by John Stafford
THE MEANING OF TRUMP
There are a variety of interpretations regarding the meaning of the rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 GOP presidential primary. Perhaps the most common is that this is an anti-establishment election, reflecting voter frustration with partisan gridlock. This narrative holds that Trump and Sanders are two (very different) sides of the same coin – outsiders working against the establishment. A second explanation emphasizes nativism. In this era of Islamic terrorism and refugee crises, Trump operates from an American-centric, anti-ethnic worldview. The Economist notes parallels between Trump’s nativism and that of European candidates (e.g., France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Viktor Orban).1 Other analysts (e.g., Nicholas Kristof) see the roots of Trump’s nativism in Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy of courting angry white voters in the post-Civil Rights era South.2 A third view emphasizes Trump’s appeal to a disaffected, lower-educated white populace that is frustrated with globalization, trade, the loss of manufacturing jobs and stagnant middle class incomes. Columnist Dick Meyer: “We have explained Trumpism adequately already; it isn’t brain surgery. We understand the angry white voter, the alienation of status lost, the total disgust with a corrupt political system and Trump’s authoritarian and rebellious allure.”3 A fourth hypothesis is that Trump is the emergent candidate of an intellectually disengaged, social-media indulged, increasingly ignorant citizenry that is easily captivated by shallow partisan theatrics. Columnist Danny Westneat analyzed Trump’s debate oratory using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level program, and concludes that Trump speaks to audiences using fourth grade linguistic complexity (far below his peers).4 And consultant Benjamin Shobert discusses the need to “ …purge our politics of the manufactured outrages, rhetorical excesses and blind partisanship that have made Donald Trump a viable option for the presidency.”5 A fifth camp combines various narratives. For example, David Brooks integrates the anti-establishment and “dumbed-down America” theses: “Trump is the culmination of the trends we have been seeing for the last 30 years: the desire for outsiders; the bashing style of rhetoric that makes conversation impossible; the decline of coherent political parties; the declining importance of policy; the tendency to fight cultural battles and identity wars through political means.”6
I argue that there is some validity to these (and other similar) themes. Nonetheless, in my view, all of these interpretations are proximate, and to varying degrees, shallow. The single most significant factor at the foundation of the rise of Trump is the deep policy immorality of the modern Republican Party on the major issues of our times.
In this article, I will argue four points. First, as just stated, there is a powerful linkage between the phenomenon of Trump and the immoral policy of the modern GOP. Second, this immoral policy, in the service of the affluent, is increasingly subject to scientific and demographic pressure, eliciting a Republican response of denigrating the institutions of America’s Democracy. Third, Trump is not a discontinuity or an aberration of the Republican Party, but rather the “logical” consequence of the prior two realities. Fourth, a thesis suggested by other analysts, there is some chance that Trump may inadvertently serve a critical role – as a catalyst for the reformulation of modern conservativism in the U.S.
IMMORAL REPUBLICAN POLICY
The Republican Party is pursuing policy that is in direct conflict with the indicated direction of policy on the two most important policy issues of our times: income inequality and climate change.
As is commonly known, in the 1920’s, income inequality reached an all-time high in the U.S. This contributed to the onset of the Great Depression. In the decades following, remedial policy (e.g., progressive taxation, minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.) began to address these inequalities, which then returned to historic norms. Starting in the late 1970’s, income inequality started to increase again, largely driven by tax cuts for the affluent as well as corporations, a reduction in union bargaining power, a declining real minimum wage and other factors. The primary theoretical rational for these changes was Supply Side (“Trickle Down”) Economics. By 2008, income inequality had returned to the levels of the 1920’s, again contributing to a major economic downturn — the Great Recession. Faced with the need to confront these inequalities, the GOP favors policy that will exacerbate them. Its policy prescriptions are wrong on all major levers: it favors additional tax cuts for the affluent; opposes the alternative minimum tax; is against raising the $7.25 federal minimum wage; works to diminish union influence; etc.
Climate Change is clearly the major public policy crisis of our times, representing an existential threat if not meaningfully addressed. There is a burgeoning worldwide response involving a range of vectors — conservation, efficiency, the regulation of emissions, carbon pricing, subsidies for renewables, removing atmospheric carbon, etc. All of this is supported by an ever-increasing body of scientific research. Nonetheless, the U.S. Republican Party not only opposes, obstructs and seeks to repeal measures to address climate change, it disparages the scientific foundation from which they emanate.
JUST AN OPINION?
The predictable response to these assertions is that they are not facts, but rather stock liberal opinions. After all, one can find theorists who disagree about the dangers of income inequality and believe that Supply Side Economics is credible, as well as scientists who claim that climate change may not be real and is not, in any case, anthropogenic. The retort to this response is straightforward.
