Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Republicans Had a Choice

They chose... poorly.

Update: Thank you again for the link, Infidel753!

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic wrote today about The Party Decides - a book about the electoral process and how the political parties wielded all this power in making certain their chosen candidates were accepted by their respective bases - in an attempt to explain what the hell happened with this election cycle's Republican Party. He was trying to describe how this supposedly powerful organization with political savvy allowed an amateur demagogue like Donald Trump to outflank them and subvert the old ways.

...The authors argue that political parties convince voters to ratify their choices in primary elections by sending cues or signals. Crucially, when they say that “political parties” sway voters with these signals, they don’t just mean prominent elected officials and insiders at the RNC and DNC. As they see it, “the party encompasses interest groups, issue-advocacy groups, ideological activists chatting over beers, pundits aligned with “the party,” even bloggers who belong to its coalition...

So essentially there are all the guardian factions at play here. For the Republicans, it would be the deep-pocket SuperPACs sending out mailers as much as Fox Not-News and Rush Limbaugh alongside Grover Norquist and maybe even Drudge and Breitbart's old ghost. So blaming just the RNC itself for the rise of Trump to nominee is too simple. We basically gotta blame everybody...

“The party,” defined as broadly as it is in the book, includes a lot of voices that either support Trump or regard him as acceptable. And many members of “the party” who abhor Trump sent mixed signals and cues to voters. The contents of those signals help to explain why so many primary voters see Trump as the best choice...

The mixed signals that Conor is talking about is how the RNC and all those guardian factions (mis)handled Trump from the beginning. The party itself early on considered Trump unserious, that he wouldn't really follow through on the actual process of the primary season. As a result, they overlooked the impact of Trump's essential message to the GOP voting base: not just the open hostility towards immigrants and Muslims, but the growing resentment of a Far Right base that kept getting told through all their media sources one thing (The economy is bad because "they" took our jobs, Obama is selling us out to China and Muslims, "they" are coming to tax you for Obamacare Death Panels and take your guns) but kept getting betrayed by the people they elected to office (2010, 2012 and 2014) who did none of the things they promised (Obama's still not impeached, right?).

When it was too late to stop him from joining the primaries, both the party Establishment and their media allies suddenly found it difficult to push him out. Trump threatened early and often that if he wasn't being treated fairly, he'd jump out and start an independent campaign. Everyone else knew what that meant: a repeat of the 1992 election when Ross Perot's third-party vanity run doomed Bush the Elder - who lost too many voters from the split - in what could have been a close race against Democrat Bill Clinton.

That meant nobody else dared challenge Trump to where he could flee with his (stunningly large) Far Right faction, but that left the fights all one-sided where Trump could pummel the Establishment ranks - Jeb Bush in particular was mocked early and often - and get away with it.

Worse, as Conor notes, some of the other candidates looked to profit from Trump's wrecking-ball tactics, thinking - poorly - that once Trump imploded or fled the election cycle, they would be there to pick up the pieces and win out. In particular, the Last Opponent Standing:

Ted Cruz is a perfect illustration. He is the last man standing, barely, between Trump and the delegates he needs to win on the first ballot at the GOP convention in Cleveland.
At this point, Cruz has savaged Trump’s character.  “We wouldn’t tolerate these values in our children,” one Cruz ad says. “Why would we want them in a president?” Another ad accuses Trump of “a pattern of sleaze going back decades.”
These attacks are, I think, accurate.
But it isn’t surprising that Cruz’s attacks rang hollow to many Republican primary voters who can’t help but remember the many months when Cruz lavished extravagant praise on Trump, stating outright that his candidacy was a boon, not a bane to the GOP. Cruz even proclaimed himself “grateful” that the celebrity billionaire was in the race because it ostensibly forced the media to talk about illegal immigration...
...But Cruz saw that Trump was popular with a faction of the Republican base, so he cozied up to the demagogue, became a mendacious apologist for his egregious misbehavior, and brazenly misled the public about Trump’s character. Cruz did this because he thought that he could co-opt Trump’s popularity and win over a lot of his populist supporters. Instead, he helped to legitimate Trump, ratified the narrative that Trump alone forces the media to pay attention to the issues most important to a faction of Republican voters, and sapped some of the strongest critiques of Trump—the ones that Cruz would later used in his own attack ads—of their potency...

There's the "mixed message" that Conor talked about. But it wasn't just Cruz. For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, Trump hasn't always been the hated unwanted member of this particular clown car campaign. A sizable faction of Republicans were just fine with Trump when it suited their purpose of stirring up their base...

...The elements of “the party” that sent pro-Trump cues or “Trump is at least acceptable” signals to primary voters—Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Breitbart.com, The Drudge Report, The New York Post, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Jeff Sessions, Rick Scott, Jan Brewer, Joe Arpaio—are simply more powerful, relative to National Review, Mitt Romney, John McCain, and other “Trump is unacceptable” forces, than previously thought...
...They just wish it wasn't so blatantly racist, sexist, ignorant, ill-informed, lazy, and nonsensical to where it threatens the entire party with destruction.

