The Soviet Union seemed permanent and invincible, until it didn't. When it fell, far more suddenly than anyone thought it would or could, the festering rot of decades was exposed to the world. We're seeing this happen, in real time, with the Republican Party.
Watching Donald Trump's march through the GOP primaries can seem a little like watching the end of the world, or at least the end of American democracy. But non-conservatives surely feel some Schadenfreude in the efforts of horrified Republicans to disavow Trump and to figure out how he could possibly have happened to their party.
The split the Republicans are facing is fundamental, deep, and of their own making. Even smart conservatives like Robert Kagan—who points out that mainstream Republicans are to blame for the Trump phenomenon, because they fought Obama with obstructionism and shutdowns, and did not check the blatant racism and xenophobia at the grassroots—don't fully get it. Kagan is not wrong, but he misses the big picture. When Paul Krugman, speaking for the liberals, points out that Trump is no more a flimflam man than "respectable" party leaders such as Paul Ryan, he has also gotten hold of a part of the truth. But the whole truth is bigger and deeper.
What is going on here? The Republican Party has prospered by building an alliance of vastly different constituencies, and it's managed to trick them into thinking it can serve all of their interests. Lately part of that coalition has become un-tricked, and Donald Trump has been there for them.
It's important to remember what the core of the Republican Party stands for, as we have known it since its Reagan-era resurgence. Not very much, really. The mainstream party is committed to the idea that profit is earned only by capital, not labor; and that therefore labor should properly have no share in or say over the disposition of any part of an enterprise's profit. This belief has several corollaries.
One is the economic necessity of smashing unions, since any effort to empower labor is by definition "rent seeking." Another is the moral necessity of slashing the social safety net, since any backdoor redistribution of profits to working people undercuts the rightful reward to capital (and therefore the free market system itself, the system by which everyone gets what he or she deserves.) Another is the need to shift the responsibilities of regulation and governance itself away from, well, government, and towards unelected, unmandated private enterprise—since who can better know what business needs to prosper than business itself? Still another is the need to shift the costs of business onto the public, since the return to capital is sacrosanct and deserving of public subsidy.
But the mainstream Republican élites are concerned with class warfare, not race warfare (except in the sense that, by waging war on working people, they disproportionately hurt members of minority groups, and especially black people, who are—for obvious historical reasons—disproportionately represented among the poor and powerless.) They don't care much about social issues like abortion or gay rights. They don't want to foist creationism on the public schools. They're not heavily invested in the Second Amendment, except insofar as guns are a business issue. The traditional Republican leaders like Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Mitt Romney, John McCain, all of the Bushes—they all tried to steer clear of these issues when not talking to evangelical audiences, always seemed a little uncomfortable with them.
The problem for the Republican élites is that they can't win without the Reagan coalition: the hangers-on for whom Guns, God, and "traditional marriage" matter, and matter a great deal. Because really, how many Americans would vote for a party that promised to deny them healthcare, libraries, schools, roads, and retirement, and to make them slaves to their employers—"but you'll have freedom!"? Reagan won with the support of the surging evangelical movement; with the defection from the Democrats of southern and working-class whites disoriented by desegregation in the South and busing in the North; and with the sympathy of libertarians who somehow thought that unelected businessmen without mandate nor public responsibility could be entrusted with the power that elected, answerable officials could not be. And through 35 years of Republicans fighting for the rich and powerful, we've seen more and more wealth going to the rich, more and more power going to the powerful.
In the wake of the well-deserved 2008 electoral repudiation of their party, the party doubled down on this strategy. The élites turned to seemingly outside auxiliaries to strengthen their slipping grip on power. And so was born the Tea Party, a supposedly populist and spontaneous know-nothing movement, paradoxically incited and encouraged by mainstream Republicans and heavily funded and directed by the industrialist Koch Brothers and a web of their captive institutions, such as Americans for Prosperity, The Cato Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, and former Congressional leader Dick Armey's FreedomWorks.
The Republican Party cynically stood by and encouraged the "birthers" (prominent among them Donald Trump), the deranged Ron Paul libertarians, the gun nuts—the whole crowd of obsessives who looked at Barack Obama's center-right presidency (not much to distinguish his domestic policies from those of, say, Richard Nixon) and saw an administration bent on destroying America, led by a Muslim Communist Kenyan usurper.
Although the élites always tried to keep a little daylight between themselves and the more bizarre Tea Party elements, know-nothingism was so powerful with that Muslim Communist radical America-hating black nationalist in office, and core Republican economic values so threadbare in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, and supply-side economics so discredited with the recovery that benefited the investor class but not the working class, that the tail began to wag the dog more and more. The Tea Party radicals weren't having the rising Republican élite leader Eric Cantor. They weren't having John Boehner as House Speaker, and they weren't having Kevin McCarthy as his replacement. Speaker Paul Ryan is watching his back. Marco Rubio has fallen out of Tea Party favor, because he proved, for one brief shining wavering moment, less xenophobic than they needed him to be. Senator Ted Cruz keeps one step ahead of Tea Party pitchforks only by tactics—like shutting down the government over funding the ACA—that enrage his colleagues and damage the Republican party with mainstream voters. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has to engage in bizarre and strategically insane obstructionism, such as refusing to give any Obama Supreme Court nominee even a hearing—obstructionism he may come to regret in the very likely event of a Hillary Clinton presidency and a Democratic Senate.