Assertions don’t divide into two camps – those that are facts and those that are opinions. Instead, there is a vast additional category – assertions that are self-evident and clear, despite not being entirely provable. It is clear that Lincoln was a better president than Buchanan; it is clear that slavery is morally wrong; it is clear that Russell was a greater basketball player than Cowens – not because these assertions can be proved, but because the evidence and arguments that support them are so overwhelming that they emerge as truisms. One will recall that paragraph two of the Declaration of Independence invokes this category of assertion (“We hold these Truths to be self-evident …”).7 I argue that in the areas of income inequality and climate change, the indicated direction of policy response (although certainly not the specifics) has become self-evident and undeniable.
Regarding income inequality, Oxfam International ‘s An Economy for the 1% states that globally, the richest 62 individuals have as much wealth as the $3.7 billion poorest.8 Domestically, the top 1% earn over 21% of all income (compared to less than 9% in the early 1970’s) and own 90% of all wealth.9 In addition, the share of corporate tax in federal revenue has fallen from 32% to 11% since 1952.10 There are myriad negative effects: declining real middle class incomes; adverse public health impacts11; life expectancies that vary considerably by zip code; massive K-12 educational achievement differentials between low-income minority communities and their more affluent white counterparts; a drag on economic growth via multiple channels, including the excessive savings levels that characterizes high-income individuals which retards demand (as articulated by Lawrence Summers in his Secular Stagnation Theory12). Moreover, Supply Side economic theory has become widely discredited.
In response to these realities, the GOP has a simple solution – double down on the same policies that led to this crisis in the first place. Jackie Calmes of The New York Times writes: “The tax plans of the  Republican presidential candidates would cut federal revenues as much as $12 trillion over a decade, a post-World War II record eclipsing the deep tax cuts of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy. And they would come just as America faces the costs of its aging baby-boom generation…Also, at a time when many Americans lament the growing gap between rich and poor – and the shrinking middle class in between – the Republicans’ plans would mostly benefit the richest individuals and corporations, according to analyses by research groups that lean left, right and center…13 Paul Krugman elaborates: “It’s not too hard to understand why everyone seeking the Republican presidential nomination is proposing huge tax cuts for the rich. Just follow the money: Candidates in the GOP primary draw the bulk of their financial support from a few dozen extremely wealthy families. Furthermore, decades of indoctrination have made an essentially religious faith in the virtues of high-end tax cuts – a faith impervious to evidence – a central part of Republican identity.”14
The rhetorical divide between the U.S. GOP and the rest of the world on climate change is astonishing. There is a 97% consensus amongst experts on the reality of climate change, and growing consensus that it is anthropogenic. The 2010 Anderegg et al. survey of scientists concludes: “97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field surveyed here support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”15 We live in an era where 14 of the hottest 15 years on record have occurred since 2000, with 2014 being the hottest year on record until 2015 exceeded it, and its record is projected to be eclipsed in 2016. Myriad impacts are already manifest – melting glaciers; rising sea levels; ocean acidification; coral reef bleaching; species extinction, migration and behavior modification; more extreme weather events; more wildfires; global conflicts and immigration flows linked to climate change (e.g. Syria and West Africa); public health crises; an increase in vectors for disease transmission; etc. Howard Frumkin, Dean of the University of Washington’s public health school, commenting on a recently-released scientific report from the Obama administration, states that “…the report clearly establishes that climate change is a major threat to public health in the United States.”16 The Chinese government is implementing a cap-and-trade carbon pricing system, Bangladesh is building a massive solar power infrastructure in pursuit of its aspiration to be the first comprehensive solar nation in the world, the Republic of Maldives is projected to lose 77% of its land mass by 210017, representatives of 196 nations met in Paris to set emissions reductions targets, and the U.S. military is planning for climate change driven conflict. And the U.S. GOP is right there to explain that this isn’t a serious issue. Its policy response: roll back the federal Clean Power Plan, fight climate change policy response at every level of government and disparage the underlying science. This must be seen as one of the most immoral policy responses in human history. Columnist Timothy Egan summarizes: “While the world burns and gasps, Trump is leading the only major political party in the advanced world to deny climate change.”18
On the two major policy challenges of our times, the GOP is arguing against truisms established by an ever-increasing consensus in science, academia and the global community. In my view, to pursue additional massive tax cuts for the rich in an era of all-time highs in income inequality and to obstruct efforts to address climate change in an age when scientists are warning of potentially devastating impacts if this is not dealt with rises to a level of immorality in league with the nation’s (and in particular, the Democratic Party’s) defense of the institution of slavery in the mid-19th century. It is far past the time to operate under the false assumption that there are two valid intellectual camps on the necessary direction of policy in these two areas.
