Sunday, August 7, 2016

Trump's Toxic Legacy

Though it now appears likely (but hardly certain) that Donald Trump will lose the Presidential election this fall, his candidacy will leave a lasting influence on American politics. As Ezra Klein notes on, he has destroyed political norms.

On December 7, Donald Trump strode out in front of the assembled television cameras and did something unusual: The stream-of-consciousness candidate read a prepared statement.

It said: "I, Donald J. Trump, am calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."

Trump didn't break a law that day; he broke a norm. Major politicians can single out particular religious groups for discriminatory treatment in the United States. They just … don't.

They don't do it even when they might find votes through bigotry. The restraint isn't entirely altruistic. Norms are enforced through powerful, if informal, mechanisms in American politics — in this case, widespread condemnation from politicians of both parties, as well as (accurate) accusations of bigotry and racism.

But Trump isn't bothered by the guardrails of American politics. As I've written before, his most salient characteristic is that he operates entirely without shame. He doesn't care if he's condemned, or called a bigot, or shown to be a liar. He cares about the polls, and he cares about winning, and he sees everything else as negotiable. In this, he truly is a dealmaker: If the cost of the presidency is being seen as a racist, he'll pay it.

To understand the danger Trump poses, though, it's important to recognize what happened next. Banning all Muslims from traveling to the United States, for any reason, went instantly from being a proposal so bigoted and outlandish that no one had even considered it to a proposal at the center of the American political debate. It was discussed. It was polled. It was normalized.

This is the danger Trump poses to the American political system, even if he loses. He is normalizing the abnormal. He is redefining what is acceptable to do and say in American politics.

Shame on Donald Trump for having no shame and doing this to our polity. Not so fast, say non-partisan Congressional scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. They argue that the Republican party has waged war on government for three decades and Donald Trump is the logical result.

Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party’s steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.

While that descent has been underway for a long time, it has accelerated its pace in recent years. We noted four years ago the dysfunction of the Republican Party, arguing that its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.

Why then single out the Republican Party as an insurgent outlier? Newt Gingrich, first among other Republican leaders, took this polarization to a new level. He was key in the transformation of the party into a destructive and delegitimizing force in American politics (which makes his recent bonding with Trump very fitting).

From the time he came to Congress in 1979, Gingrich deployed a strategy to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in the House by moving to polarize the parties, to use the ethics process to taint both the majority and the entire political process, and to get Americans so disgusted with politics and politicians that at the right moment, they would rise up and throw out the incumbent party.

When populism exploded again with the 2008 financial collapse and TARP bailout, the next generation of Republican leaders — led by Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, the self-named Young Guns — took the Gingrich playbook and ran with it, exploiting and fueling populist anger at the political establishment and the new black president to take back power.

The theory was that a deliberate strategy to make all government action in Washington look disastrous, whether by stopping legislation or delegitimizing the process and its products, would work against the party in power: the Democrats. Scandal politics, which vaulted Gingrich to prominence in the first place, could be hyped and exploited; see Benghazi. The "birther" movement was not explicitly embraced by party leaders, but it was encouraged; it was an indirect way to criticize the "African" president while also, incidentally, vaulting Donald Trump to prominence in the political realm.

These leaders also thought that an attack on climate change and, more broadly, evidence-based policy analysis would fuel suspicion and demonization of not just liberal politicians but the broader liberal establishment. The conspiracy theories and over-the-top attacks on Obama and Democrats repeated regularly on cable TV news shows, talk radio, blogs, and social media were not created or directly condoned by GOP establishment leaders — although they were repeated by rank-and-file lawmakers.

But when leaders neither criticized nor condemned the assertions, it gave them more legitimacy with voters. We do not believe that party leaders themselves believed Obama was a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton's aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist, or that a Black Panther uprising was ever imminent. But those claims were cynically exploited to foster anger among base voters.

Whatever happens in November, the fractured Republican Party will struggle for a long, long time to find an identity and a center of gravity. Almost certainly, given the retirements from Congress and the vulnerable incumbents, the relative influence of the Freedom Caucus — radical lawmakers who want no compromises — will be significantly greater.

A Trump victory, unlikely but far from impossible, would not create a new GOP: The old problems we identified would remain, along with new ones. There is no way to predict how Trump, who has no discernible knowledge of public policy or the governing process but who has made stark pledges on a range of issues, would handle his presidency, but the differences between his stated policy preferences and those of party leaders in Congress are substantial. In any case, Democrats will have enough members in the Senate to filibuster his initiatives.

On some issues, like immigration and trade, Freedom Caucus Republicans will be with Trump. On others, including his support for Social Security and Medicare, neither they nor the leaders will back him. Most likely, when it comes to things like torture and trade, Trump would bypass Congress and use executive action in ways that would potentially create constitutional crises and divide Republicans in profound ways.

If the single most likely election outcome occurs — a Clinton presidential victory and a narrow edge for Democrats in the Senate, with a reduced Republican majority in the House — the party divisions will be huge. A Trump loss will energize the Ted Cruz/Tom Cotton/Freedom Caucus wing, with Cruz doubling down on his assertion that Republicans keep losing because the party is not pure enough: It keeps nominating moderates like Romney and liberals like Trump instead of purists like Cruz (who would theoretically bring out tens of millions of voters who stay at home otherwise).

At the same time, Trumpist populists inside and outside Washington will attribute any Trump loss to the perfidy of the party establishment. Aided by the bevy of cable TV hosts, talk radio impresarios, and bloggers who thrive on chaos — they will spread the belief that Americans have been betrayed both by Democrats and by weak-kneed and corrupt Republican establishment leaders. They will continue to push nativist and protectionist policies.

Just as troubling is the shameful appeal Trump is making, as the Republican standard-bearer, to racist, anti-Semitic, and nativist elements in the populace. To their detriment, party leaders did little to discourage those nefarious appeals. Getting the racist genie back in the bottle may prove impossible.

When we wrote It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, many former Republican officeholders understood we were not attacking the Republican Party as partisans but trying to save it from itself. We took no comfort from calling out the GOP. We well recognize that our polity will not function as it is supposed to without two strong and vibrant parties whose goal is to solve societal problems within the rubric of our constitutional system.

That does not mean going back to an Eisenhower-era or even Nixon-era GOP, when centrists were key forces; it means a very conservative party by any reasonable measure. As such, we sympathize with Republicans like David Frum who have been harshly critical of the party’s course but refuse to leave it, believing their presence is necessary to fight to yank the party back to a problem-solving state.

If they can’t, perhaps, as when the Whig Party hit a dead end, a new force will emerge to replace or challenge the Republican Party. But anyone expecting a quick or clean resolution of this turmoil will be sorely disappointed.

No comments: