it would now rebuild itself on the new base of Republican voters by adopting a “social conservative” agenda tied to conservative Christian groups. Gingrich also changed the political vocabulary, breaking the norms of respectful debate by substituting personal insult and attacking opponents’ patriotism. Forced to resign due to personal and political ethical issues, the legacy of his impact on partisanship and negative speech in Washington remains today.
Gingrich left behind a new voter base firmly in residence in the Republican Party. It was a base that felt left out of government’s largess and political support, an unheard voice in the national conversation. The new agenda was driven by a desire to return American culture to the perceived way of life of the 1950s, which had been battered by the “progressive changes” instituted over the ensuing decades. Changes from the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, abortion, same-gender relationships, equal-pay and affirmative action in the workplace, environmental regulation. In response, a conservative agenda – and the politicians who would support it – emerged focused on issues such as religious priorities (e.g. prayer in schools and public places; favoritism on Christian religious observances); abortion; “traditional values” (including traditional gender relationships); issues of moral conduct; hyper-patriotism; 2nd Amendment gun rights. As always, there was the undercurrent of racial segregation and bias, now pursued through “back door” legal or policy mechanisms. Over time, this agenda expanded into two main themes: 1) a claimed right to do as one pleases (a decidedly un-Christian view), regardless of law and regulation promoting the common good, and 2) a paradoxical belief that all Americans should conform to one cultural and legal point of view – this conservative point of view.
This new conservative agenda was essentially held in check during the George W. Bush presidency. But after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, who personified the progressive political force, the new conservatives hit their stride. In 2010 the Tea Party Movement burst onto the scene, focusing their efforts first on purging the Republican party of its “old guard” members and replacing them with disciples of the new movement. These new-style Republicans once again took back the House (which they had lost in 2006), and subsequently the Senate in 2014. All that remained was to install one of their own in the White House, to accomplish control of both the Legislative and Executive branches.
Enter one Donald John Trump. Compared to his 44 predecessors, never has one individual been less qualified to be President. But Trump has several skills useful in the 2016 election campaign: an ability to make himself as the center of attention; an absence of any core beliefs and principles; an ability to read people and play to their self-interests. Once he decided to run for President – the biggest center of attention of all – the new Republican base was just the vehicle he needed. And they likewise needed him.
It was, and is, a marriage of convenience. Trump is willing to present himself as whatever his voting base wants him to be in exchange for their votes. In turn, that base is willing to turn a blind eye and tolerate his personal and political life hypocrisies, his political incompetence, and his untruths in exchange for giving voice to their frustrations and agenda. Trump has their allegiance because no one else is speaking for them. In fact, it is not so much that the base is devoted to Trump, they simply have nowhere else to turn. Hence the intractable and almost inexplicable support given to him. Neither does Trump have any other voter base open to him. Trump and his base are thereby permanently wedded to one another.
So the Religious Right ignores Trump’s amorality in exchange for his advocacy of their morality agenda. Business owners ignore his business failures in exchange for his deregulation of economic controls and budget-busting tax reductions. U.S. senators overlook and rationalize his illegality in exchange for filling judicial vacancies with conservative jurists. Hate groups walk through the open door of “respectability” offered by Trump in exchange for their support. It is all about “making the deal”; each side gives and gets. Apparent fealty to Trump is actually fealty to the agenda – the marriage lasts only as long as Trump toes the line. If the line breaks, the fealty breaks. Each party is the oxygen for the other.
Today, the “Republican Party” is now unrecognizable from its former self; the label “Republican” no longer has precise definition. It is now the Trumpublican Party, defined by one man. The existing Party structure provides the vehicle for Trump and his voters to carry out their political operation. Traditional institutional Republicans have been forced to the sidelines, or out of the Party altogether. On the playing field sits the Trump Truly Faithful, reveling in the euphoria of their new power, convinced that their campaign against “government intrusion and failure” has finally come. In the cheering section are those who cannot endorse Trump the man, yet see personal or political benefit to going along for the ride. Then come the various hate and domestic terrorist groups basking their newly-found “respectability.” This election will not only elect a President, it will also define the fate of this Republican Party. If Trump wins, Trumpism and his coalition will stand for years. If Trump loses, Trump will be a temporary blip in the Party’s history. The Party will collapse into an inevitable blame game as a new power struggle ensues. Who will win, who will constitute the Republican Party in 2024, is a mystery waiting to unfold.
Early in the 2016 campaign, I said, “The real story here is not Donald Trump, even though that is where the attention is going. He is merely the mouthpiece, The real story that should be pursued is the Trump voter.” That is still where today’s discussion should be focused. What are they after? And why are they after it?” Four years later, we are still focused on the man. We should be focused on his voters. What drives them to their agenda? What is it that fuels their antagonism towards their government(s)? What happened to my father’s Republican Party?
4 weeks to Election Day, November 3.
© 2020 Randy Bell https://ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com