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Three Lessons from the Rise of Donald Trump

August 8, 2016

This was the week that some Republicans finally responded to their wake up call about Donald Trump. Or perhaps more accurately, found themselves like the married man at 3 AM who discovers himself naked in a seedy hotel room bed, with his face covered in cocaine and a dead hooker laying motionless by his side, only to pick up the ringing phone and ask his wife, "honey, is that you?"
Yes, in the several days after the Democrats convention in Philadelphia made a mockery of the GOP hatefest in Cleveland and Donald Trump slandered a Gold Star family, sucked up to Vladimir Putin, sabotaged the NATO alliance and so much more, Republicans experienced an anxiety attack of epic proportions. While House Speaker and Trump-endorser Paul Ryan continued to beclown himself, a growing stream of GOP strategists, Congressmen and business leaders declared "enough is enough" and announced their support for Hillary Clinton. Long-time conservative national security adviser Max Boot lamented that "the 'stupid party' created Donald Trump." Meanwhile, a distraught Ross Douthat took to Twitter to plead with Democrats for understanding, asking them to imagine the "level of ideological horror" that "many conservatives feel about idea of a Hillary vote." It's no wonder Greg Sargent so aptly summed up the talk of a GOP "intervention" with--or replacement of--Donald Trump, "Republicans nominate dangerously insane person to lead America, then panic when he proves he's dangerously insane."
But for all the Republicans' panicked pre-mortems and the mild media muttering about the madness of The Donald, for the most part Americans are still missing the forest for the trees. For starters, Donald Trump isn't an aberration for the GOP, but the inevitable culmination of the Republican Party's decades-long descent into the political gutter. Second, the Republican embrace of "stupidity" as a virtue was a necessary--but not sufficient--condition for the rise of Trumpism. That required the 50-year choice to make white racial resentment the centerpiece of Republican electoral strategy. Last, it is simply inconceivable that today's Democratic Party would nominate a Trump-like candidate. To put it another way, Donald Trump is a living refutation of the tried and untrue sound bite that "both sides do it."
Here, then, are three lessons from the rise of Donald Trump.
Lesson #1. Trump is a Culmination, Not an Aberration, for the GOP
In his screed trying to identify "exactly when the Republican Party assumed the mantle of the stupid party," former McCain, Romney and Rubio adviser Max Boot gives his party--and himself--too much credit. After all, Boot in May 2004 criticized Americans' growing concern over the course of the Iraq War with happy talk about the body count. "Recent low-casualty conflicts have spoiled the U.S." he lectured. "In fact, the Iraq loss rate is among our smallest ever." But in his New York Times op-ed, the Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow regretted that the GOP's proud tradition of anti-elitism and anti-intellectualism from Eisenhower and Nixon through Reagan and Dubya had somehow run off the rails:

In recent years, however, the Republicans' relationship to the realm of ideas has become more and more attenuated as talk-radio hosts and television personalities have taken over the role of defining the conservative movement that once belonged to thinkers like Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and George F. Will. The Tea Party represented a populist revolt against what its activists saw as out-of-touch Republican elites in Washington...
The trend has now culminated in the nomination of Donald J. Trump, a presidential candidate who truly is the know-nothing his Republican predecessors only pretended to be.

But despite his departures from party orthodoxy on trade and immigration, Donald Trump is largely using the same four-step formula Republican presidential candidates and GOP leaders in Congress have been turning to for years. With his largely policy-free campaign, Trump has merely refined the GOP's "post-truth politics" in which in which morality tales and stories of good and evil replaced facts and science as the basis for winning elections and setting public policy. Part two of the recipe is the veneration of the free market, the elevation of the private sector and the canonization of the businessman as an economic leader and even a moral beacon for the nation, a tactic Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney embraced long before The Donald oozed his way out of Trump Tower. As we'll see below, with his casual race-baiting, religious bigotry and shameless xenophobia, Trump is writing just the latest episode in the GOP tale of white racial resentment now over five decades in the making. And to that incendiary rhetoric Trump adds that uniquely Republican accelerant, toughness for toughness sake. For the GOP base, promising to "take out" families of terrorists, "bombing the shit" out of ISIS-controlled towns and engaging in torture techniques "a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding" are not means to an end, but ends in themselves.

