Responsibility for Trump: Part I

As readers may have guessed from the prolonged absence of blogging, I’m on holidays. But being an election expert, of course I’m in the United States, whose long (very long) presidential election reaches its climax in two days time.

The polls for the last week or so have been scary, but I remain of the view that Hillary Clinton will win comfortably. The psephology, however, can wait till tomorrow; today I want to look more at how the country got into this strange position.

There have been plenty of good analyses of Trumpism – Zack Beauchamp’s latest, at Vox, is particularly thorough, linking Donald Trump to far-right successes in many countries. He and others have done much to debunk the narrative of Trump as the champion of the economically disadvantaged: as Beauchamp says, “It’s the xenophobia, stupid.”

That’s important for understanding how Trump won the nomination, but in terms of explaining his current position these analyses miss the point. Trump is a competitive – frighteningly competitive – candidate not primarily because of his ideas or policy positions, but because he is the Republican nominee in a two-party system, and the Republican Party for the most part has stood loyally behind him.

The extent of that Republican solidarity has surprised many observers. Jon Chait on Friday, in a post titled “Trump or the Republic?”, remarked that the response of the “political apparatus of the Republican Party” to Trump “has been chilling in its ordinariness.” “However low my opinion of the Republican Party,” he says, “it was not low enough.”

Another route to the same conclusion is to look at how even the limited internal critique of Trump that there has been has fallen short of what was required.

Conservative or Republican (and one of the keys to the problem is the way in which those two words have become practically synonymous) attacks on Trump suffer from three related failings. All critics are prone to at least one of them; the majority record all three.

First is a personal or moral failing. The critic diagnoses (some of) the ills of Trump, but blames others in the party, or often just unpredictable chance, rather than him- or herself. The critic fails to ask an obvious question: how is it that I have given so much of my life to a cause that has turned out so badly? Could I be partly responsible?

The answer is usually “yes”, but the answer is not heard because the question is not asked.

Second there is a practical failing. The critic declaims on the horror of Trump and the danger he would pose to the republic, but fails to take the next, necessary step of endorsing the only candidate who can beat him. This might look like just a lofty disregard (or ignorance) of electoral mechanics, but most of the time I think there is something more behind it – what Chait calls the delegitimisation of the Democratic Party.

Even if driven to abandon the Republican Party, the conservative critic just does not regard voting Democrat as a live option: it has dropped out of the range of conceivable political behavior. Unfortunately, it just happens to be the only way of beating Trump.

Third, and underpinning the other two, is an ideological failure: a failure to consider Trump as other than sui generis. At most, the critics acknowledge that certain tactical choices made by the GOP in recent times may have helped to create the climate that made Trump possible. They decline to dig deeper, and look seriously at the party’s record over two decades.

Going back at least to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998-99, the Republican Party has become untethered from reality. It has become the sort of organisation where executions call for applause, where a vice-president could boast of committing war crimes, where its legal scholars tried to invalidate health care reform (initially a conservative project) on the basis of a typographical error, and where presidential candidates are afraid to admit they believe the universe to be more than six thousand years old.

In other democracies, a party that moved so far from the mainstream would risk a split; either its moderate elements would leave and create a more mainstream outfit, or the threat of them doing so would drag the party back towards the centre.

But not in America; the institutional entrenchments of the two-party system are too strong. And perhaps in any case there is something in the national psyche that is more congenial to paranoid authoritarianism.

So instead the party continued on its downward spiral. Its leaders pursued power at all costs, promising a regressive tax system to benefit its wealthy donor class, and regressive social policies to appease its backwoods supporters. Not just a partisan program, those two things became definitional of modern conservatism.

And when they discovered that what their voters really cared about was white nationalism, the leaders, and most of the intellectuals, found that they could live with that too.

These things are not ancient history: they are a vital part of understanding the Republican Party of today. Conservative intellectuals may themselves have been innocent of racism or xenophobia, but it is beyond belief that they had not noticed those things taking over the party.

Trump himself may have been (for some of them) a bridge too far, but they had already crossed many other bridges to get to this point.

Since there are so few of them, part of me feels bad about criticising the anti-Trump Republicans: they have taken a lonely, albeit hesitant and partial, stand for decency, and it is of course their more numerous pro-Trump colleagues who are far more guilty.

But the really worrying thing about the Republican Party is how similar the two groups are. To strain at Trump but to have swallowed everything that went before will seem in the court of history to be a small distinction.

One thought on “Responsibility for Trump: Part I

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