“As is so often true, the nature of our civilization has been seen more clearly by its enemies than by most of its friends.” — F.A. Hayek, from “The Road to Serfdom”
— — —
In the primetime hours of August 17, 1992, on stage in the cavernous Houston Astrodome, some 320 miles from the Alamo, a fire-breathing, nationalistic Republican rebel declared there was a civic war raging in America.
Patrick Buchanan, Richard Nixon’s fiercest speechwriter and a popular television commentator, was addressing the Republican National Convention. Buchanan had lost the nomination to the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush, but gave him a loud, populist scare. Buchanan had the clout to demand what Bush and party dreaded — a primetime slot for his salutatorian address.
It was worse than they expected. “There is a religious war going on in this country," Buchanan roared. "It is a culture war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself.”
Bush went on to lose the general election to Bill Clinton. But Buchanan’s speech endured as the semi-official start of what came to be called the culture war, a period when America described itself with stark metaphors of division — Red America vs. Blue America, a 50/50 nation and the Two Americas.
Historians might someday mark Buchanan’s war cry as a key starting point in a tumble of events that eventually led to Donald J. Trump becoming the presidential nominee of the Republican Party in 2016.
Political scientists, however, will more likely mark the starting line around 1972. After the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, the party assembled a rescue team, the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection, better known as the McGovern-Fraser Commission. Their reforms, enacted by 1972, were intended to organize a formal, stable nomination process that would be open to many more voters.
Though little remembered, these reforms had enormous impact on both parties and all future presidential campaigns. The impact, however, was unintended. The McGovern-Fraser Commission made direct, popular primaries the dominant way presidential nominees would be chosen, replacing a messy mix of primaries, conventions, caucuses and deals reached in smoke-filled rooms.
Party organizations and leaders would soon lose control of the nominating process.
Mavericks and outsiders who could raise big money and strike a popular chord could now go straight to the top, regardless of what the party establishment wanted. That’s exactly what Jimmy Carter did in 1976. Barack Obama did it in 2008. And Donald Trump did it with a vigilante vengeance in 2016.
Social psychologists and anthropologists, for their part, might see May 31, 2000, as a prophetic early moment in a cultural and media revolution that made the Donald Trump nomination possible.
That was the night a show called “Survivor” debuted on CBS television.
“Survivor” was the first “reality television” show to air in primetime on a Big Three network. It was an instant hit and it’s still running. Donald Trump would later become a mega-celebrity, an entertainer and a household name through his own reality show, “The Apprentice.”
Reality television indulged the voyeuristic pleasure of watching “real” people behaving badly, exposing their worst sides, wallowing in greed, manipulating people ruthlessly and gorging on exhibitionism. It soon became one of the most popular genres in the entertainment industry.
Inevitably, this style of crude behavior and language became routine, richly rewarded and imitated in other entertainment formats -- and in real “real” life. Age-old standards of taste, manners and respectfulness that popular culture, celebrities and public people had traditionally obeyed withered.
The social media boom exaggerated and multiplied these tacky new habits. It provided a continuous IV-drip of “content,” “community,” “connectivity” and “interactivity” from a universe of virtual worlds to a universe of real people.
For the majority of Americans who consume far more entertainment than news, Trump acts just like all the celebrities on TV -- except his campaign antics are tepid by comparison.
Even after setting Donald Trump in these contexts, his rise in 2016 is one of the greatest oddball events of American politics – no matter what the eventual outcome.
The Trump phenomenon was entirely unpredicted. It feels implausible and bizarre, even after months of success. The Donald is a charismatic maverick who demonstrates no deep knowledge or respect for our constitutional system, government institutions, public service and civic traditions. He peddles conspiracy theories and known lies. And his legions march with him for just those reasons.
This has understandably bred an epidemic of political apprehension unseen in generations, plausible worries about his threat to fundamental pillars of the American system of democracy.
Explaining Trumpism in real time is challenging. As with most true anomalies, tidy theories are going to be incomplete best guesses.
Clearly, conditions leading into 2016 were ripe for a crack-up in the Republican Party, a schism a shrewd opportunist could exploit. But there are no easy ways to understand why that maverick arrived in the form of a flamboyant, egomaniacal billionaire who spews insults, threats, racist innuendo, misogynistic cuts, conspiracy theories and blatant lies – Donald J. Trump.