In short, the élites have outsmarted themselves. What we are seeing now in the Republican party is the revolt of those who were used, taken for granted, thought to be expendable. The very group that the mainstream party groomed, paid, and empowered (disproportionately the white working class and struggling lower middle class) have started to figure out that people like Mitt Romney—who dedicated his entire professional career to stripping wealth from them and giving it to the investor class—don't really have their interests at heart. It is a measure of the panicked incompetence of the Republicans that Romney, with his dressage horses and his car elevators and his offshore tax shelters, is an almost comically poorly-chosen messenger for the "Trump is a phony" message.
Whether or not they fully understand that they were robbed by Republican clients and policies, by Goldman Sachs and the subprime lenders and the agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, special treatment for hedge fund managers, and opposition to a living wage, the white working-class Trumpians have started to understand that they were robbed; and in spite of an enormous amount of Republican misdirection about how the financial collapse was really due not to free-market deregulation but to those evil Democrats' insistence that unqualified black and Hispanic people have access to mortgage markets, they're not really buying even this desperate appeal to nonsense.
Because they have more emotionally satisfying nonsense now. Trump is not asking his followers to be better people. He's not asking them to sacrifice for their country or do the right thing. He's not asking them to accept the infallible invisible hand. Quite the opposite. He's telling them that they can have a government that is not their enemy, not the enemy of working class and middle class whites, a government that does not want to steal from them and give their labor to the rich—and they can have their bullying racism and xenophobia and resentment. They can have healthcare—after some fashion—and their guns! Foodstamps and homophobia! When Trump talks about torture, when he talks about his willingness to commit war crimes, he doesn't have to solemnly dress this up in the garb of national security or keeping Americans safe; he can propose it just for the fun of it. Republicans who defended Bush Justice Department lawyer John Yoo's claim that, if he felt it necessary, the President could order that a child's testicles be crushed might well want to think about this, and how we got here.
Trump doesn't care, his supporters note, about "political correctness"—he can say any damn thing he likes. As with Sarah Palin, they are happy when he makes no historical or political sense: he's sticking it to the élites! Those damn intellectuals sipping their lattes and worried about facts and history and reality and such, looking down on us—hell with them! Much to the alarm of the GOP and its leaders, "them" is them as much as it is Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi. Trump is the Republican id unleashed, triumphantly regnant over the dry neoliberal Republican superego. He is a liberator of the passions. Who cares about his three wives or four bankruptcies?
Republican elites can complain about this as much as they like. The National Review columnists who call Trump a Democrat (as they understand Democrats) are right to dismiss his conservative credentials, but they don't understand that that's not the point. The Tea Party radicals aren't choosing Trump because they think he's a conservative. They're choosing him because they've finally realized that the mainstream Republican Party is their enemy, and has been using them and laughing through its sleeve at them for years. As one Trump supporter put it, "We know who Donald Trump is, and we're going to use Donald Trump to either take over the G.O.P. or blow it up."
The Party élites are now in the uncomfortable position of having to denounce Trump's racism, understanding that they may have to give up the populist utility that racism has had for them over the years. Speaker Paul Ryan solemnly intones "This party does not prey on people's prejudices." It doesn't? After Nixon's "Southern strategy," after Reagan kicked off his 1980 campaign with a speech about "state's rights" at the Neshoba County fairgrounds in Mississippi, after "welfare queens" and Willie Horton and sabotaging public education and privatizing the prison system, after redistricting designed to isolate and marginalize the political power of minority groups, after equating Black Lives Matter with cop killers and standing squarely against voting rights and immigrants' rights and gay civil rights and same-sex marriage... well, Ryan's claim rings more than a bit hollow.
While Ryan and the Republicans need the people whose prejudices they have been preying on for decades, they can't have them anymore. Donald J. Trump has them.
And the old guard recognizes Trump for what he is: the biggest threat to their cultural and political hegemony that has come along in quite some time. Trump is harnessing the forces of fear and bigotry, but only in the service of himself. This may well blow up in his face, but the élites know that he's going to drag them down with him—because, in being entirely un-subtle about what he's doing, he's making painfully clear how much they've relied on the subtle manipulation of the masses and how much they've used those masses. Trump, for all the danger he represents, is exposing certain highly unpleasant truths. It's weird to say it, but in a sense this is a clarifying and salutary development: we are seeing all the hidden wires in the magician's act. But it is also tremendously destructive. The danger is not so much that Trump will ride this con to power—he won't, in all likelihood. The danger is that social trust, consensus, and a general sense of the decency of the process will be unrecoverable for some time. We may be entering a period of angry political chaos. Strike that; we're already in one.
And the next Trump to come along, whoever he may be, will find the ground prepared for him. He may be more successful than this one.
It doesn't have to be like this. It is barely possible that the Republicans can save themselves, and undo some of the damage they've done. Maybe a better, stronger Republican Party will emerge from the ashes of the Trump debacle, a party that has truly disavowed its pragmatic appeals to prejudice, a party that has shed its white supremacist and religious fundamentalist auxiliaries and left them to form their own fringe parties. But in order to do this, in order to survive without the constituencies that have now rejected the Republicans, the party will, at its core, have to stand for something other than the rich and powerful against the poor and powerless. It can still respect market forces. It can still be on guard against government overreach. But it will have to accept that labor has rights, dignity, and claims, and it will have to work for true, broad-based, sustainable, and fairly-distributed economic prosperity. It will have to become something other than what it is now.
Such a party might, one day, once again win elections. The Party as presently constituted cannot, and will not. It will have at least four years to think about that.