Party Like it’s 1969

Donald Trump

We’ve seen a lot of wishful thinking for some time now about the imminent demise of the Republican Party. For a while, people were saying the same about the Democratic Party. This prediction is slightly more plausible of the Republican Party, since they recently allowed a blithering idiot to take over their Party and use it to get to the presidency in a way that is almost entirely their fault. The thing to keep in mind is that, even if the Republican Party were to disappear from the earth tomorrow, Henry Kissinger, George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Lindsey Graham, Javanka, John Bolton, Donald, Jr., and even Trump himself, would not disappear with it.

They might not invite Donald to the next Party, yet the Republican Party is just the recrudescence of the Whig Party, which existed from roughly 1834 to 1856 but fell apart as the issues of slavery and immigration began to take over U.S. politics (sound familiar?). Amusingly, the Whig Party was the Party that favored vigorous use of federal power to encourage economic development, which the Democratic Party at the time opposed.

Leaders, if any such exist, in the current Republican Party will certainly form up a new Party if the Republican Party ceases to exist. The only reason for any Republican to seek high office in the early twenty-first century is to enjoy the perks and prestige of the office and the opportunity to enrich her/himself. So is it that Donald Trump is the paradigmatic Republican official and the Republican Party almost designed itself to make his misbegotten presidency possible. That impulse will not magically disappear, so those who harbor it will just build a new vehicle to transport them, they hope, into office.

Even more absurd is the various pieces about how much Trump has changed the Republican Party and how he is not a typical Republican president. In some important sense, Trump is not a typical president of any description. He won precisely by willfully ignoring every rule about how to go about winning the presidency and how presidential candidates should behave. In doing so, he proved the wisdom and value of a lot of those rules.

But the idea that he changed the Republican Party in any significant sense is just bunk. Trump is the logical culmination of Republican politics and policy since 1968, when Nixon won the presidency using the dog whistle racism of “the silent majority.” Every Republican president since Nixon has used some form of dog whistle racism to win. Reagan used “welfare queens.” George I used Willy Horton, then lost to a southern candidate in a three way race. George II didn’t really win in 2000. In 2004, he had the psychologically gratifying substitute of same-sex marriage to run against. In 2008 and 2012, two Republican candidates lost to the Republican race baiters’ dream candidate by failing to use dog whistle tactics. Republicans win when they throw up a smoke screen of mostly irrelevant issues, or obfuscate their hostility towards policies, such as civil rights, that seem to benefit only a portion of the population but actually benefit everyone, or everyone except the Republicans who choose to mount silly, ideological objections to them (see Barry Goldwater).

The only thing different about Trump was that he went full George Wallace — he was overt about his racism. That he directed it mostly during the campaign at Mexicans and Muslims is irrelevant. He found minority populations who present highly specific policy issues whom he could demonize loudly to gin up votes from the segment of the electorate who are highly susceptible to any form of racism. Happily, that turned out to be a minority of the voting population. Sadly, the electoral college still served to hand him the presidency.

But blathering on about how much the Republican Party changed with Trump is as nonsensical as wondering how so many good Christians could support a president whose personal life barely squeaks by with an R rating, given all of the illicit sexual activity that he has admitted to and that others have ascribed to him. Taking either the Republican Party or most Christians at face value when they talk about what they believe is foolish. None of them really mean it.

There was nothing particularly surprising about the recent revelations of decades of priests sexually abusing children in Pennsylvania. The only reasonable surmise is that this has been routine practice for priests since soon after the founding of the Church, the oldest institution in western culture. Protestants are by no means immune, of course. Finding stories about ministers who molest children is not at all difficult.

Similarly, Republicans have always proclaimed their great concern for the well being of their fellow Americans, but Nixon instituted an affirmative action program in the skilled building trades in Philadelphia for the purpose of splitting the New Deal electoral coalition by pitting African Americans against working class whites, the standard tactic of white plutocrats since the end of the late nineteenth century. The centerpiece of the Republican white supremacist agenda, which dovetailed nicely with the preferences of their corporate paymasters, was the claim that federal benefits mostly involve giving lazy black people the hard earned money of white people. That those benefits mostly accrue to white people is a point that the white people themselves have been only too happy to ignore as they vote against their own interests and elect Republicans.

This proposition sometimes peeks through uncomfortably, as when Newt Gingrich called Obama “the food stamp president,” or when Rick Santorum said he didn’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money. Trump’s heavy reliance on the ridiculous claim that undocumented immigrants were stealing anyone’s job was just his very vocal permutation on this claim. Substituting Hispanics for African Americans is not a great change, and one they will happily reverse if the opportunity presents itself.

Reagan was Trump Lite — a former entertainer who didn’t know anything about policy and ran as an outsider who promised to change how Washington, D.C. operated for the benefit of “the people,” but who was lazy and enabled major scandals in his administration. Reagan instituted the now standard Republican ploy of selling tax cuts as the panacea for all policy problems, eliding the fact that they necessarily favor rich people at the expense of everyone else and causing huge budget deficits as Congress refused to enact the reduction in federal programs that would have offset the tax cuts.

Now, Trump — despite having lived through Watergate as an adult — has committed essentially the same crime as Nixon. Nixon tried to get the CIA to back the FBI off of its investigation into the Watergate break in that his own campaign employees had conducted by claiming that the event had national security implications. Trump, in his usual ham fisted manner, realized he needed to keep his campaign’s interactions with Russians concealed and worried about how much Mike Flynn would tell anyone who looked too closely, so he tried to persuade James Comey to back off his investigation of Flynn. The details are different, but the crime is the same.

The outcome will almost certainly differ markedly. Whatever else one wants to say about Nixon, he was smart, and he understood the rules he was breaking. Trump has neither the intelligence or understanding Nixon had. It seems highly unlikely that he will see the writing on the wall and resign. Clearly the Republicans running the House of Representatives will not impeach him. What will happen if the Democrats regain control of the House remains to be seen, but impeachment should certainly be a live option.

Some say Pence secretly wants to be president very badly, but he seems to lack the nerve to invoke the twenty-fifth amendment and relieve Trump of the powers of the presidency. Given that the status of “acting president” as that amendment provides for is entirely undefined and untested, that might be a wise choice. The twenty-fifth amendment does not require the removal of the president, it only relieves him of his duties, so Pence could be stuck with the responsibility to govern with Trump tap dancing behind him at all times, making the job nearly impossible.

No matter how it ends, we already know that the Republican Party, with its mindless greed and obsession only with near term political outcomes at the expense of any larger policy considerations, has bequeathed the country a huge mess that we will be some time cleaning up.

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.