THE TIGHTENING GOP VICE
It is commonly understood that the reason the GOP pursues these policies is that they provide enormous financial benefits to their key constituencies — affluent individuals and corporations. However, one of the most salient features of the modern political landscape is that the Republican Party is in the vortex of an ever-tightening vice with respect to these policies. The two sides of the vice are science/academia and demographics.
As noted previously, there is an unceasing cavalcade of evidence that opposes the Republican positions on both income inequality and climate change. In addition, the Republican Party confronts a demographic tidal wave that is moving against its policy bulwarks. The party’s base of prosperous whites is declining as a percentage of the American populace, while minority populations are growing rapidly. Figures for the percentage of the U.S. population that is white: 85% in 1960; 63% in 2011; 47% (projected) in 2050. Minority populations are disproportionately opposed to the inequality/climate planks in the Republican platform (which is consistent with Obama’s earning of 80% of the non-white vote in 2012). Julia Preston of the New York Times reports that immigrants are naturalizing in increasing numbers (even adjusting for a presidential year) in order to vote against Trump.19 Moreover, the youth vote is also in favor of progressive policy. Amongst other means, this can be inferred via the Democratic Party primaries, where the more progressive Sanders strongly outperforms Clinton with youth. Thus, the GOP is facing a future with even higher percentages of voters predisposed to oppose its inequality/climate policies. Senator Lindsey Graham, on “Meet the Press,” made the obvious observation: “We’re in a demographic death spiral.”20
This science/academia and demographic vice that is compressing the Republican Party is one of the most important forces in modern politics. A central objective of the modern GOP – serving the elite via tax cuts for the rich and the opposition to climate change response — is contraindicated by an ever-increasing consensus within science and academia, and opposed by an ever-increasing proportion of the populace (and these two realities are, of course, linked). The continued pursuit of these immoral policies will be no easy feat.
In attempt to counteract the pressure of this vice, the modern GOP has adopted tactics to manipulate our democracy. As will be seen, these responses are all immoral as well — endeavors to prolong immoral policy are invariably immoral themselves. These tactics can be placed into several categories:
One: Denigrate Democratic Institutions
To diminish opposition to its policies, the Republican Party has responded by denigrating America’s institutions of democracy. This is primarily done through six channels. First: reduce the number of voters in demographic groups that don’t support conservative policy. Do not offer a path to citizenship for undocumented residents and favor deporting those here illegally. Oppose drug courts and other measures that reduce black incarceration rates. Support “three strikes” and other mandatory sentencing rules that extend prison sentences, again disproportionately affecting minority populations. Create obstacles to black voting (in Alabama in 2015, the DMV was closed in 31 counties where the black population comprised at least 75% of voters, making it more difficult to obtain a valid form of identification to vote). Repeal the part of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires federal oversight of states where voting rights are at risk. Oppose statehood for Washington, D.C. Second and related: oppose measures to expand the franchise to minority populations. These include automatic voter registration, same day voter registration, voting rights for ex-felons, etc. Third: change district boundaries and election rules to favor white candidates. Gerrymander districts to establish a base of uncontested seats (analysts claim that less than 10% of U.S. House of Representatives seats are competitive; and yes, it is important to note that the Democratic Party is complicit in this activity). Oppose voting rights acts that enable district elections (rather than at-large elections) that would increase the prospects of minority candidates being elected. Seek to have districts sized by voter population rather than overall population, which would provide fewer elected officials per minority resident and more elected officials per white resident (rebuffed via Evenwel vs. Abbot). Fourth: change the mechanics of passing legislation. Introduce poison pills into legislation (e.g., in Washington State, a provision was inserted into the state transportation budget that calls for a reduction in transit spending if fuel economy standards are increased by the governor). Seek to require a two-thirds legislative voting requirement for passing tax increases. Try to limit the jurisdictional authority of local governments (e.g., to raise the minimum wage). Fifth, diminish and seek to restructure institutions that do not favor conservative policy. Try to allow the State Legislature to impeach State Supreme Court Justices for “offenses” including encroachment on the territory of another branch (e.g., Kansas). Refuse to comply with Supreme Court orders to fund public education if this will necessitate a tax increase (e.g., Washington). Sixth, disempower unions to reduce the bargaining power of labor.
Two: Establish oligarchic campaign financing
To attempt to win elections with non-credible policy, the GOP has altered the manner in which campaigns are financed to ensure that it enjoys spending advantages. This has been done in two well-known (and related) ways. The first is via Supreme Court decisions (most notably Citizens United and McCutcheon) that have allowed more money to enter the political arena from the elite. The second is the emergence of major non-party campaign financing vehicles. The Take Freedom Partners (sponsored by the Koch brothers) committed to spending almost $900 million on politics and policy in 2015 and 2016. David Lightman writes: “That total would also rival the $1 billion spent by all three major Democratic Party committees, and the $1 billion spent by all three major Republican Party committees.”21 In other words, three roughly equivalent national political funding entities have emerged: The Democratic Party, The Republican Party and the Koch Brothers.
