One hears a lot of talk these days about the existential threat to Republican Party posed by Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Roy Moore and a host of other figures who, in another political season, would have been considered well beyond the lunatic fringe. But claims about the imminent demise of the Republicans are, to say the least, overblown.
Pace the incessant stream of guests on MSNBC with prophecies of doom, the Republican Party is functioning just about as it always has in most important respects. As the first year of Trumpism in power has shown, although the tone of its public utterances have changed, and although the rules of about what can decently be asserted in public have loosened considerably, the fundamentals are much as they have been for a generation.
Mr. Trump has certainly dealt a severe shock to American politics, but more at the level of the public sphere than in the underlying zones in which public and private political culture overlap. Amongst chattering classes of journalists, academics, and former government officials who make the rounds of the opinion shows, the persistent expressions of horror at the doings of Mr. Trump and his coterie could (and amongst with swaths of American public opinion does) create the impression that we have taken a collective header through some sort of looking-glass into an anti-Wonderland of lies, bigotry, and rank incompetence. But this impression has much more to do with the perceptions of the people expressing it than it does with any substantive and novel transformation of American political life.
It is worth remembering that political commentary, especially as practiced on the major news outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News (although in the last case the connection to actual news is extremely tenuous), is part of a process of media-driven idea formation rather than a serious discussion of affairs on the model that the thinkers of the Enlightenment hoped for.
It is no secret to anyone who has ever ridden public transportation or hung out in a bar that the political views of many Americans were a lot fouler and less genteel than the well-heeled and well-spoken representatives of both ends of the political spectrum that populate the opinion programs.
What now is often mistaken for generalized horror and outrage at the misdeeds of the current administration is, to a great extent, merely a reflection of the patrician annoyance of the opinion makers that the verities about American politics and culture that they have so gladly mouthed are no longer so easily woven into the decent drapery of society. Once again, it is worth remembering that it was not so long ago Mitt Romney’s political prospects were dealt a severe blow by his importunate expression of a view (that a large proportion of Americans were spongers) held by a large proportion of people in the center and rightward elements of the American political spectrum.
When, not too much later on, it was plausibly speculated that Mr. Trump had also, through the employment of various loopholes and gamings of the system, also paid no taxes, this was chalked up to his economic and financial nous. The implication was clear: poor people who don’t pay taxes are leeches. Rich people who don’t are canny. The fact that Mr. Trump got a pass on this is not evidence of a sea change in American politics, but rather an admission of what the actual state of bourgeois political consciousness has been since time immemorial.
As to the question of the purported demise of the Republican Party, the question that needs to be asked is: precisely what is meant by this phrase? Certainly the institutions and infrastructure of the party seem in no danger of collapse. The ability of the party to generate funds for its endeavors has in no way been compromised. Given that the likes of Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers have made it clear that they would be willing to back the candidacy of the grim reaper provided he gave them reason to believe that his scythe would be turned on Obamacare and the institutions of the welfare state, it takes real effort to imagine a set of circumstances in which the flows in these pipelines of cash would diminish.
At the same time, Mr. Trump has achieved the legislative victory that his backers on the political right have made clear they deemed most important: the massive transfer of wealth from the middle and lower sections of the income distribution to the top .1% through a rejigging of the tax code. That this Frankenstein’s monster of a bill also achieved the repeal of the individual insurance mandate was icing on the cake. Now, in addition to a massive financial windfall for Mr. Trump and those in his rarified tax bracket, the Republicans have gotten even “mavericks” like John McCain and Susan Collins to get on board with their anti-Obamacare strategy of repeal and devil take the hindmost.
All this has left Democrats and their media mouthpieces grasping at straws, such as the outcome of the recent senatorial election in Alabama. But the defeat of Roy Moore is hardly an indication of a long-term shift in the politics of the old south. It was a win on a wafer thin margin by a relatively conservative Democrat (one who seems to have taken on board Mitch McConnell’s suggestion that he should vote with the Republicans in order to accurately reflect the inclinations of his constituents). What it precisely did not show is that Alabama is moving toward the left, or that the Republican brand is, in any meaningful sense, in crisis. It showed that about 30% of Republicans were, for one reason or another, unwilling to vote for someone who they had every reason to believe was a paedophile. The real takeaway from this event is that 60% of Republican voters were not so moved.
Buoyed by his victory over the voices of fiscal sanity as expressed in the tax code (deficits apparently only being bad when it’s Democrats who are running them), the agenda of Mr. Trump and his allies in the new year seems to involve an attack on so-called “entitlement” programs such as Medicare and Social Security. The latter has traditionally been referred to as “the third rail of American politics,” the implication being that attempts to cut it would likely be lethal.
The Republicans are in a position to do exactly what they, as a party, have always wanted to do, with Mr. Trump as an available Judas goat if things should go awry. In fact, the position of Mr. Trump has worsened since the passage of tax reform, since his Republican brethren now need him less. He is in the position of Stalin’s generals, needing to move forward, but liable to elimination as the price of failure. Contrary to the claims that the Republican Party is in crisis, the fact of the matter is that it could hardly be in a stronger position.
And still, those groups in American public life, opinion makers of the kind that Max Weber used to refer to derisively as “our literati” seem dead set against accepting the proposition that they have been wrong about the fundamentals of politics in this country, at least as they have developed in the last quarter century. The fact that they managed to maintain decorum in public discourse, all the while acknowledging the more barbarous threads in the tapestry of private political life with a nudge and a wink, is merely an expression of the fundamentally ideological (and fundamentally dishonest) nature of media driven opinion formation.
What we are witnessing is not the death of the Republican Party but the collapse of the pundit class. And, perhaps, we should come neither to praise nor to bury them. They had, and perhaps continue to have, the collective capacity to be the leaders of a serious and significant discussion of the ideas that make up American civilization. The first step is for them to get some clearer idea of what those ideas actually are.
Photograph courtesy of IoSonoUnaFotoCamera. Published under a Creative Commons license.