To his credit, Max Boot does a laudable job of cataloguing the almost endless inanities Donald Trump has spewed over the course of his campaign. But when Trump calls global warming a hoax "created by and for the Chinese to make U.S. manufacturing uncompetitive," he's far from alone in his party. As of June 2013, 58 percent of Congressional Republicans and 90 percent of House and Senate GOP leaders were climate science deniers. One of them, Jim Inhofe (R-OK) is now the chairman of the Senate Environment Committee.
But that's just one example of the pattern of dissembling and denial Republicans made routine during the Obama years. By the summer of 2008, Right-wing pundits like Lawrence Kudlow and Rush Limbaugh were issuing red alerts about the "Obama Bear Market" supposedly already underway.
And when that supposed socialist was sworn in as President Barack Hussein Obama in January 2009, that right-wing rage was repackaged as the tea party. And in a sign of media failures to come, virtually everything this manufactured movement claimed to believe was simply untrue.
The Tea Party, after all, took its name after the rantings of CNBC regular Rick Santelli. In what he later called "the best five minutes of my life," Santelli on February 8, 2009 "decried government bailouts, called struggling homeowners 'losers' and speculated aloud that a new Tea Party might be needed." But there was no "cram-down" for the banks and no mortgage bailout for homeowners.
But there were also no "death panels." Barack Obama wasn't born in Kenya and he isn't a Muslim. You can't demand to "keep government out of Medicare" because it is a government program. Republicans holding "Taxed Enough Already" signs were doubly deluded. By 2010, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the U.S. economy dropped to its lowest level since 1950. And with his 2009 stimulus program, President Obama didn't just deliver tax relief to 95 percent of working households: His was the largest two-year tax cut in American history. As a CBS poll found in February 2010:

Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.

The story of the 2010 midterms that swept away the Democratic House majority was the triumph of delusion. It wasn't simply, as the New York Times asked in advance of the vote, "What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?" Indeed, what if the House GOP budget plan used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to give tax breaks to the rich and the Republicans, then campaigned by saying Democrats would kill the Medicare program the GOP itself intended to privatize? What if everything Republican voters said they knew about the Affordable Care Act was wrong? As NBC reported in August 2009:

In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.

The answer to all of those "what if" scenarios was the biggest midterm rout since Republicans whited out LBJ's Great Society majority in 1966. And after seizing the House majority in 2012, the GOP wanted the Senate and the White House, too.
The new GOP plan of conquest was much like the old one. Once again, the Republicans would combine far-right fury with another wave of tried and untrue talking points. No matter that Obamacare reduces the national debt and was not a "government takeover of health care." So what if decades of data showed that higher taxes on "job creators" do not hurt the economy and that the estate tax has little impact on small businesses and family farms. Big deal if the nonpartisan CBO and the overwhelming consensus of economists concluded the stimulus resulted in millions of additional jobs and a significant boost to American GDP? For that matter, who gives a hoot if the record shows that the U.S. economy almost always does better when a Democrat is in the White House? And who cares if Mitt Romney's shameless lie that Obama "made the economy worse" was thoroughly debunked throughout the campaign?
For Republicans, this platform of deceit was a feature, not a bug. All of which means Donald Trump is just the newest version of the Republicans' fraudware.
2. Trump's Appeal? It's the Hate, (Not Just the) Stupid
Max Boot's Stupidity Theory of Republican Devolution is not sufficient to account for Trump's popularity among the GOP base. As Brendan Nyhan documented in the New York Times, "Don't assume Donald Trump's supporters believe all his words." Their steadfast devotion in the face of a mountain of facts stems from something else.
Here's a hint. As Philip Klinkner of Hamilton College recently summed up his research, "The easiest way to guess if someone supports Trump [over Clinton]? Ask if Obama is a Muslim."

[M]oving from the least to the most resentful view of African Americans increases support for Trump by 44 points, those who think Obama is a Muslim (54 percent of all Republicans) are 24 points more favorable to Trump, and those who think the word "violent" describes Muslims extremely well are about 13 points more pro-Trump than those who think it doesn't describe them well at all.

That something else, of course, is the backlash politics of racial animus. The centerpiece of Republican political strategy since the moment President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it's been an arrow in the quiver of GOP candidates ever since.
At his rallies, his lines about a ban of Muslims entering the United States, building a wall on the Mexican border, and rounding up and deporting 11 million undocumented immigrants draw the biggest applause. For his most ardent backers, Trump's toxic blend of racism and xenophobiais his best selling point.