Three: Obstruct Legislative Progress
It is important to understand that the blame for political gridlock is not equal. Progressive policy on inequality and climate is the indicated policy. Obstructing this agenda, thereby placing the future on hold, is a GOP priority. Nicholas Kristof observes: “But to be a Republican lawmaker today is too often to seek to block appointments, obstruct programs and shut down government…The party of Lincoln is now the party of ‘No’…Cruz’s entire congressional career has involved antagonizing colleagues and ensuring that nothing gets done.”22 This deferring of the future, while problematic for income inequality, is potentially devastating for progress on climate change, because it confronts a limited window of opportunity.
Four: Denigrate Facts and Erode the Nation’s Intellectual Environment
Given that science and academia are increasingly opposed to GOP policy, it becomes essential for the GOP to denigrate these sectors. Individuals with no qualifications whatsoever question climate science. Ted Cruz claims that, “Climate Change isn’t science, its religion.”23 This type of insouciant inanity has become a staple of the modern Republican lexicon. This has led to an amazing societal phenomenon: in virtually every modern U.S. endeavor — corporate management, entrepreneurship, finance, academic research, science, technological invention, athletics, the arts, and so on — there is an unrelenting focus on excellence and exactitude. But this is not true in modern GOP politics. Indeed, the willingness to deny facts, science and logic is a precondition for the modern Republican candidate – it is part of his/her arsenal. Increasingly, we live in a culture where the most important issues are discussed in the least rigorous way.
Five: Double Down on False Narratives
As the GOP narratives that undergird its flawed policy (Supply Side Economics and climate science denial) are increasingly discredited, the Republican response has been to double down on these same narratives. Paul Krugman: “But the Republican elite can’t handle the truth. It’s too committed to an Ayn Rand storyline about heroic job creators versus moochers to admit either that trickle-down economics can fail to deliver good jobs, or that sometimes government aid is a crucial lifeline. So it ends up lashing out at its own voters when they refuse to buy into that storyline.”24 He adds, in another column: “Bluster and belligerence as substitutes for analysis, disdain for any kind of measured response, dismissal of inconvenient facts reported by the ‘liberal media’ didn’t suddenly arrive on the Republican scene last summer. On the contrary, they have long been key elements of the party brand.”25
Six: Seek to Establish Surrogate Morality
To maintain legitimacy in an era where it refuses to address society’s salient issues, the GOP must search for alternate forms of moral authority. Thus, it emphasizes cutting funding for Planned Parenthood (0.008% of government spending), Benghazi hearings, the virtues of Kim Davis and other absurdities. There is no such thing as surrogate moral authority.
Seven: Invoke Nativism
There is a recurring leitmotif in the GOP worldview: ultimately, this is a country of white leadership, and it will endure the temporary aberration of a liberal, black president. In this spirit, the GOP deems it appropriate to write a letter seeking to undermine Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal (the Cotton Letter) and refuses to hold hearings on Merrick Garland. Columnist Leonard Pitts writes: “Republicans and their media accomplices buttressed that strategy with a campaign of insult and disrespect designed to delegitimize Obama. With their endless birther stupidity, their death panels idiocy, their constant budget brinkmanship and their cries of, ‘I want my country back!’ they stoked in the public nothing less than hatred for the interloper in the White House who’d had the nerve to be elected president.”26
The motivation behind all of these strategies can be easily summarized: given that the institutions and demographics of America’s Democracy, if allowed to operate unimpeded, will militate against Republican policy, it becomes critical for the GOP to denigrate these institutions, manage the voting demographics of the nation, debase science, and skew political speech. In short, the GOP needs to thwart the authentic forces of the U.S. democracy in order to prolong the life of immoral policy.