Certain plot lines in contemporary American history, however, provide the backstory.
Too many Republicanisms
For much of the 20th century, the Republican Party’s motto might well have been President Calvin Coolidge’s quip, “The chief business of the American people is business.” From its liberal strain in New England, to the Chamber of Commerce mercantilism of the Midwest, to the woolier, libertarianism of the West, the party of Lincoln flourished in “white bread” America outside the old Confederacy. The Republican worldview was deferential to tradition and the status quo, pro-business, anti-union, anti-Communist and suspicious of government and do-gooders.
The GOP did have brief periods of progressive accomplishment, first under Theodore Roosevelt and then Dwight Eisenhower, according to historian Heather C. Richardson in “To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.” “Yet each time the party has sponsored progressive legislation, it has sparked backlash from within its own ranks,” Richardson writes.
The backlash to the pragmatic progress of the Eisenhower-era came in 1964 with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, the hawkish, archconservative from Arizona who was flattened by a Texas tornado named Lyndon Johnson. There were obituaries galore for the GOP that year. They were wrong, of course, but they sound familiar to current prophecies that Trump will destroy the party.
The GOP recovered in the 1960s, of course, though in unpredicted ways.
The success of the civil rights movement and desegregation drove lifelong white Democrats in the South out of the party. Richard Nixon developed the notorious “Southern strategy” to exploit this. Long the fortress of Yankee-hating Democrats, the South would become the heart of Red America.
In 1968, race riots, Martin Luther King’s assassination and racist demagogues led by George Wallace stirred up the racial animosities and fears of working-class whites, who were heavily Democratic, across the country, not just the South. The radical crusades of the 1960s -- feminism, black power, gay rights, environmentalism and war protests – made Nixon’s law-and-order, anti-Communist toughness attractive to working-class Democrats as well.
The GOP’s tactical victories came with the spoils – votes and eight years in the White House. There were also spoilers hidden in those victories. Very different American worlds joined in the new, post-1968 Republican coalition and they were bound to collide.
The GOP became adept at exploiting cultural anxieties and racial resentments common among its new working-class constituents and the country’s growing evangelical population. The party did not, however, have a corresponding economic platform for them.
In the 1980s, a fresh surge of working-class white voters fled to the Republican camp from the North and Rust Belt. They were called Reagan Democrats. They were alienated from their Democratic heritage over issues such as abortion, affirmative action, unfair welfare spending, job-killing regulation and gun control – the “wedge issues.”
Wedge issues worked well in many elections, but new working-class Republican voters weren’t seeing tangible benefits from the old Republican economic policies: tax cuts, trickle-down economics, domestic budget cuts, deregulation, free trade and promises to shrink government.
The economic truth was worse than we knew back then.
New historical data reveals that all but the top 10 percent had fallen into a prolonged prosperity gulch. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing today, real middle-class incomes in America have been stagnate or shrinking. By the 2000s, economic inequality in America was worse than in the Roaring 20s.
Republican leadership, however, stayed the course of trickle-down economics that did not do much trickling down.
Without pocketbook payoffs for their new base, Republican tacticians, especially in the House, doubled down on culture war crusades and scandal mongering as a way to keep the downscale conservative base on the GOP reservation. Pat Buchanan’s declaration at the 1992 convention was a marquee moment.
The GOP actually scored few big wins in the culture battles. But the combat over abortion, gay rights, gun control, prayer in school, religious liberty and “family values” stayed red hot. Evangelicals and “movement conservatives” gained clout as party activists, funders, dependable voters and, eventually, as a defiant, uncompromising, hyper-partisan caucus in Congress through the 1990s and 2000s.
George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and his two terms in the White House did little to ease the repressed tension between the factions. Liberal and moderate Republicans were all but extinct in Congress. The right-wing battled the far right-wing. Long, unpopular wars derailed the Bush administration. The Great Recession destroyed the party’s prospects in 2008.
