You hear political pundits say it constantly on the nightly news; the GOP has become the party of Trump. There’s been a transformation. What was just three years ago the party of Paul Ryan has now sold its soul to Trumpism.
This is, of course, true. When you see GOP leaders unwilling to criticize the President at his lowest moments, when you see MAGA hits filling establishment GOP institutions, and when Republicans in down ballet races all across the country are putting out ads that directly mention how they support Trump, it’s hard to conclude anything other than the party has undergone a transformation.
Every President enjoys widespread support from their own party, but that’s because they toe the party line. Trump is different. This is truly a transformation. Congressional Republicans who hold views that are diametrically opposed to the views of the President have shifted their position. Susan Collins in a recent interview said that she supported building the wall, a policy that she explicitly spoke out against when nobody thought Donald Trump was going to win the election. Other so-called moderates have defended things like the travel ban. Those who have decided to turn against the President have essentially been purged from the party and forced out, i.e. Jeff Flake and Mark Sanford.
This wasn’t the case with the Obama presidency. The Democrats compromised on issues, as is to be expected, but congressional Democrats didn’t sell out their values because of the guy in the White House. The Bernie Sanders wing of the party was, even as they were voting on Obamacare, publically saying that we need to go further on healthcare to single payer. The moderate wing of the party said they wouldn’t vote for a bill with a public option in it because it was too far left. This is normal congressional politics, where the party has fissures because a two-party system makes for a wide range of shades that combine to make red and blue.
The shift to Trumpism has been established, but what Republicans are shifting away from isn’t so clear. You’ll hear the same TV pundits that declare the GOP the party of Trump give different explanations as to what is being left behind. Pro Trump people say it’s the warmongering neoconservativism of the Bush dynasty. Never Trump Republicans say it’s the pro free market party of Ronald Reagan. Anti-Trump Democrats often say he’s ditching civility and moderation for far right populist extremism.
All those have some truth to them, but they all miss the forest for the trees. The reality is that Trump is a conventional GOP president except for two things. One, his rhetoric is divisive and harmful. Under the guise of an anti-PC crusade, he’s giving prominence and power to the fringe group of Republicans who want to be able to say awful things about women, gay people, and African Americans in public. Second, his approach to immigration is extremist and harkens back to some of the dark days of the American republic reminiscent of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
On its own, this is horrific. But at least if Trump had followed through on his populist campaign promises the administration might have some redeeming qualities that differentiate it from the old GOP. During the campaign he promised to tax the wealthy, expand access to healthcare, and scale back our military presence around the world. This truly would have been a stark contrast from Republican administrations past.
Not only has he not fulfilled his promises, he’s governed in exactly the opposite way. He cut taxes for the wealthy, limited access to healthcare, and expanded our military presence. The FY19 military budget is the biggest since the height of the Iraq War.
So the Trump presidency hasn’t been so much a departure from the old GOP, but rather an addition. He took the plutocratic Republican platform, built by and run for the ultra-wealthy, and added to it nativism and bombast.
These two things go together well, and in fact Trumpism has long been bubbling below the surface. Trumpism is a more explicit adaptation of a strategy long utilized by the moneyed class to appease the public. In order for the elite to maintain their control in a society that produces astronomical levels of economic inequality, they must pacify the masses. The method by which this tactic is employed is twofold.
First, they give the public an enemy. During the Bush era it was Muslims, but public opinion shows that Americans have realized that our wars in the Middle East have little to do with actually keeping us safe from terrorists. This realization explains a lot of the dynamics at play that gave rise to President Trump. Trump effectively filled the fear gap by shifting animosity towards Mexican immigrants, whom the Republican base thinks are taking our jobs and committing crimes despite all evidence to the contrary. Democrats have, perhaps unwittingly, been played by Trump into eschewing a moderate version of the same type of thinking. No we’re not going to build your border wall, Mr. President, but you can have a few billion for increased border security. This despite the fact net immigration from Mexico and South America is zero and has been for some time. There’s very little to say we have an immigration problem, besides personal anecdotes and amorphous boogeymen.
Second, the ruling class must foment divisions among the public such that they are led to believe their neighbor is the problem and not the plutocrats. Think about the anti-SJW movement, much of which is funded by the Koch brothers (most notably Rubin Report). There’s a whole brand of people who claim to be liberals that have been turned away from the left due to identity politics. These people, Dave Rubin and Jordan Peterson being the most famous, claim to think that the biggest problems this country faces are not the policies of the party that controls all three branches of government, but instead the actions of students on a few college campuses. It is not our military interventionism, virulent anti-immigrant bigotry, or levels of wealth inequality not seen since the great depression that are going to take us down, it’s the fact that Ben Shapiro has to pay for extra security to speak at Berkley because a few students threatened to shut him down. This is the worst problem we face. Trump and the GOP are fine, it’s these 19-year-old leftists who are the dangerous extremists.
Thus, there has certainly been a shift in the GOP to the party of Trump, but it’s hardly a shift away from something. It’s an addition. It’s the Bush dynasty with a border wall. It’s Ronald Reagan without the dog whistle. It’s plutocracy blended with verbose nativism. And it’s dangerous.