In addition to their direct negative effects for our democracy, these strategies have immense collateral consequences, all of which are negative. They include:
One: These Strategies Discourage Strong, Substantive, Conservative Candidates From Seeking the Nomination
It is important to see the connection between immoral policy and weak candidates. As noted above, the GOP adherence to Supply Side Economics and climate change denial requires candidates to, at least in these areas, divorce themselves from the rigors of fact, science and logic. This dissuades highly intelligent, serious minded candidates with political integrity from pursuing the candidacy. The GOP pattern of elevating non-substantive candidates who are wholly out of their depth is not new. Paul Krugman observes: “…George W. Bush was supposed to get your vote because he was someone you’d enjoy having a beer with, unlike that stiff, boring guy Al Gore with all his facts and figures…The subtext was that real thinkers don’t waste time on hard thinking, that listening to experts is a sign of weakness, that attitude is all you need…the elevation of attitude over analysis only tightened its grip on his party, an evolution highlighted when John McCain, who once upon a time had a reputation for policy independence, chose the eminently unqualified Sarah Palin as his running mate.”27 One can also posit that the entrance of 16 candidates in the 2016 race also partially reflects the non-substantive orientation of the modern GOP. It is much more difficult to master policy intricacies when tethered to the requirements of fact, science and logic than it is to pay fealty to party doctrine that involves willful separation from these requirements. This latter approach lowers the standard for candidacy, encouraging a broader field. Even the occasional highly qualified GOP candidate has to contort his/her policy positions to conform to party orthodoxy.
Two: The Emergence of Startling Policy
This combination of a lack of adherence to and respect for fact, science and logic, and the shallow candidates that this tends ethos tends to produce, is a dangerous combination that regularly (and unsurprisingly) leads to shocking policy. The decision to invade Iraq based on three false pretexts (thus making it a war with no known rationale) has become an epic American debacle, culminating in a prolonged quagmire, a destabilized region, the rise of ISIS, an increase in terrorism, well over a million casualties and an international refugee crisis. George Will refers to it as, “…perhaps the worst foreign policy debacle in the nation’s history”.”28 The “Mission Accomplished” celebration is a poignant, enduring emblem of the danger of out-of-their-depth candidates untethered to the ethos of fact and substance. Bush II also pursued the never-before-tried (for good reason) policy “quadfecta” – simultaneously engaging in expensive foreign wars (two), instituting massive tax cuts (primarily for the rich), introducing a major new domestic spending program (the pharmaceutical benefit, Medicare Part D, and deregulating industry. The results – the onset of $1.5 trillion deficits (three times prior highs in real terms), a Dow Jones Industrial Average below 8,000 and a Great Recession ultimately financed largely by the middle class – speak for themselves. The pillars of the 2016 GOP agenda – further tax cuts for the affluent and climate change obstruction – represent another version of shocking and dangerous policy.
Three: The Transformation of the Republican Party
This immoral policy that necessitates an untethering from a substantive ethos has fueled a radical transformation of the Republican Party. It is difficult to believe that in 1962, the top marginal tax rate in the U.S. was 91% (it is now 39.6% and Trump wants to lower it to 25%). Kennedy proposed reducing it, but Republican Senators and Congressmen resisted for fear of rising deficits. Even Reagan was willing to raise taxes when confronted with the deficit implications of his tax cuts. The 2016 GOP presidential candidates have established a new low for non-substantive orientation. After Trump’s victory speech in Florida, Charles Krauthammer stated, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a stream of disconnected ideas since I quit psychiatry 30 years ago.29 Columnist Froma Harrop refers to the GOP as, “…a major political party descending into unbridled stupidity”30
Four: Denigrate the U.S. Abroad
Naturally, the deterioration of one of the two major U.S. political parties diminishes our stature abroad. It should shock the national consciousness that Britain, the U.S. partner in one of history’s strongest alliances, considered banning the leading GOP presidential candidate from its country. Trump was burned in effigy in Mexico as part of the “Burning of Judas Celebration.” And so on. Harrop continues: “The problem is that the [GOP primary] spectacle has real-world consequences for the United States and its interests. The more absurd our politicians look the less powerful we seem.”31
Thus, the GOP’s pursuit of immoral policy, and the adoption of immoral strategies to defend it against an ever tightening scientific/academic and demographic vice, generates profound collateral damage. Thus, the nation suffers from four channels – the perpetuation of immoral policy; the damage done to its democratic institutions via GOP tactics to prolong it; the collateral damage in the form of non-substantive candidates (who tend to effect additional concerning policy) that rightly erodes its international reputation; and the dreadful decline in the quality of public dialog that emanates from a party that is unwilling to meaningfully address the obvious challenges of its day.
BACK TO TRUMP
All of this relates to the rise of Trump. Trump’s ascendance will be discussed on three levels: the factors that created an opportunity for his rise, the tactical approach he used to seize this opportunity, and his embodiment of the candidate ethos given rise to by the policy immorality of the GOP.
As argued above, the GOP has been laying the foundation for the rise of Trump, or someone else of his nature, for several decades. The adherence to immoral policy necessitates an untethering from fact, science and logic. This tends to engender weaker candidates, who compete on less-substantive, ideological platforms. This established the perfect environment for Trump.