Even Conor notes that Trump does not exist in a vacuum. For all his demagoguery, Trump is running on an existing Republican message of mistrust and anger. Conor lists each point:

  • Career politicians cannot be trusted. This widespread conceit in “the party” has effectively made it impossible for candidates with governing records and public sector experience to be accepted by large swaths of GOP primary voters.
  • When the base doesn’t get what it wants, it is because of betrayal by party elites, never because a majority of Americans disagree with what the base wants.
  • Rhetorical stridency is a better heuristic for loyalty than core principles or governing record—and there is nothing disqualifying about extreme incivility (hence, for example, a buttoned up think tank giving a statesmanship award to Rush Limbaugh, a gleeful purveyor of bombastic insults).
  • Complaints about racism and sexism are always cynical fabrications, intended be used as cudgels against conservatives.
  • Political correctness in governance is one of the biggest problems facing America.
  • Illegal immigration poses an existential threat to America.
  • President Obama has deliberately made bad deals with foreign countries to weaken America.

If any movement conservatives in the #NeverTrump crowd doubt that “the party” has sent all of those signals or cues, I’ll gladly expound on any of them. Taken together, it’s easy to see why a majority of an electorate that bought into those premises would be more attracted to Trump than to anyone else in the GOP field...
If Trump is thriving in this wingnut environment, it's because the Republican Party in total - the elected officials, the media elites, the fringe rabble-rousers - created and nurtured that environment for decades.

This is where the Republicans had a choice, but it was one they made years ago. Actually, they had a series of choices they made, and each one has led to this moment.

  • The Republicans had a choice whether or not to court the social conservatives of the Deep South back in the 1960s, when the Democratic leadership went all-in on Civil Rights that alienated the Dixiecrat faction. The GOP saw a solid, growing voter base of resentful Whites and forged their Southern Strategy. This is why the modern Republicans are no longer the Party of Lincoln but the Party of John C. Calhoun.
  • In the 1970s and 1980s, the Republicans had a choice whether or not to court the Religious Right into a more active role in politics. The party saw the means to solidify their conservative ideology and control their messaging using God as a banner. The trade-off was that they allowed evangelicals and strident cultural warriors who refuse to compromise on their faith transmit such refusal of compromise to any political dealings at all.
  • The Republicans had a choice after Bill Clinton's win in 1992 to regroup from a shaky loss and retain some high ground on governance and competency. Instead, they doubled down on both a Culture War called by Pat Buchanan to purge their own party of RINO moderates as well as an open media campaign against Clinton using the Politics of Personal Destruction to hound him and weaken his administration. It did weaken Clinton and exposed his more sordid habits, but it backfired by exposing a lot of the Republican leadership as hypocrites... and it gave too much power to the Far Right media - especially Limbaugh and Fox News - to dictate what elected officials had to do in office.
  • The Republicans had a choice after George W. Bush's administration - at least from 2006 onward - to admit the failures of that administration across the board: mismanaged war efforts, a botched economy, deregulation disasters, etc. Instead they pretend to this very day that none of that really happened, or wasn't as bad as it looked, or that it was all someone else's - Bill Clinton first, Barack Obama later - fault. Which means the party leadership is perfectly willing to repeat the same mistakes, something that terrifies many voters.
  • The Republicans had a choice after Barack Obama's inauguration over whether or not to work with this Democrat in the White House. The call for bipartisan efforts were rather high, the belief that the Republicans ought to provide some input in order to keep a stake in the political arena and keep Obama from pursuing a more strident Progressive agenda. Instead, the party leadership chose full-out obstruction to deny Obama "any victory" of legislative success. While it prevented that Progressive agenda, it also painted the Republicans into a corner where they can't actively pursue any legislative agenda of their own (we are currently seeing this session of Congress be the least-active of all time... out of the last two sessions of Congress that were just as barren). And it underscores an irony in that Obama was - as an Active-Positive based on Barber's Character traits - someone who could compromise with Republicans as long as it meant effective legislation. Instead, the Republicans insisted on harsh concessions that no Democratic President would accept.
  • The Republicans had a choice in their philosophical outlook on politics: they could have retained the core Conservative value of restraint in policies, in opposition to the Liberal impulse of charging into massive reforms that could be reckless in the long-term. Instead, the party pushed their own reckless and uncompromising agendas to where the Liberals are now the sane and cautious ones.
Time and again, the Republican Party had to choose between immediate, short-term gratification over long-term survival. Each time, they chose to win in the moment and revel in such victories without accepting the consequences those victories entailed. Each time, the modern Republicans chose poorly.

And now the bill's come due.


Infidel753 said...

Those seven short points of wingnut base belief are very much the core of the problem. I see all of those things taken as obvious fact on right-wing sites all the time.

Damned if I can see how the party ever gets itself out of this situation, though. Trying to talk the base back to reality now would be like trying to reason with a suicide bomber.

dinthebeast said...

I hope you're right about liberals being (basically) the new conservatives in temperament. If so, they will rally around Hillary, even though many don't like her, in order to at least avoid having Trump as president. If not, the (what I like to call) Glenn Greenwald fraction will rationalize a Trump presidency as necessary to tear down the corrupt system and start over from scratch. (I call them that for the many GG fans who claim that Obama is worse than W because of his drone program.) The problem is that they are wrong. Trump won't tear down anything and start over, and no matter how disastrous his presidency is, there is no magic "bottom" to crash into that activates some magic "reset" function on the whole system of government. To quote the dearly departed Frank Zappa "It won't blow up and disappear, it'll just look ugly for a thousand years..."

-Doug in Oakland