Let us pause for a moment amidst this topsy-turvy presidential election year to contemplate the state of the Grand Old Party. The GOP is set to nominate as its candidate for President of the United States a hatemongering, clinically narcissistic buffoon who is manifestly unfit for the job. The only desperate alternative to that outcome is the nomination of an extreme right-wing radical who is despised by most of his own party colleagues in Congress, a man described by his former congressional party leader as “Lucifer in the flesh” and a “miserable son of a bitch.”
Can this weird state of affairs just be a huge crazy accident? No, it can’t, though happenstance does play a role. No one could have forseen the emergence of one of the most gifted demagogues in our political history. Probably Donald Trump himself didn’t realize how good he was until he got started. But Trump’s ascendancy was possible because of the natural instability of the coalition of plutocrats, cultural reactionaries and crypto-racists that is the contemporary GOP. As he does so often, Paul Krugman hit the nail on the proverbial head:
“[The GOP has] historically won elections by appealing to racial enmity and cultural anxiety, but its actual policy agenda is dedicated to serving the interests of the 1 percent, above all through tax cuts for the rich—which even Republican voters don’t support, while they truly loathe elite ideas like privatizing Social Security and Medicare.”
Along comes Donald Trump, who beautifully exploits the racial, cultural and status resentments the party’s elites have been stoking for decades while showing uneven fealty to the plutocratic agenda that they really care about. Ideological extremism has served as a useful cover for the coalition’s contradictions: if you can get people really angry with a Manichean warrior view of the political world, details about policy can be conveniently lost sight of in the frenzy of battle. The only puzzle, Krugman notes, is why the Republican crackup didn’t happen long ago.
I’ve been saying for a long time that decent governance of this country will only become possible with really fundamental changes in the Republican Party. The prospect was for those changes, if they were ever to happen, to be very slow in coming. The most optimistic view of Trumpism is that it could hasten the necessary Republican cataclysm. A crushing defeat in November—which is a very real possibility—could generate the intra-party chaos that could spur real change. It could lead the party’s elites, many of whom are genuinely dismayed at the Frankenstein monster they have created, to work for the re-creation of a reasonably responsible conservative party. But I’ve made too many bad predictions in my short career as a political prognosticator to claim any great confidence in such a scenario.
I will, however, add a footnote pointing to one of my predictions that did pan out very nicely. Remember Rand Paul? Whatever happened to him? As I foresaw, Paul’s prospects were doomed from the start, because libertarianism—even his campaign-adjusted libertarianism lite—has no real constituency in American politics. The libertarians’ economic elitism just doesn’t cut it politically without an overlay of wedge issues— “family values,” ultra-nationalism, crypto-racism, etc.—that mostly don’t sit well with libertarian doctrine but are essential to conventional right-wingers’ electoral success. Good riddance.