Trump perceived the shallow nature of the Republican field, and accurately believed that there was a chance he could exploit vulnerabilities in the modern Republican orientation toward its coalition (discussed below) to have himself, rather than one of the GOP establishment candidates, nominated. Trump has utilized a four pronged strategy to pursue this end. First, he cleaved the Republican coalition, by catering to the less educated, disenfranchised middle class, a neglected segment of the GOP alliance, due in part to its excessive catering to the elite. The Economist writes that, “The coalition between business, evangelicals, defence hawks and blue-collar voters has broken apart….The Republican orthodoxy has no answer to the anger of Mr. Trump’s supporters.”32 Second and related, he has appropriated and repurposed GOP nativism to tailor it for his working class base. A wall on the Mexican border (paid for by Mexico), a ban on Muslims entering the country, the monitoring of “Muslim neighborhoods” and a high tariff regime (allegedly to protect American jobs) all cater to working class concerns. Third, Trump exploits the GOP weakness of obstructionism. As discussed earlier, the GOP policy agenda seeks to thwart the indicated direction of policy change in the country. This necessitates gridlock, which is an implicit GOP objective, and this gridlock is thus structural. That is, it is not driven by conflicting personalities or poor institutional design, but rather by the GOP desire to prolong current immoral policy – to defer the future. Trump capitalizes on this gridlock. No one is in favor of lack of progress, even if they don’t understand its root causes. Trump positions himself as a man of action that will solve gridlock and enable America to win again. The notion that Trump can defeat gridlock is, of course, illusory, because he espouses the same retrograde agenda (tax cuts for the affluent and inaction on climate change) as the GOP, which will structurally lock him into gridlock as well. (As is his wont, Trump sees cosmetic solutions to structural problems.) Fourth, he self-finances using personal wealth, allowing him to take on the GOP establishment by using its own machinery without losing financial viability via loss of donors. Thus, Trump made an accurate assessment of GOP candidate weakness and coalition vulnerability, and designed a simple but shrewd strategy to exploit it.
More important than understanding Trump’s strategy is recognizing that Trump does not represent an aberration or a discontinuity in the GOP. Trump embodies the full complement of attributes that define the modern Republican Party. He is the personification of their principles (albeit taken to extreme form). He follows the GOP adherence to immoral policy. His tax cut proposals for the affluent exceed those of his GOP peers. He denies the reality of climate change. Trump’s 2012 Twitter release: “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”33 He is entirely divorced (as a political candidate) from the ethos of facts, science and logic. In late 2015, Trump had 72 statements vetted by PolitiFact. Of these, zero were deemed to be fully accurate and 75% were deemed either mostly or completely false.34 He claimed that, “If you look at what’s going on, we have the highest taxes anywhere in the world,”35 whereas total U.S. taxes (at all levels of government) are about 24% of GDP relative to an OECD average of 34%36. He referred to concerns about Palestine at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference — when Palestine has not existed since 194837. He criticized U.S. vaccine schedules with no qualifications in the field. And so on. He also advocates for startling policy – carpet-bombing ISIS; penalizing women for having abortions; asserting that he can eliminate the federal deficit in eight years in an era of an aging populace while simultaneously cutting taxes; suggesting that South Korea, Japan and Saudi Arabia should consider pursuing nuclear weapons; etc.
As noted repeatedly, adherence to immoral policy tends to produce weak candidates defined by a range of concerning attributes. Trump embodies them all. Krugman writes: “But it’s important to realize that he isn’t someone who suddenly intruded into Republican politics from an alternative universe. He, or someone like him, is where the party has been headed for a long time.”38
The GOP establishment desire to distance itself from Trump is, therefore, cynical. In effect, the GOP is saying to the electorate that it should accept a GOP establishment candidate who espouses immoral policy (although not in as many areas as Trump); is untethered to facts, science and logic (although not as comprehensively as Trump); and proposes startling policy (although less than Trump).
I am arguing that Trump was not merely enabled by the GOP, but that he is its reflection. He serves as a magnifying mirror of the underlying attributes – emanating from espousal of immoral policy – that define the modern Republican Party. He reveals the logical progression: if a party adopts immoral policy, denies fact, science and logic, relies on ideology over substance, and refuses to address the most pressing challenges of its times, it will attract shallow candidates decoupled from a substantive ethos with a proclivity for dangerous policy. Trump both exploited the opportunity afforded by the weak slate of candidates generated by this logical progression, and is himself the ultimate expression of the logical progression.
THE RESTRUCTURING OF THE REPUBLICAN PARTY?
The Republican Party is facing an existential crisis – a crisis not created by Trump; but rather revealed by Trump. Is it conceivable for the GOP to address the major challenges of its time (income inequality and climate change), adhering to a substantive ethos, while using the principles of conservativism? Trump may inadvertently start the process of considering this previously unthinkable question, in two ways. Frist, he is revealing the logical consequence of not doing so – him and other frightening, non-substantive candidates like him. Second, he may contribute to a major GOP general election defeat in November (irrespective of whether he is the nominee), which could foment an uncommon amount of GOP introspection.
