It is now 24 days before the 2016 election, and the Democrats seem very likely to have a solid victory, retaining the Presidency and gaining a number of House and Senate seats. Their popular vote advantage is expected to be around six percentage points, according to current polling aggregates… but there are now hints and rumors and suspicions which suggest a much broader and more lopsided victory than that could be coming. Trump’s support is continuing to erode, and in early voting, Republican enthusiasm seems low.
[Post-election update: yeah, I look like an idiot now. But I think most of what I wrote below remains valid.]
If that does happen, it’s traditional for the punditry, and the parties themselves, to do a post-mortem to try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. I figure I’ll just do it ahead of time.
So, what is to blame for the crushing defeat that the Republican Party just experienced (hypothetically) in the 2016 election?
When phrased that way, the question needs no in-depth analysis at all, as the trouble is as obvious as can be, and can be stated in a single word which starts with a T and ends with a rump. Once the orange sociopath was nominated as the party’s presidential candidate, everything that followed was inevitable. All the missteps, all the scandals, and all the October non-surprises were baked in from the start and could never have been prevented. So the real question to ask is how they managed to select such an atrocious nominee. That is what I’m going to analyze.
Previous Republican post-mortems focused on the need to repair their image among minority voters, particularly among Hispanic Americans, a group which contains a lot of people reasonably open to conservative values. The Trump campaign of course did exactly the opposite of this. But this was no fluke or exception — other Republican campaigns also have continued to largely alienate them. The path by which Trump led the party to defeat was already well trod. That path has been known since the time of Richard Nixon as “the Southern Strategy”.
The core difference in values between American liberals and conservatives is about the question of whether to help the less fortunate. Should public money be spent on things like food for the hungry and doctors for the sick, or should we keep hands off and let nature (or capitalism) take its course? How we answer that question arises from a basic attitude which correlates strongly with a whole constellation of partisan issues. This divide in attitude has underpinned the distinction between the parties since at least the time of Herbert Hoover — maybe since Woodrow Wilson. And many still define the difference in those terms today.
But something went wrong, and distorted the basis for who belonged to which party. It became a racial matter. What essentially happened was that once the Civil Rights Movement got underway, the liberal impulse to publicly help the less fortunate got extended to African Americans, who were unfortunate not because of nature or the economy, but because of the prejudice of their fellow citizens. This not only led to liberals and conservatives becoming much more sharply divided than they had been before on issues such as southern segregation and Jim Crow laws, it also led to a fresh look being taken at a number of tacitly racist policies in other areas. One of these was the immigration quota system, which explicitly favored immigrants from Europe over those from elsewhere. That got reformed in 1965, the same year that the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of schools.
From about 1860 to 1960 the political party system in the South was organized in a way that seems backwards from a modern perspective: the Democratic party was the one that stood for segregation, and black voters were Republican (when they were permitted to vote at all). But this had to change once the Democratic party embraced the liberal side of the Civil Rights Movement. Even before then, FDR persuaded many African Americans to vote Democratic, and the administrations of JFK and LBJ cemented that change. The white voters who opposed this were slower to shift in the opposite direction. For a couple of decades, large parts of the Democratic party of the South held values directly antithetical to those of the national party. But for those who really wanted to oppose civil rights for minorities, the change had to be made. This brought the southern party alignment into consistency with the values of the national parties.
But this shift of southern white voters did not happen by itself: it had to be planned and supported by the national Republican party. The effort was launched mainly by the election campaigns of Richard Nixon, and it was then that this was dubbed “the Southern Strategy”. To put it bluntly, Nixon’s team decided that the way to gain votes was to appeal to racists. If the Democrats were the party of civil rights, then the Republicans had to embrace the opposite, and make its appeal directly to those voters who feared and opposed equality for minorities. By doing so, they provided those voters the motivation to leave the Democratic party they had grown up in.
History was clearly moving in favor of civil rights. Overt segregation, once a bright light had been shined on its abuses, became anathema to the mainstream public. And from 1965 forward, those Americans who still harbored racist attitudes saw their old version of America gradually but relentlessly slip away from them; not only were old hierarchies being overturned, but a new wave of immigration began slowly moving America’s demographics from mostly white to multicolored. Some were able to adapt and celebrate the new diverse version of America which was coming into being, and others were not. The trend, again, was toward people accepting multiculturalism, but this movement was visible only on a scale of decades. This was part of a larger trend toward liberal policies becoming the norm; in the time of FDR, a program like Social Security was a rare exception, but now a more (ahem) socialist attitude is completely mainstream. People with liberal attitudes toward social policy were becoming a majority, at the same time that majority status was drifting away from European-Americans. But the old guard, those being left behind by these changes when they could not or would not adapt, became desperately militant adherents to conservatism.
