Donald Trump has, off and on, considered running for President since 1987. The last time he ran for real, in 2000, he ran as a Reform Party candidate and got 15,000 votes in the California primary. Back then, it would have been hard to imagine him being the Republican frontrunner, but the GOP of 2015 is nothing like the GOP of 2000–the same GOP that gave us George W. Bush.
So, what happened?
It helps to go back to where the GOP of today really began, with the Southern Strategy of the 1960s. Republicans are not called “the Party of Lincoln” for nothing: Republicans were unpopular in the South since the mid-1800s. In the decades following the Civil War, Democrats formed a peculiar alliance of northern intellectual liberalism and working class populism. Along for the ride were white Southerners, still bitter toward the GOP and, so accustomed to Democratic primacy in the South, lacking for other options. But as the Democrats broadened their coalition to include civil rights for black Americans, the party’s cohesion began to fray. The first real signal that the party had untenable internal divisions was Strom Thurmond’s breakaway from the Democrats and unsuccessful third-party Presidential bid in 1948. Nevertheless, the Democrats maintained the firm grip on the South until 1964, when the passage of the Civil Rights Act resulted in a great reshuffling of the American political landscape that led directly to the political situation we have today. Republicans were quick to take advantage of this turmoil within the Democratic Party and among people who had been faithful Democratic voters until the passage of the CRA. The essence of the Southern Strategy was and is appealing to the racist attitudes of white voters in order to win elections. In the decades following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Republicans managed to push Democrats out of Southern strongholds at all levels: city and county governments, state legislatures, governorships, on up to federal Congresspeople and Senators.
Key to Southern Strategy rhetoric is maintaining the threat of the “Other.” Black people make for the most obvious threat: with a Civil Rights Movement in recent memory, a population too large to ignore, and a long tradition of racist stereotyping and oppression, it is easy to strike fear into white voters with the prospect of a rising black menace. But it is not only black people who have been demonized by this political approach. When it has been politically convenient to single out undocumented immigrants, Republicans have seized on the opportunity to demonize them. Undocumented immigrants are characterized as dangerous criminals, drug dealers, and welfare leeches. They are said to come here for no other purpose than to commit crimes and take jobs from decent, hardworking (white) Americans. In the aftermath of 9⁄11, Muslims became the targets of choice for many conservatives. To the credit of the Bush administration–one of the few areas in which they perhaps deserve any–the Presidential administration of the time took care not to assign blame to Muslims as a whole. Unfortunately, a conservative base that had already been primed to despise the “Other” showed little patience for a nuanced understanding of the situation. Muslims in the US faced a general undercurrent of distrust and sometimes outright abuse in the years following the 9⁄11 attacks.
Even so, conservative voters were kept largely complacent as they had control of both Congress and the Presidency. While they may have believed the fate of the country was at stake, they also believed that the US was largely in good hands–and would be, so long as Democrats were kept at bay. It did not matter so much that, for instance, conservatives who previously strode for balanced budgets were now happy to drive up deficits. But during the Clinton administration, we also got a taste of the sort of gridlock and Republican obstructionism that would come to be hallmarks of the Obama years. (Clinton did not help matters with his poor impulse control and abuses of power; nevertheless, there was nothing remarkable about his excesses, as US Presidents go.)
Republican saw their fortunes begin to shift in 2006. This was remarkable mainly because midterm elections have historically favored conservatives–Democrats are more likely to stay home and only vote during Presidential elections. But this time, Democrats took the House and eked out a simple majority in the Senate. Since the results of midterm elections are discussed less among the general public and as the Presidency still belonged to a Republican, panic had not yet set in among the GOP.
Then came the 2008 election. This represented a truly watershed moment in the history of the Republican Party. Not only did Democrats tighten their control over Congress, they managed to secure the Presidency–and this new President wasn’t a white man, but a black, Harvard-educated liberal. Him being the sort of ivory tower intellectual Republicans speak disdainfully of would have been bad enough, but to have this man slot so neatly into the cultivated Republican image of the “Other” seemed to set off an unprecedented, even uncontrollable reaction among conservative voters.
There were the questions of Obama’s parentage and citizenship. There was heightened rhetoric that he was a Muslim agent out to destroy the country–or perhaps some kind of Communist sleeper agent programmed by Indonesians. Or was it Kenyans? Had Obama’s late father indoctrinated him with a deep hatred of colonial empires such that he would purposefully obliterate the United States as a memorial? These are real criticisms leveled at Obama by conservatives, and not merely cranks, but nationally-elected Republicans. The election of Barack Obama had so thoroughly shaken the GOP that they seemed to lose all sense of reason. But, as the minority party in Congress, their modest success in obstructing his agenda simply wasn’t good enough for the voters who fully expected them not just to stop Obama from accomplishing anything, but to find a way to remove the–in their eyes–illegitimate President Obama, by any means necessary. In the run-up to the 2010 midterms, it became clear that willing Obama gone wouldn’t be sufficient.
Another shoe dropped early in 2010: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. It is difficult to grasp the full scope of what has happened to the GOP without discussing the influence that unlimited outside funding has wrought. Almost immediately after Obama’s election, frantic grassroots opposition sprang up, people demanding to have “their” country back. More traditional conservative interests–that is to say, corporate interests–quickly capitalized on this in the aftermath of Citizens United, turning a populist fringe into a formidable political force. Candidates ran on what came to be known as the Tea Party platform. While this platform is, above all else, anti-Obama, it also centers on extreme versions of reliable conservative planks: small government, low taxes, little regulation, tough-on-crime approaches to justice, crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, rollbacks of abortion access, and the erosion (or denial) of protected status for various minority groups. These are all ostensibly policy positions that moderate Republicans have long stood for. The difference is that, when they held power, they didn’t accomplish much of it, and in fact the government was expanded dramatically under George W. Bush, particularly in terms of Medicare and defense spending.