If this all sounds vaguely familiar, it should. In its basic contours, the GOP have been capitalizing on the same politics of racial backlash and white resentment for over 50 years. That's when the great exodus of virulently racist southern conservatives from the Democratic Party and into the open arms of the Republican Party began in earnest.
As I've documented elsewhere, Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy certainly didn't end with his landslide victory in 1972. When Donald Trump Jr. journeyed to Philadelphia, Mississippi, last month, he was only following in Ronald Reagan's footsteps. The Gipper traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi to kick-off his 1980 presidential campaign. There, where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were slaughtered in 1964, Reagan declared "I believe in states' rights." Reagan, who had denounced the so-called "welfare queen," the "strapping young buck" and declared the 1965 Voting Rights Act "humiliated the South," soon had more company among southern conservatives in Republican ranks. In 1983, Texan Phil Gramm joined the GOP. Eleven years later, Alabama's Richard Shelby followed suit. It's no wonder that casual race-baiting long-discredited notions like states' rights, secession, and nullification are now standard fare on today's Republican menu.
The GOP's dog whistle play list has only gotten longer in the age of Obama. As I've documented at great length elsewhere (see, for example, "The Neo-Confederate Sin" and "It's a Conservative Thing: You Wouldn't Understand"), Republicans have been playing the slavery card against gun control, the national debt, Obamacare, taxing the wealthy, marriage equality and just about every other public policy and societal trend they currently detest. Equally disturbing, GOP talking points routinely included recycled ante bellum paeans to states' rights, nullification and secession.
And it began before Barack Obama even won the election of 2008. Throughout that summer and fall, Rush Limbaugh repeatedly described "this little boy" Senator Obama as a "Halfrican-American" and a "man-child."
Even before the first vote was cast that November, today's tea party types were calling Sen. Obama a socialist Muslim and demanding his birth certificate at McCain-Palin rallies across America. As CNN reported in another October 2008 article titled "Rage Rising on the McCain Campaign Trail," one nascent Tea Partier announced at a town hall:

"I'm mad. I'm really mad. It's not the economy. It's the socialist taking over our country."

For more proof, look no further than the Washington Post's October 9, 2008 article, titled "Anger Is Crowd's Overarching Emotion at McCain Rally:"

There were shouts of "Nobama" and "Socialist" at the mention of the Democratic presidential nominee. There were boos, middle fingers turned up and thumbs turned down as a media caravan moved through the crowd Thursday for a midday town hall gathering featuring John McCain and Sarah Palin.

Or just take a look back at Alexandra Pelosi's documentary of the 2008 campaign, Right America: Feeling Wronged. Clips from
Right America
look no different from the "McCain-Palin Mob" or "Tea Baggers 2009." As one McCain supporter put it before the November 2008 election:

"We all hate the same things."

Last week, the New York Times offered a collection of unfiltered reactions and remarks from attendees at Trump rallies over the past year. As their chants of "kill her" and "Trump the bitch" and "build the wall--kill them all" show, this year's GOP hate-mongering is nothing new under the Republican sun. That's why Martin Longman of the Washington Monthly fittingly countered Max Boot with his own conclusion, "How the 'Racist Party' created Donald Trump."

The conservative movement has determined that they can hold onto power a little longer despite demographic changes and the browning of America if they can sharply increase their share of the white vote. And the way to do that is not to figure out what these people need and offer ways to give it to them, but to get them to think more in terms of their whiteness. Whites go over here in the right column and everyone else goes over there in the left column.
This is the rationale. It has the potential to work, and it's already working on the state and congressional district level, helping Republicans control legislatures throughout the country and in Washington DC.
It's a transparent effort to ramp up racial animosity as a way, probably the only way, to avoid softening their positions on their conservative ideology. If they don't do this, then they'll have to recraft their appeal, which means that conservatives will lose control of the Republican Party- one of only two viable parties in the country.

One certain indicator that Trump's gambit is working? The thrice-married moral black hole who probably believes two Corinthians walked into a bar is a capturing a staggering 79 percent of the white evangelical vote, a number surpassing Mitt Romney, John McCain and George W. Bush. Apparently, their hatred of Hillary and her supporters trumps their love of God.

