Barring an event as equally unfathomable, Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States in 2016. Is that strange or what? And yet, with a little bit of Monday morning quarterbacking, we should not be surprised at all by the rise of Trump. (Especially when you consider that Trump’s chief establishment rival, Ted Cruz has a personality as warm as a cadaver buried in a snow-bank.)
The strategy and tactics of the Republican Party have been preparing the way for the coming of Trump for decades. And now that Judgment Day is here, it is to be determined if Trump is the salvation or the devastation of the Grand Old Party. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican presidential nominee and Trump may be the last one. Trump has gone from joke to juggernaut, but he did not instigate the weakening of the Republican establishment that allowed this to happen. He is rather the beneficiary of a dubious Republican strategy employed since the time of Ronald Reagan.
Much like global warming, the evolving changes brought on by the actions (or lack thereof) of the Republican Party over the past few decades has triggered a momentum of destructive change that may now have become irreversible.
Since the time of Reagan, Republicans have campaigned on the premise that the mortal enemy of America is its own government. Ronald Reagan argued, “The government is not the solution, it is the problem.” The mantra of the Republican Party has been that government, any government, is bad – even evil – and any hint at the expansion of government is a sinister conspiracy against the very concept of freedom that is to be resisted as if it were a plague released on the people. (It should be noted that during the Reagan era the government doubled in size and the national debt tripled.)
This Republican single-minded, dogmatic focus on the evils of government ignores the history of Americans attitude toward their government. For the first 200 years of the Republic, Americans were deeply suspicious of government, but they accepted its necessity. The issue debated was not how to destroy government, but how to make it more responsive to the needs of the people. The focus and tone of the debate began to shift to a pure anti-government stance when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was taken as a validation of the effectiveness of an anti-government election strategy; but it can and has gone too far. Donald Trump is the result of the modern Republican Party leaders overplaying their anti-government stance with over-heated rhetoric and under delivered promises.
Building the Base
The leaders of the Republican Party believed that a relentless use of an anti-government stratagem would open a clear path to winning and power; and they were right. Over the past 35 years the anti-government philosophies of the Republican Party has attracted a large, loyal and cohesive “base” of followers and believers. This “base” of the Party accepted the Republican mindset of animosity toward government in much the same way that devout Catholics accept the infallibility of the Pope.
Appealing to the natural skepticism that Americans have toward government has proved to be an effective strategy for the Republican Party. After all, the majority of state governors are Republican; Republicans have their largest majority in Congress since 1928 and they have control of the Senate. The problem is that a majority of those voters who identify themselves as Republicans have become frustrated by the Republican establishment’s failure to deliver on their promises of a smaller, less intrusive federal government. With the Republicans in charge, nothing has changed; indeed, the government has become more intrusive, has increased in size and the national debt has burgeoned.
Revolt of the Base
The failure of elected Republicans to deliver on promises of smaller, less intrusive government has fertilized frustration among the Party base; triggering such movements as the “Tea Party” and other groups expressing their exasperation with the Republican establishment. This revolt of the base has led to an unraveling of the Republican Party from within. Even beyond its base of supporters, the Republican Party establishment has generally alienated the mass of voters who lean Republican, while specifically offending minority groups. As a result, the Republican Party has generally come to be viewed as both negative and duplicitous. The Party is seen as wanting to “take back and go back,” rather than move forward. The Republican Party is now viewed as more obstructionist than constructionist and this is compounded by often seeming to be two-faced.
The Republican establishment denounces “crony capitalism,” but at the same time caters to (and is funded by) the wealthy and narrow business interests. For the past eight years, Republicans in Congress have created an environment of political dysfunction by opposing rather than proposing and then attempt to win elections by railing against this paralysis of government. Arguing that government is evil, the Republicans emasculate the capacity of the government to perform and then disparage the government as inept, bungling and corrupt. The Republican establishment calls for a broad-based Party, while seeking to limit voting rights and denigrating virtually every minority in the country. And at the same time, failing to recognize that the very “base” of the Party that they depend upon for their power is becoming a dissatisfied minority.
The Coming of Trump
Along comes Trump. Trump’s appeal is to those of the Republican base who have become disillusioned and frustrated by the establishment’s failure to live-up to their own stated anti-government principles. Millions of Republican voters have sent a clear message to the Party establishment that, “we are mad as hell and won’t take this anymore.” It is not that these Republicans have lost faith in their beliefs, but that they have lost faith in the beliefs of the Republican establishment and the candidates the Party puts forward.
Revealing is the Republican establishment’s reaction to the presumed nomination of Trump as the Party’s standard-bearer in the presidential election. The general repudiation of Trump clearly shows that the Republican establishment is more interested in the power of the Party, than in the power of the people in the Party. In the end, the exposure of the establishment’s hypocrisy of putting power over principle could do more long term damage to the Republican Party than Trump ever could.