Sorry, Folks, but Trump Really Is Different


Trump is different.

Wow—a really big breakthrough discovery, huh? Maybe it is. Some contributors to this discussion seem determined to carry a brief for the Left by proving that Trump is merely the coming home to roost of GOP chickens. His misogyny and racism is “nothing new,” or just the logical conclusion of 40 years or more of GOP rhetoric.

As tempted as I am to accept this analysis, I cannot. Something new—or at least, not terribly old—is happening right now. To explain away Trump by citing Willie Horton or Strom Thurmond or something is to choose not to reckon with the evidence of the recent past.  Sure, the GOP made robust use of dog whistles and “coded” language to play on the anxieties of mostly white, mostly working and middle-class voters ever since the 1960s.  But Trump shows that the game has changed.

Remember what George W. Bush was selling in 2000? Compassionate conservatism—an oxymoron, in my view, from a good old-fashioned moron. But if you take it at political face value, it meant several things: 1. We have to pretend to care about people, triangulating the triangulator Bill Clinton’s “I feel your pain,” much like the Conservatives in Britain eventually had to stop being perceived as the “nasty party,” and 2. some voters genuinely believed that churches and other private organizations could do a better job helping the poor than government (the “faith-based” nonsense).

In office, Bush may have embarked on a campaign of surveillance, torture, and disastrous foreign wars, but he still tried to pursue a moderate-seeming domestic policy: helping poor kids through the ill-conceived No Child Left Behind, and getting Grandma her prescriptions through a fantastically un-conservative, unfunded expansion of entitlements.

His last big domestic priority? Immigration reform. It may have suffered an ignominious demise, but the effort still showed a sensible political instinct on the part of Bush and his Svengali Karl Rove to grapple with political realities, appeal to broader constituencies, and try to build a “big tent” party—Rove’s dream of a permanent Republican majority that bolted Latino/as into a free-market, low-tax political coalition.

Does that look anything like Trump, or the Tea Party Republicans who have wrecked Washington in the last six years?

My point is simply that, yes, the GOP has no wonderful record on what is euphemistically known as “race relations,” or any kind of racial or economic justice, or gender equality. That goes beyond saying.  But fissures have genuinely broken open in the last decade between three distinct groups: so-called “movement conservatives,” who drank the Hayek Kool-Aid long ago and really believe in drowning government in a bathtub, a la Norquist; mostly non-ideological party elites who just want to win elections, using whatever tools or fools are available; and a mysterious animal known as The Base, which increasingly strikes fear in the hearts of the first two groups.

The history of modern conservatism is well-known; a coalition of business elites, security hawks, and grassroots traditionalists held it together long enough to elevate Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes, not to mention Newt Gingrich and John Boehner. Since 2008, the glue between these groups has seriously corroded, and a populist monster has stepped into the breach.

Sarah Palin is sort of the John the Baptist of this group. Unrecognized at the time, she was the wild-haired desert prophet who foretold things to come.  John McCain’s elevation of this dead-eyed witch to international prominence is sadly, perhaps, his greatest legacy.

With Palin, Rick Santelli and others leading the way, a grassroots revolt broke out against socialism, death panels, concentration camps for Christians, UN occupation of the United States and God knows what else.  These furtive fears and suspicions had long existed on the outer fringes of the Far Right—the really far, scary, white-supremacist Right—but they came gushing into the unguarded flood channels and broken levies of a dysfunctional GOP.

None of this is to say that GOP elites, whether country club Republicans, neocon hawks, or libertarian ideologues, hadn’t gingerly taken advantage of such dark currents here and there to advance their political goals. My argument is simply that the ugly, nationalist conservatism that Trump represents is not of ancient vintage, at least not within the mainstream GOP. Whatever Trump is the symbol or culmination of is more properly dated to the last eight years, not the last forty.

Indeed, a party that had tried to shove comprehensive immigration reform down the throat of its outraged base ten years ago now has nominated the most xenophobic major-party candidate of the twentieth century, and possibly ever. That tells the whole story.

Sure, Trump has continuities with the GOP of yore. His newly adopted stance against women’s reproductive rights is one—but it feels more of a piece with a basic, patriarchal, authoritarian impulse that has always been a part of conservatism. I doubt Trump cares a whit about abortion; as a matter of fact, I’d be willing to bet good money he has probably coerced women to terminate pregnancies in the past. But yapping about “ripping babies out” and imposing punishment on women who seek abortions is not so much about the existential integrity of the fetus, and all about Trump’s own political opportunism—mixed with an innate penchant to see issues in manichean ways that, surprise, disempower women.

The bottom line is this: the soberly business-oriented political professionals who ran the GOP for decades gave us George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney. Some were far more despicable people than others, but they toed the line, and they were broadly viewed as consensus choices that would not, for the most part, openly engage in racist invective or alienate key voting blocs just for the hell of it. That game is over and we all know it.

Or is it?  The greatest path forward for the GOP to me seems to be to soothe suburban moderates, put up a pretty face with sunny rhetoric, and get the old tax-cuts-&-deregulation bus off the blocks in the front yard.  The question is whether the Base will have it.

Indeed, the Base may be difficult to wrangle.  More than likely, Republicans will see big Congressional gains in 2018, driven by insurgent anti-Hillary rage. It will be hard to persuade primary voters that burning the house down all over again is the wrong idea going into 2020.

In fact, the Trump phenomenon gives the lie to a typical liberal assumption—that party elites and big business could always dupe the grassroots, especially the working class, into supporting unfortunate policies that go against their interests. For years, so-called conservative “intellectuals” like Paul Ryan invoked Hayekian nostrums while the Base fulminated and fumed—and maybe that worked up until about 2008.

In the process, they convinced themselves that their voters really were free-market ideologues who believed in small government as a virtue unto itself. Trump, with his ludicrous Wall and wild promises to lavish money on infrastructure, veterans, and cute puppy dogs while slashing taxes and (supposedly) preserving Social Security – fiscal conservatism, this ain’t.

Maybe the likes of Ryan were able to ride the Base to victory in the past, not realizing or even paying attention to what their voters really thought and felt. But what we have seen in 2016 is the Base riding the elite, not the other way around.  The Base does not seem to care for free trade or entitlement cuts, or gauzy language about inclusion and big tents. The Base is out for blood, revenge, being made whole after a grievance.

More than likely, the Party will be able to put the Base back into a box in order to start winning national elections again. Eventually. Maybe in 2020 or maybe later. But it is the only way forward for the GOP, and they know it.

In the meantime, the glue that stuck the intellectuals, the party apparatchiks, and the ground troops of the electorate has come undone. That’s what Trump is the avatar of—not just the logical end-point of 40 years of GOP politics, but of a much more recent reconfiguration of conservative politics. Hold on to your seats.

This piece is part of our ongoing roundtable discussion, offering a range of perspectives from historians about what Trump represents about the past–and future–of the GOP and the conservative movement. Past pieces are below, and more are to come!

  1. Adam Gallagher, “Is Trump Sui Generis?”
  2. Alex Cummings, “There Is a There There: Trump Is Hardly Sui Generis”
  3. Gary Gristle, “Reckoning Trump through a Didion Lens”
  4. H. Robert Baker, “Trump doth bestride the world…”
  5. Timothy Lombardo, “New Right, Far Right, Alt-Right? Donald Trump and the Historiography of Conservatism”
  6. Casey Baskin, “Sorry, Folks, But Trump Really Is Different”