Ever since Donald Trump emerged as the Republican standard-bearer, political observers have said the GOP will have to engage in extensive self-reflection to decide the kind of party it wishes to be. And now that Trump’s candidacy is likely to end in disaster, for him and perhaps for other Republican candidates, that prediction has been justified.
But I’m dissatisfied with its exaggeration of the ways Trump has departed from what the party has stood for. Even more, I’m dissatisfied with its implication that the rest of us can be excused from self-reflection. That second shortcoming is even more important than the first, especially for those of us tempted to revel in the troubles of the Republican Party. After all, if Trump loses big-time, it won’t be because his demagoguery failed, but because his personal past was finally too much for many of his likely supporters to stomach.
A few of Trump’s domestic positions depart from recent GOP orthodoxy — certainly his stand on trade agreements and his vague threats to penalize corporations that export jobs. It’s hard to know how he differs on foreign policy, since his statements are so inchoate. Maybe it's his lack of enthusiasm for cooperative security arrangements such as NATO, which is a subset of his general complaint that Americans are being screwed by foreigners. But most of his policies — lowering taxes on the very wealthy and on corporations, scaling back federal regulation of business, returning all health care coverage to private insurers, block-granting Medicare funds to the states, and opposition to abortion — are in the GOP playbook.
But neither his policy departures nor continuations have been relevant to Trump’s success with rank-and-file Republicans and large portions of the white working class. The keys to his success have been racism and hostility to the federal government. Both have been cornerstones of Republican self-presentation for decades, and became even more pronounced when Obama was elected. Further, undergirding both the racism and the anti-government rhetoric has been a strain of violence. It expresses itself in the public forum as gun rights and in popular culture as the celebration of U.S. militarism — the one government activity Republicans can’t get enough of.
Legislatively, Republicans have slavishly served the interests of the very wealthy. Tellingly, that hasn’t made much difference to their middle-class and working-class supporters. Even more tellingly, those folks perceive Trump as a populist champion of their interests in utter disregard of his historical record or policy positions. This can only be explained by his successful co-opting of his party’s rhetoric of resentment and the violence of his own rhetoric.
For a long time the Republican Party has had a date with disaster, mainly because of changing demographics. Trump has advanced that date. But the party won’t fade away. It has so much big money behind it that it will continue to hold a high percentage of elective offices at the federal, state and local levels. Nor will it voluntarily transform itself into a true conservative party rather than a radical amalgam of racism, militarism and service to the plutocracy.
It’s the rest of us who must bring about the needed transformation. We must promulgate a vision of America that can serve as a new common ground. That will be the subject of next week’s column.
— Herb Rothschild's column appears in the Tidings every Saturday.