In the time of Ronald Reagan, enough mainstream conservatism remained that the rising multicultural-liberal tide was not a major threat to the Republican party, though even Reagan had to overtly use the Southern Strategy to get such large victories. But every decade since then, their base of natural supporters has gradually dwindled, and thanks to the immigration changes, most of the country’s population growth has been among the minorities that this strategy excludes. The commited conservatives had to take action to shore up their voting population. The supply of people with naturally robust conservative attitudes was slowly dwindling, and the supply of racists was shrinking more rapidly.
What they came up with to maintain the size of their voting base was a campaign of propaganda on a previously unprecedented scale. They looked at what worked best in their favor, and found their answer in the audiences of politicized televangelists and of conservative blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh. They found — as we did, to our horror — that these audiences, when addressed with political rather than spiritual harangues, had a great capacity to believe whatever they were told, even if it was factually untrue. They found that a certain kind of passionate speaker could persuade vast numbers of people to believe and follow demagoguery even when it contradicted the facts accepted by everyone else. They decided they had to build and nurture the audience for such demagoguery — to take it from the fringes to the mainstream.
One of the biggest obstacles to this was the news media, which at the time they began this effort was much more narrow and monolithic than it is today. There were only a few large trusted sources that most Americans got their national news from, and the biggest of these sources — the TV networks — were held to high standards of objectivity by law, and rarely disagreed with one another. So when cable TV and other expansion of the media landscape showed some promise of greater diversity in news sources, they moved hard to deregulate newscasting, repealing such restrictions as the Fairness Doctrine. This produced an environment where viewers could be free to pick and choose which sources to believe, and in the end, which facts to listen to. They then took advantage of this new freedom to create a new major news source designed to compete directly with the trusted established sources, except with a continuous Republican slant. (And note that the slant is indeed Republican, not conservative — it’s usually loyal to the party rather than the philosophy. But thankfully, this loyalty does not extend to Trump.)
They also greatly encouraged the spread of conservative ranters and opinion-mongers throughout all media, from AM radio to hardcover books. Many such figures had their work subsidized by foundations and think-tanks, so it didn’t have to succeed in free-market terms. Ratings and best-seller list rankings could be artificially inflated to increase the impact of these ideologues.
They also increased the reach of propaganda from the pulpit. They offered preachers the lure of political power — and sometimes outright bribes — in exchange for secularizing their message of faith for partisan gain. This bargain is such a pure example of exactly the sort of worldly temptation that Christians are supposed to avoid, that it’s kind of astonishing how successful it was in recruiting pastors in thousands of churches. (The end result, of course, was to diminish the credibility of those preachers and their churches, and eventually that of religion itself, with the result that atheism experienced dramatic growth in America, to a degree unprecedented before this extreme politicization of the pulpit began.)
Thanks largely to the religious side of the campaign, the Southern Strategy became less southern. As the population of Old South racists dwindled, the main new recruiting ground for persuadable conservative voters shifted from the Dixie states to the rural midwest. For a while, this new audience was more than enough to offset the downward trends elsewhere. (Eventually this was not enough, and they had to attempt a revival of Jim Crow-style vote suppression against minorities. But that comes later.)
The great propaganda campaign succeeded tremendously for a time. The result was a vast pool of voters who would not only believe and follow demagogues, but who were trained to ignore the facts. Distrust of facts reported by the mainstream news media was a constant thread throughout the conservative propaganda sphere, right alongside distrust of the federal government. And one effect of this development was that the trend toward racism gradually expiring from American discourse was slowed, as the people who might be moved away from it by an improving mainstream zeitgeist now became insulated from any challenges by outside viewpoints. Suspicion of dark-skinned immigrants, and voting the interests of the white race, were steady undercurrents in the propaganda message.
The rising power of this new propaganda-led constituency was demonstrated in the nineties, when huge numbers of people were persuaded to believe all sorts of negative rumors and fabrications about the Clintons, which painted Hillary as practically a mafia boss, and Bill even worse. This campaign was what Hillary described at the time as “a vast right-wing conspiracy”.