Lesson #3: Democrats Won't Nominate for a Trump-Like Candidate
One vitally important point is being overlooked amidst the Republican panic and garment-rending over Donald Trump. You're supposed to never say never, but I will say this. For the foreseeable future, Democrats will never nominate someone like Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, that hypothetical is at the heart of Ross Douthat's recent tweet torrent.

2/ There is a growing sense among liberals now that it's simply obvious that anti-Trump conservatives should and indeed must support HRC.
3/ There are plausible arguments that they're right. BUT: I think liberals could profit from imagining how they themselves would react ...
4/ ... were the shoe on the other foot. That is, imagine a "Trump of the left" as the Democratic nominee.
5/ Some amalgam of Sharpton, Jeffrey Epstein, Jill Stein? Yes, hard to come up w/analogue, but try: Imagine a clearly unfit Dem nominee.

But Douthat's straw man requires that painful act of imagination because an actual Democratic analog to Trump is almost an impossibility. The endless seating capacity of the Republican clown car can produce a Ben Carson, a Michele Bachmann, a Herman Cain, a Rick Perry or any number of other Trump stand-ins on a moment's notice. But there's no sign of a Democratic Trump in the party of FDR, JFK, LBJ, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The reasons why are pretty clear. In a nutshell, for Democratic voters public policy and basic facts matter.
For starters, when it comes to scorched-earth opposition, both sides don't do it. Republican obstructionism during the Obama presidency is simply unprecedented. Second, as the Pew Research Center found in 2014, conservatives unlike liberals tend to get their political news from a single source: Fox News. Aggravating matters, conservatives suffer from (or depending on your viewpoint, benefit from) the "Hack Gap."

For much of the decade, Jonathan Chait, Matthew Yglesias, Kevin Drum, Ed Kilgore, and others have discussed the importance of the "Hack Gap." As Drum explained it after the first Romney-Obama debate in 2012:

Put simply, we liberals don't have enough hacks. Conservatives outscore us considerably in the number of bloggers/pundits/columnists/talking heads who are willing to cheerfully say whatever it takes to advance the party line, no matter how ridiculous it is.

This past September, Brad Delong offered this elegant summary of liberal virtue and conservative vice. The Hack Gap, he wrote, is:

[T]he willingness of conservative intellectuals to sacrifice their credibility by making transparently-false arguments to advance the interests of their political masters, and the lack of willingness of liberal intellectuals to do the same.

That's why the battle between Clinton and Sanders supporters over his single-payer, "Medicare for All" replacement for Obamacare became so heated. It wasn't simply a question of governing philosophy, but of math. Liberal wonks (for example, here, here and here) contested assumptions about economic growth, potential savings and more to claim that Bernie's numbers did or didn't add up.
The contrast with the Republican field in general and Donald Trump in particular couldn't be starker. As Ezra Klein put it in March:

This week, it became clear that the Democratic Party will nominate Hillary Clinton -- a politician about as mainstream in her beliefs and methods as you will find in American politics. It also became clear that the Republican Party is overwhelmingly likely to nominate Donald Trump -- a man who is, by any measure, "ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of [his] political opposition."

That difference makes all the difference when trying to identify his supporters, as Klinker's "Is Obama a Muslim?" test confirms. That Barack Obama is a Muslim born outside the United States is a double lie. Yet they have been Donald Trump's go-to talking points for years. His claims about Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, eliminating the national debt "over a period of eight years," not assuming another identity to act as his own spokesman, that his tax cut windfall for the wealthy will "cost me a fortune," self-funding his campaign and so much more are laughable on their face, As it turns out, of the 168 Trump statements evaluated by Politifact, 126 (or 72 percent) were rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire. Nevertheless, the sheer number and audacity of his lies, slanders and deceptions only deepen the ardor of his supporters, who see his refusal to correct the record as a sign of "strength."
It's a sign that the GOP is very sick and has been for a long-time. Donald Trump isn't the disease, but just the latest and most dangerous symptom of the illness. While Democrats mercifully seem to have an immunity to the degenerative condition of Trumpism now afflicting the conservative movement, the prognosis for Republicans is almost Seinfeldian.
It's isn't him; it's you.
Regardless, many Republicans still have that wake-up call to answer. The only question is whether they'll listen to it before Election Day or after. Or at all.


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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