By then, the hardcore Tea Party-style caucus was reaching full lather, cursing Republicans as much as Democrats. They had no interest in “business as usual” and or legislative compromise. They embraced zealotry. Like southerners in the Civil War, conservative rebels in the civic war fought like their very way of life was at stake.
Christopher Parker and Matt Barreto summed this up well in “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.” “We believe that people are driven to support the Tea Party from the anxiety they feel as they perceive the America they know, the country they love, slipping away, threatened by the rapidly changing face of what they perceive as the ‘real’ America: a heterosexual, Christian (mostly) male white country.”
The establishmentarian Republican Party unwittingly became “the insurgent outlier in American politics,” in the words of political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann in their influential book, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”
Despite draconian vows to cut off President Obama at every legislative pass, the new president’s towering program, Obamacare, prevailed, and he was reelected in 2012. He also put two justices on the Supreme Court. Liberal social and cultural policies consistently won battles in courts and the states, most prominently gay marriage. Beyond sound and fury, Republicans were delivering next to nothing to their voters economically or culturally.
“As the 2016 elections approached, old and new fissures began to crack open,” writes Princeton historian Sean Wilentz. “The party’s base, including Tea Party insurgents and evangelicals, had become furious with a Republican leadership powerless to halt the growing diversification, racial inclusiveness and cultural openness of American life, which it associated with Mr. Obama.
“At the same time, the party establishment had nothing to offer hard-pressed, working-class Republican voters except discredited bromides about tax cuts, deregulation and plans to slash Medicare and privatize Social Security,” Wilentz says.
Enter Donald Trump – not from stage right, not from stage left, but from the clear blue sky in his own Trump jet. He had his own money, his own celebrity, his own empire; he bore allegiance to no party, no cause, no donors, no traditions, no philosophy and no record. What he did have was a savant-like sense of just how to rouse a frustrated rabble.
Akin to Tea Party rebels but richer, tougher and meaner, Trump attacked Republicans just as viciously as Democrats. He talked about jobs. He ditched the family values shtick. Trump had the rebel appeal of a populist strongman -- authoritarian, nationalist and anti-intellectual – with the guts to fight the bastards. White working-class voters flocked to him in the primaries.
Trump proved to be a master herder of scapegoats, relentlessly blaming, degrading and insulting his preferred villains: Mexicans, Muslims, Chinese, judges, hedge-fund guys, reporters and crooked politicians in both parties. He reveled in embracing the verboten and mocking the PC police. He had simple solutions for every problem and often they changed daily with his moods: deport illegals, ban Muslims, build a wall, get rid of libel laws and make great deals all over the place.
Most of all, he served up Trump-sized T-bones of economic red meat to hungry working-class voters. They were old-fashioned, simple dishes from both Democratic and Republican menus. He’s for protectionism, not free trade. No way are Medicare and Social Security going to be cut. He’s going to spend big on the military and not waste money on education and global warming. He’s going to raise taxes on the rich big time -- maybe, maybe not, depends on the day and hour you ask.
There is nothing particularly Republican about Donald Trump. Indeed, his campaign is best understood as a guerilla third-party takeover of the GOP.
So the obvious question is how did the Republican Party lose control of the party? Republican governors, House and Senate caucuses, big donors, think tanks, pressure groups, consultants, lobbyists, polemicists, elders, even Fox News: They all got blindsided and hogtied.
The short answer is they unintentionally created a nomination process the party couldn’t control or steer.
The parties have been crashed
American campaigns were not always as long as they are now, though early elections were just as coarse and undignified.
Wide-open party nomination battles lasting two years or more, that get more press attention than the doings of government, where every candidate is an independently funded free agent: These are new and accidental inventions. They haphazardly evolved after the Democrats post-1968 reforms, when both parties embraced direct, popular elections to select nominees. The consequences of those reforms were unintended and fateful.
The main idea of direct primaries was simply to make the nomination process more democratic, a new approach that fit the “people power” spirit of the times. The new process also snipped away at the power of party bosses and machines. The first Democrats that figured out how to exploit the new system came from outside the party’s main clique: George McGovern himself in 1972, and then in 1976, a little-known governor from Georgia, Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s political guru was a pollster named Patrick Caddell. Caddell wrote Carter a memo a few weeks before the 1977 Inauguration that said, “Essentially, it is my thesis that governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign.” Thus was born what we now call the “permanent campaign,” where winning elections is the goal of politics, not governing.