As their influence increased, the tail began wagging the dog, and the propagandists reached a point where they could enforce conservative orthodoxy among the politicians they supported, punishing those who had independent ideas or who compromised too often with Democrats. Hence their current nonsupport of Trump: having grown accustomed to having power over most conservative politicians, they balked at Trump’s uncontrollability.
The Republican propagandocracy reached its apotheosis in 2003, when George W. Bush convinced countless Americans of the completely nonsensical belief that as a response to the September 11 terrorist attack, we had to invade a country which had nothing to do with that attack. But the disastrous outcome of that invasion, followed by the later errors of the Bush administration (the handling of Hurricane Katrina, the mortgage crash, and so on) soured a great many people who up until that time had been loyal followers and dependable voters. For many, it became impossible to deny that they’d been had — that the people they’d been following had promised them a glorious future and delivered nothing but misery.
It was inevitable that this would eventually happen. Once you’ve got people following you because of propaganda, it starts to seem superfluous to actually deliver any benefits to them. The Republican party, increasingly divorced from accountability to self-interested voters, gradually became more and more of a kleptocracy, using power mainly for lining the pockets of their wealthy cronies, mainly with money that had previously gone to employees. Their policy in practice became one of suppressing the wages of the very people they were claiming to represent. You can’t keep doing that to people indefinitely without them catching on that they’re being hustled.
So now the Republican establishment has lost the trust of its followers. But there is still a vast voting base of people whose outlook on life had been shaped by propaganda, and who are still well trained to ignore the facts. Too many conservative voters are still ripe to believe and follow demagoguery, since that’s a skill that many of them have been practicing for years and years. All they needed was someone who could do a better job at it than the current discredited establishment — someone whose appeal was not (yet) tainted by betrayal and failure, and whose promises were still plausibly believable.
Donald Trump beat the establishment demagogues at their own game, and stole their followers right out from under them. Since their established propaganda claims were now tainted, and could not easily be shifted in a new direction, it wasn’t difficult. He used a combination of techniques to do it — some being childishly crude, others perhaps much more brilliant than they might appear at first glance. (Trump may be very impulsive, but he is also quite sharp.)
First, he staked a direct claim to the racist vote, which having been nurtured by propagandists all this time, particularly in response to Barack Obama, remains a quite large part of the electorate. The fact that Trump launched his campaign with slurs against Mexican immigrants was no off-the-cuff accident: it was planned from the beginning. Since other Republicans using the Southern Strategy have long been required to mask overt racism, and use only “dog whistle” messages which appeal to racists without coming right out with any admission that they are prejudiced, Trump’s overt position immediately put him solidly ahead of his more wishy-washy competitors. Racist voters loved him because, as they usually chose to phrase it, “he speaks his mind”.
Second, he appealed directly to the least intelligent and least educated voters by always speaking in very simple plain obvious terms. He uses a very small vocabulary, and he makes boasts and promises which seem absurd in their crudity to the more genteel members of the audience. When people are primed for demagoguery, simple statements such as “I am very smart” or “Only I can fix this” can have a substantial persuasive effect, despite the lack of any evidence for their veracity.
Third, he easily distanced himself from the Republican establishment by disagreeing with them across a range of issues where the establishment talking points had become unpopular — for instance, by sharply criticizing the Bush administration’s Iraq war. (I kind of wish he had distanced himself from them on environmental matters — that might have helped him, and would certainly have helped broaden future debate on those issues once Trump was gone.)
Fourth, after criticizing both parties, he was free to assert that everything done by everyone but him is going badly. He claimed repeatedly, on every single issue, that the status quo is a terrible disaster, even when mere facts say that things are going well. This allowed him to stoke a great amount of fear, which helped keep voters locked into a state of receptivity to demagoguery.
Fifth, he acknowledged that mainstream politicians are corrupted by special interest campaign contributions, and demonstrated his comparative incorruptibility by spending only his own money (though not much of it) during the early and middle parts of the primary campaign.