In essence, conservative voters no longer trusted the Republicans they had been electing, and sought to replace them with people who wouldn’t merely pay lip service to fighting the Democrats and Obama, but actually do it. Out were Republicans who believed in “bipartisanship” and “compromise”–those were just code words for conceding defeat, used by RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Years spent convincing conservative voters that a Democratic government would be the ruin of America came back to haunt the Republican Party.
When Tea Party candidates swept Congress in 2010, Democrats lost their control of Congress, and indeed Republicans lost control over their party. Instead of a more or less cohesive caucus of moderate and conservative (but willing to compromise) Republicans, the GOP in Congress found themselves sharing the floor with ideologues who took Barry Goldwater at his word: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” If Obama was the deadliest threat to the American way of life that the country had ever seen, who could do anything less than fight him tooth and nail, unless they were in league with him?
And yet, the results of the 2012 election were deeply mixed. Obama handily won re-election, but Republicans made gains in Congress, too–most of those gains coming from Tea Party candidates, backed by ultra rich donors like the Koch brothers who took full advantage of the environment created by Citizens United. It is possible that Tea Party-voting conservatives believed that their failures to stop Obama were the result of not yet having enough control over the government, and so supporting such candidates even more heavily was the only way forward. But even now, the efforts of the Tea Party to thwart Obama and the Democrats have met with very limited success, because these same politicians (and, it must be said, the people who vote for them) do not grasp what actually works in Congress. That is to say: compromise and cooperation.
It is no coincidence that, under John Boehner’s speakership, multiple shutdowns were avoided only because he brought together a coalition of moderate Republicans and willing Democrats to pass essential legislating–cutting Tea Party members out of the process completely. But this has enraged the base even more, forcing the hands of Tea Party House members to attempt to oust Boehner, who preempted them by retiring. It remains to be seen how his replacement, Paul Ryan, will fare. But that is a more recent development. The conservative movement had already thrust Donald Trump to the forefront, and with this background, it should be easy to understand why.
Republicans claimed, at every turn, that Democrats hate America and seek to destroy it, on behalf of a myriad of enemies who play on all the fears and insecurities of low-information, rural white voters. If it isn’t black thugs burning down cities and raping white women, it’s illegal Mexicans dealing drugs and stealing jobs, or Muslim extremists imposing Sharia law and executing infidels. Monied interests leverage these fears in the backing of Tea Party candidates who promise to stop all this–to put the blacks in their place, send the Mexicans home, and stand tough against Muslim terrorists. Never mind that these threats range from grossly exaggerated to completely invented. The themes have been in play so long that they are taken as gospel by the conservative base, and embedded so well in the electorate that clever Republicans need not speak openly of the fears they are referencing.
That, in fact, is the only real difference between most of Donald Trump’s message and the messages being peddled by Republicans in general. In 1981, Republican strategist Lee Atwater, who helped secure Reagan’s election and mentored Karl Rove, described the strategy in explicit terms:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “N*****, n*****, n*****.” By 1968 you can’t say “n*****”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N*****, n*****.”
More concisely, these allusions to policies designed to hurt minorities without directly mentioning minorities are known as dogwhistles. They are a bog standard rhetorical tool for conservative politicians who, as Atwater aptly stated, don’t want to be caught _sounding_ bigoted, since open bigotry doesn’t play well with the electorate.
Or so he thought.
Trump has turned that entire idea on its head. It is no longer necessary to invoke the dogwhistles: Trump will tell you to your face that undocumented immigrants are rapists and criminals. He will make crude, sexist references toward women without the slightest hint of feeling bad about it–and this is why his supporters actually like him. He makes bold claims of successes he will achieve through sheer force of will while practically reveling in his ignorance of the outside world. To his supporters, this makes him both admirable and relatable. The “straight-shooter” who “tells it like it is” is hardly a new phenomenon in the American political playbook, but Trump has successfully broken the conservative orthodoxy that less-than-inclusive messages should be couched in language that sounds innocuous while holding nefarious implications. Trump doesn’t imply, he states directly. Mitt Romney’s “47%” comment in 2012 did real damage to his campaign, because it hurt his appeal to moderate voters. Trump is banking on the prospect that he doesn’t need moderate voters–or at least, that moderate voters won’t care when he says something racist, as long as he follows it up with calling someone else a “loser.” Some voters will overlook quite a bit to support someone they think is a winner.
If Trump is unique at all, it is only in the way he delivers his message. The actual contents of his message are no more hateful than conservative Republicans have been pushing for decades. And so far, his approach is working. The only other candidate offering him a serious challenge is Dr. Ben Carson, who seems determined to out-Trump Trump with outrageous statements of his own. The entire GOP primary has been devolved into a circus of cheap shots and schoolyard-quality oneupmanship, because it turns out the Republican base doesn’t want thoughtfulness or sound policy–it wants a reality show, a cartoon presentation of America and the world where all you need are clever quips and an iron will to get your way.
The only question is how much damage believing in this lie will cause before conservatives either come to their senses or work their way toward a less reality-divorced ideology.
And though Trump’s prospects, should he win the nomination, are thankfully dim, we should not assume there won’t be more candidates just like him in the future. The new GOP–the party at war with itself, and with reality–looks here to stay.