Two other developments entrenched the “permanent campaign” and the liberation of politicians from their parties’ discipline.
First, money: the Watergate scandals inspired a series of reforms intended to clean up the campaign finance system. The reforms essentially backfired. Special interests found loopholes. The parties could no longer bankroll candidates so the candidates had to spend more and more time raising money, forcing them to stay in campaign mode. That also meant the parties could no longer strong-arm candidates with threats to turn off the spigot of party money and favors. Congressional leaders lost precious little leverage to deliver votes.
Eventually, the Supreme Court erased the Watergate-era reforms and deregulated the campaign finance system. This released torrents of political money Richard Nixon could only have dreamed about, much of it untraceable. Dollars didn’t just flow to candidates; free agent PACs, Super PACs and front groups had the dough to run major campaign operations, usually negative, rarely lofty.
The other key factor that enabled free agent electioneering was the new generation of television.
Some old-school types mark March 19, 1979, as a singularly dark day for the Republic. That is when C-Span began live and free coverage of the House of Representatives. The very first speaker was a young member from Tennessee, Al Gore. A few months later, an entrepreneur from Atlanta named Ted Turner launched one of those new-fangled cable stations and called it CNN.
Politicians now had the capacity to reach their voters directly, without the permission of party elders or the big three networks. The Internet and social media, of course, would expand that direct access a thousandfold. Voter-legislator contact became interactive; pols, parties and the vast political industry suddenly had volumes of valuable data about individual voters; political persuasion went high-tech, automating “personalized” political marketing.
All this weakened the official parties. They had scant control and little influence over who their congressional and presidential nominees would be.
In 1988, the incumbent vice president, George H.W. Bush, faced four serious challengers, including a TV evangelist, Pat Robertson. Republicans never did business that way before.
Twenty years later, Republican primaries were more like “American Idol” competitions than presidential campaigns. The number of contestants soared, as did the number of debates. Increasingly, unknown, unconventional and often goofy candidates were able to get on the big stage.
Entering the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump had never held public office, had little track record of service to the party and an almost random assortment of contradictory political opinions that skewed liberal. He faced few barriers, however, to becoming an instant contender for the presidential nomination.
When he actually won primaries, the party’s fractured establishment was scandalized, despondent -- and utterly helpless. The party was unable to muster effective opposition to a candidate that terrified and embarrassed them.
Trump crashed the party.
All these political and institutional developments made the GOP vulnerable to a hostile takeover. But Donald Trump? There couldn’t be a more far-fetched and outrageous partisan raider. This is the great mystery story of 2016.
Trump is a product of contemporary media – not just the news media -- like no other presidential candidate.
The Donald entered politics as an established mega-star and a brand. He emerged from a media lagoon far away from C-Span, “Face the Nation,” and NPR. Trump’s milieu was primarily reality television thanks to his hit show, “The Apprentice.” He is also a star in a post-network genre of entertainment -- celebrity voyeurism. It’s exemplified by the Kardashian craze. The “content” of this genre is the “real” lives of the rich, famous or infamous. The “platforms” that carry this “content” are myriad: showbiz TV shows and web sites; tabloids and glossy magazines; social media of every sort; product lines. Most important, celebrities directly broadcast and market themselves with their own Facebook sites, Twitter feeds, YouTube channels, Instagram feeds and so on. The “content” is omnipresent, 24/7.
Trump has mastered the techniques and rules of celebrity entertainment.
And he defiantly mocks and belittles the rules and manners of traditional news media, politics and statesmanship. He is ferocious on this front, always on Twitter, always available to (certain) reporters, always willing to shoot from the hip, utter an outrage, insult a foe, offend all comers and control the news cycle.
Trump’s behavior is wildly aberrant in politics – it’s loony. But it’s normal for celebrity media, which is much more popular than news. Trump somehow manages to be judged by the rules of entertainment, not politics by many, many voters. That is a key to one of the campaign’s great mysteries: How does Trump get away with it?
