Apparently the Republican establishment is panicking about the irresistible rise of Donald Trump. I’m not sure who qualifies to be a member of the Republican establishment, but I imagine they’re mainly the kind of rich people who use politics to fix things so they can get even richer.
For decades, popular support for their party has been waning. The Democrats haven’t been great at looking out for the interests of ordinary people, but the Republicans have made it their business to be considerably worse. Their approach to solving the popularity gap has included spreading misinformation through fake news stations and advertising agencies masquerading as think tanks, and using the Supreme Court to remove restrictions on campaign spending. As local and state legislators, they’ve gerrymandered voting districts and passed laws to make it harder for poor people to vote.
The party’s identity crisis goes back a long way. During the Nixon years they courted disaffected southern Democrats unhappy about Civil Rights legislation. Reagan stirred up evangelical groups with anxieties about the traditional family, harnessing their hostility to gays and abortion providers. The party was meanwhile hitching a ride on concerns that the constitutional right to buy lethal weapons was being restricted. More recently, to appease donors from the fossil fuel industry, they added climate-change denial to their list of irrational prejudices. And since 9/11 they’ve stoked fears of Islamist terrorism. It was beginning to look as if only a pro-life, anti-gay, bible-believing, gun-toting, minority-vote-suppressing, war-mongering science-sceptic could survive a Republican primary.
There’s no reason to think, by the way, that the party’s movers and shakers have ever believed in any of this. Beliefs, like taxes, are for little people.
Naturally, all this ideology, accumulated over half a century, brought some ugly baggage with it, baggage that was generally tucked out of sight when TV cameras were rolling. Candidates needed to develop a repertoire of dog-whistles to signal to their base, while remaining acceptable to more squeamish voters, the kind who don’t object to a bit of upward redistribution of wealth but don’t think of themselves as bigots.
Now Donald Trump has set about emptying that baggage all over the stage. Dog-whistling is suddenly a redundant art.
The reason Trump makes the others look like stiffs is because they’ve spent years schooling themselves in the received ideologies, which turn out not to matter half as much as the party establishment thought they did. It’s obvious that Trump himself is only casually attached to any of them. Perhaps he carries a concealed weapon in Manhattan, as he says he does – who knows? His knowledge of the Constitution is so shaky that he refers without embarrassment to George W Bush’s
‘reign’. He’s profoundly unconvincing as a champion of family values and, when it comes to Bible-talk, is laughably inept.
And it seems that his supporters don’t mind, because for them, it turns out, it isn’t the ideologies that matter, it’s the feelings that fuel the ideologies – fear, resentment, humiliation, the experience of being left behind by an economy that works for some but leaves too many struggling, the sense that life hurts and someone must be to blame.