On the other hand, it may be extremely unlikely that the GOP will be willing to cease its adherence to immoral policy, given that primary GOP constituencies are the individual and corporate elite whose financial interests are tied to further income inequality and resistance to climate change. Reversing course on immoral policy while tied to an elite may be an insurmountable challenge, and many discount any prospects for reform. Indeed, some analysts have gone so far as to suggest that Trump is the inevitable conclusion of conservativism – he (or others like him) is its endgame. That is, once a party is linked to industry and the affluent, it will be forced to abscond from responsible policy and a substantive ethos, eventually leading to figures like Trump. I disagree with this thesis, as does Michael Gerson, who argues: “Liberals who claim that Trumpism is the natural outgrowth, or logical conclusion, of conservativism or Republicanism are simply wrong. Lincoln is not even the distant relative of Trump.”39 In my view, Trump is not the inevitable consequence of conservativism; rather, he is the inevitable consequence of the disastrous immoral policy espoused by modern U.S. Republicanism.
Others are more hopeful, and see this as a possible moment for the destruction and reconstruction of the GOP, with Trump serving as the inadvertent catalyst for the destructive phase. David Brooks writes: “For decades now, the Republican Party has been groaning under the Reagan orthodoxy, which was right for the 1980’s but has become increasingly obsolete….Now along comes Donald Trump, an angel of destruction, to blow it all to smithereens….We’re going to have two parties in this country. One will be a Democratic Party that is moving left. The other will be a Republican Party. Nobody knows what it will be, but it’s exciting to be present at the recreation.”40 As always, there are interesting potential historical parallels regarding party dissolution and the aftermath. The U.S. Whig Party was first divided and then collapsed over the issue of slavery in the early 1850’s, with much of its northern base eventually joining the Republican Party and eventually working to abolish slavery. Referencing this era, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writes, “It would take a huge defeat or a Civil War to kill the GOP – but its dysfunction may auger a new political era.”41
I am ambivalent on the prospects for a Republican reconstruction. It seems essential but unlikely. It goes without saying that such a reconstruction would be beneficial for the nation. The ideal is not the collapse of the Republican Party, but rather its reformulation, built on a foundation that eschews immoral policy on the major issues of our times, and the many consequent phenomena that this produces. The historical principles of conservativism, including fiscal responsibility, emphasizing the importance of business and industry, entrepreneurship, individual liberties, individual responsibility, etc., are powerful and necessary principles to inform the nation’s public policy debate. But these principles are rendered hollow when used in the service of immoral policy. It goes without saying that the moment the GOP divorces itself from the pursuit of immoral policy, readopts a substantive ethos, and begins to substantively address the unambiguous challenges of our era, there will be no more Trumps, Palins, or Bush IIs.
The rise of Trump in America has been explained in many ways. In my view, many of these are valid, and yet proximate and incomplete. I argue that there is an ineluctable “logic” to the emergence of Trump. The root cause is deeply immoral policy on the two major issues of our era – income inequality and climate change. It is inconceivable to pursue additional massive tax cuts for the affluent in an era of all-time highs in income inequality, and to obstruct measures to deal with climate change when the consensus amongst the world’s leading scientists is that this can lead to catastrophic impacts. To develop rationale for the pursuit of this immoral policy, the GOP must abuse fact, science, logic and academia, as well as the substantive ethos that they give rise to. This, in turn, dissuades highly credible candidates from seeking the nomination. To win elections with shallow candidates and immoral policy, the GOP must skew campaign finance and denigrate the institutions of democracy. This process generates considerable collateral damage to, amongst other things, the U.S. reputation abroad.
Thus, the emergence of Bush II, Palin and Trump are not anomalous. Candidates such as these emerge (and will continue to emerge until the GOP changes course), for structural reasons. And the first mover of the logical sequence that brings them forth is immoral policy on the major issues of our times.
In keeping with the cosmetic focus of our times, the GOP seeks to address the problem of Trump via ad hominem attacks, the defense of establishment candidates, calling for more civil debates, etc. The solution to Trump is not Ted Cruz, more courteous dialog or a brokered convention; it is addressing the policy immorality that gives rise to the entire spectacle. One can only hope that Trump, by serving as a powerful mirror and revealing the dangerous logic of candidate emergence in the modern GOP, will ignite a process that leads to the reformulation of modern U.S. conservativism. It remains to be seen if this is even remotely conceivable.