Trump’s media delinquency has other powers.
Much has been made of how Trump has a special appeal to angry voters disgusted by the system. However, for years polling has shown that about 90 percent of the electorate has been disgusted by the system. Trump is actually attracting just a slice of the universe of angry Americans, roughly 50 percent of Republican primary voters so far. A key reason for his popularity with white voters who feel they have lost status– perhaps the key reason – is precisely his insubordinate, outrageous and aggressive media performances. They prove Trump isn’t like all the other slimy politicians and elites.
Many voters revel in Trump’s campaign because it’s the biggest middle finger ever stuck in the face of the system, the establishment, the phonies, the corrupt windbags of politics. It’s heartfelt, ballsy and it may someday shake some of the mold out of Washington. None of the insiders will do that. If the system is really broke and corrupt, what’s the risk of rolling the dice on Trump?
Obviously, many more voters are still undecided, confused or hostile to Trump. Even so, it’s hard to take your eyes off the guy. It’s like rubbernecking a car wreck on the highway. The news media – especially cable – cannot keep Trump off their screens. As a result, Trump’s aberrant, repugnant behavior is subtly normalized over time, even for voters who are oblivious to Trump’s media home turf – reality TV, social media and gossip magazines.
How this orgy of media attention will effect general election voting is hard to predict. There is no precedent.
Other fast-moving trends complicate the media environment. An important one is “balkanization.” It’s the proliferation of niche media programming on all platforms – and on demand. It allows voters to get all their news in one flavor: left, right, radical left, racist right, movement conservative, ethnic, LGBQT, libertarian -- it’s all out there. If you want to follow the election closely without hearing anything negative about Hillary, you can. Obviously, media balkanization adds to the sheer obnoxiousness of political arguments these days.
A Donald Trump could not have gone this far in a presidential election without these sweeping changes in media. If John F. Kennedy was the first president of the Television Age, Donald Trump is the first major party nominee of a media era that doesn’t have a nickname yet, but could be called the Age of OmniMedia.
Many characteristics of Trumpism have long histories in American politics. The mystery and perhaps the danger is how OmniMedia weave together these old threads of dark populism.
“To be sure, many elements of this saga—raging populism; coarsened culture; bitter, invective-laced politics; demagoguery and nativism inside and outside the political world; partisan media; and an intertwining of race and politics—are not new at all in American history,” political scientist Norman Ornstein reminds us. “The news is more about the amplified impact of these factors in a corrosive witches brew, in a modern world of new technology.”
In short, will the voters in “Reality Election 2016!!!” say, “You’re fired” or “You’re hired” to The Donald?
The underlying disease
Donald Trump’s most zealous supporters are reacting to an enduring, macro-political disability that politicians have ignored or mismanaged for nearly 50 years, a condition that has resisted cures from reformers, scholars and think tanks. It now seems to be permanent: American government, its leaders and institutions, are no longer legitimate and trustworthy in the view of an overwhelming majority of Americans.
One can argue whether “the system is a disaster,” as Trump says, dangerously dysfunctional and broken.
You cannot, however, argue that this isn’t how Americans see their government. This is a deep problem, a crisis of legitimacy.
With moderate up and downs, public trust has relentlessly declined since Vietnam. Ronald Reagan’s popularity, the solidarity after 9/11, economic booms and the election of the nation’s first black president have not halted the loss of trust.
The story is worse for the people’s branch of government – Congress. Only seven percent of Americans have confidence in Congress.
This is the big picture that frames all politics and it is especially important in putting the maverick Trump in proper context. It is hard to imagine that Trump’s success would be possible except for this prolonged erosion of government’s legitimacy.
Donald Trump understood or sensed the emotional impact of this profound mistrust of government – and society’s elites – on many Americans who once felt like they were on the winning team. The other candidates, the pundits, the scholars and the campaign swamis missed this.
Sometimes only an outsider can have a sharp vision of the inside. As F.A. Hayek said about the authoritarian leaders of the 20th century, “[T]he nature of our civilization has been seen more clearly by its enemies than by most of its friends.”
Dick Meyer is Chief Washington Correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and DecodeDC.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow him on Twitter @DickMeyerDC.