And sixth, most importantly, he found a way to promise working-class voters exactly what the establishment conservative politicians had repeatedly shown they could not deliver: better wages and prosperous employment. He accomplished this with two issues: illegal immigration and international trade. He excoriated trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP, which other Republicans had supported, and promised that by putting a stop to these pipelines for job offshoring, and by deporting a large number of low-wage-earning illegal immigrants, he would produce an economic climate in which low skilled workers would be able to command higher wages again. The establishment politicians had no answer to this, and scarcely seemed to even comprehend how powerful the appeal of this was for the working class electorate — a group which had now been economically ignored for decades by both parties, and which I would say probably contains the majority of the demagogue-ready voters described above.
The Democratic party is far from blameless in this. If they had stuck to their roots and defended the economic interests of blue-collar workers, instead of investing their whole future in the support of white-collar suburban interests… if they still supported unions instead of offshoring, for instance… then the propagandocracy would never have had such a strong effect. But since the Democrats blatantly failed to offer blue-collar working people a clearly better deal in economic terms than the Republicans were offering, there was nothing to stop or even slow down the rise of demagoguery.
(Why did the Democrats do this? I suspect that a big part of the reason is that familiar bugaboo, race. White-collar voters were often enthusiastic for multiculturalism and diversity, while blue-collar ones were not. When seeing African American opportunity rise and feeling their own level of prosperity sink, white voters of lesser education and employability often saw pro-white voting as a simple matter of self-interest, and became alienated by pro-diversity liberalism. Also, a similar dynamic occured with women’s issues: while among suburbanites both sexes might happily embrace feminism, in working-class communities it was a painful subject, seen as a divisive distraction. Gay rights were another sore point of the same kind, though I think that one is working out okay now. Because of these and similar issues, blue-collar people became difficult for Democratic politicians to persuade, and as a result a great many Democrats gradually stopped trying, finding that their campaign assets gave a greater return on investment elsewhere. The end result of this was a generation of otherwise liberal lawmakers who were happy to go along with offshoring jobs and lowering blue-collar wages, which then left the victims of offshoring with no financial incentive to counter the appeal of conservatism.)
To sum up: Trump won the nomination, despite his obvious unfitness for office and the obvious falsehood of his empty promises, for three reasons: because the Republican establishment had been inculcating a large swath of voters with willingness to follow demagoguery and ignore facts, because that same establishment then blatantly betrayed the trust of those voters by strip-mining their incomes, and finally because for decades their covert message to those voters has been to vote for the interests of their race, rather than their class.
It’s been said many times before by others, but I’ll say it again: the rise of Trump is entirely something that the Republican party did to itself. A white nationalist demagogue is exactly who they’ve been training core conservatives to vote for, despite such a candidate being the worst possible choice to win over anyone else.
I’m sure that some of the brains in the GOP will recognize that this is all true, and call for a shift away from racism and toward multiculturalism, since the country has now become irreversibly diverse. And after Trump’s failure, they may finally have a way to do that: by associating racism and white identity politics with the name of Trump, they may finally be able to train their own rank and file to steer in a healthier direction. But I think the odds of any significant change in the short term are dubious. Unless they find a new leader of Reagan-like charisma who can articulate an anti-Trumpian conservative vision, they’ll have a very hard time reversing the momentum they’ve built up. I suspect it will be difficult to change course even after they are well past the point where it is no longer possible for a Southern Strategy approach to ever win a national majority anymore, as long as there are areas of the country where the strategy still works for local or statewide races, or where the party remains visibly invested in voter suppression. While that condition remains true, the party as a whole will still tend to alienate minority voters and attract racist ones even after the majority of its candidates have made good-faith efforts to leave white identity politics behind.
It could be that the only escape is to form a new conservative party and leave the racists with the old one. What a tragic and ironic end that would be for the party of Lincoln. This would render both conservative parties incapable of winning nationally during the transition period. I do hope it doesn’t come to this — that the GOP can correct its course, clean its own house, and recover its place as a party which represents conservative Americans, rather than exploits them. But that seems a long way off: at this time I can’t think of a single politician who’s articulating any way to do that.
Finally, I will note that the last thing I want to see is a triumphant Democratic party with no opposition. This would essentially give it no accountability, and with Washington already full of kleptocrats, the likely end result would be thorough corruption. We need a party system in which victory in elections is gained by competing to best represent the voters. But on the other hand, now that I think about it, if the GOP dies, then a schism among Democrats rather than among Republicans could be a workable path forward, and such a split would naturally occur as soon as a lopsided party started to fail people.
Either way, whether one party splits or the other one does, or the GOP reforms itself in place, maybe we’ll finally be able to arrive at a party system which is independent of race.