John Stafford is a senior substitute teacher for Seattle Public Schools. He is a former partner with Strategic Planning Associates, a corporate strategy management consulting firm in Washington, D.C. He has a B.A. from Dartmouth College, and M.A. from St. Martin’s University and is completing an M.A. from the Harvard Extension School. He is involved with the Democratic Party in Seattle.
- The Economist, The march of Europe’s little Trumps, December 12-18, 2015, pp. 52-53.
- Nicholas Kristof, The GOP created Donald Trump, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 2/12/16.
- Dick Meyer, It will take a village to stop Trump, Scripps Washington Bureau, published in The Seattle Times, 3/8/16.
- Danny Westneat, Trump Connect to Our Inner 4th-Grader, The Seattle Times, 2/28/16.
- Benjamin Shobert, Trying to explain Trump abroad, The Seattle Times, 3/7/16.
- David Brooks, The Governing Cancer of Our Time, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 2/26/16.
- The Declaration of Independence. One might argue that the Declaration of Independence refers to self-evident truisms that are not subject to scientific study (e.g., “all men are created equal”), whereas income inequality and climate change are subject to such research. I argue that in the latter realm, once the overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports a specific assertion, it also emerges as a truism.
- Oxfam International, An Economy for the 1%, 1/18/16.
- Income figure (from 2013): org (a project of the Institute of Policy Studies), citing Emmanuel Saez of the Center for Sustainable Growth. Wealth figure: Nicholas Kristof, An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, citing Thomas Piketty, New York Times, 7/23/14.
- Nicholas Kristoff, The real welfare cheats, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 4/15/16.
- See Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level.
- Lawrence Summers, The Age of Secular Stagnation – What It Is and What to Do About It, Foreign Affairs Journal, March/April, 2016, pp. 2-9.
- Jackie Calmes, Analysts question viability of GOP candidates’ tax-cut plans, New York Times, published in The Seattle Times, 2/24/16.
- Paul Krugman, Republicans’ lust for gold, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 11/16/15.
- See Anderegg, Prall, Harold and Schneider (2010), “Expert credibility in climate change.”
- Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, Fever: Federal report says climate change making US sick, published in The Seattle Times Online (seattletimes.com), 4/4/16. The Obama administration report is entitled: The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment (4/4/16).
- Union of Concerned Scientists, climatehotmap.org, citing P.L. Woodworth (2005).
- Timothy Egan, A walk in the dead woods, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 6/1/16.
- Julia Preston, Immigrants rush to naturalize so they can vote against Trump, New York Times, published in The Seattle Times, 3/8/16.
- Lindsey Graham, Meet the Press, cited in Matt Flegenheimer and Maggie Haberman, New York Times, Money floods in as Trump foes detect new cracks, published in The Seattle Times, March 7, 2016.
- David Lightman, Is 2016 vote last gasp of two-party system?, McClatchy Washington Bureau, published in The Olympian, 1/31/16.
- Nicholas Kristoff, The party of ‘no way!’, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 2/26/16.
- Ted Cruz, cited by ThinkProgress.Org, 10/30/15.
- Paul Krugman; Republican elite’s reign of disdain, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times; 3/21/16.
- Paul Krugman, The Donald and the Decider, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 12/21/15.
- Leonard Pitts, the Miami Herald, published in The Seattle Times; 2016.
- Paul Krugman, The Donald and the Decider, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 12/21/15.
- George F. Will (2008), One Man’s America: The Pleasures and Provocations of Our Singular Nation.
- Charles Krauthammer, cited on salon.com, 3/9/16, referencing an interview with Fox News.
- Froma Harrop, Over Here: Competence Amid Repulsive Politics, published in The Seattle Times, 3/31/16.
- Froma Harrop, Over Here: Competence Amid Repulsive Politics, published in The Seattle Times, 3/31/16.
- The Economist, America’s Primaries: What Now?, March 19-25, 2016, p. 14.
- Donald J. Trump, Twitter (@realDonaldTrump), 11/6/12.
- Danny Westneat, Steady Diet of Political Whoppers,The Seattle Times, 3/13/16.
- Donald Trump, Republican Debate of 2/25/16 in Houston, as reported by CNN (cnn.com), 2/26/16.
- Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution (TaxPolicyCenter.org; Briefing Book).
- Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman, Clinton, Trump show divide over U.S. dealings with Israel, New York Times, published in The Seattle Times; 3/22/16.
- Paul Krugman, The Donald and the Decider, New York Times News Service, published in The Seattle Times, 12/21/15.
- Michael Gerson, Trump nomination would end GOP we know, the Washington Post Writers Group, published in The Olympian, 1/10/16.
- David Brooks, The Post-Trump era, New York Times, published in The Seattle Times, 3/27/16
- Andrew O’Hehir,Salon (Salon.com), 2/22/14.
Featured image by George Skidmore