Now that the first Republican debate is more than a week behind us, we should pause for a moment’s reflection on what we’ve learned about the party, its candidates and its electorate. If taken seriously, this question suggests others about the state of our national political media. None of the answers are very edifying, much less comforting.
Without doubt, the most significant short- to medium-term event of the weeks leading up to the debate was the sudden surge of Donald Trump in the national polls. (The most important long-term development was probably Jeb Bush’s accumulation of more than $100 million in campaign funds, most of which went to the pro-Bush super PAC Right to Rise.) Having entered the race in mid-June with a speech in which he implied that the Mexican government was targeting our Southern border with wave-upon-wave of “rapists” and other miscreants, Trump stayed the course with a luxurious blast of invective, a bloom of rhetorical fisticuffs that suggested a forensic version of Charles Sumner’s 1856 caning on the floor of the Senate. Rick Perry wears glasses “so people will think he’s smart. And it just doesn’t work!” Jeb Bush is “weak,” Lindsey Graham “a lightweight.” Hillary Clinton would be “a terrible president,” obviously, because she had already been “the worst secretary of state ever.” John Calhoun, whose strident defense of slavery in Texas helped torpedo President Tyler’s 1844 annexation treaty, surely heaved a spectral sigh of relief.
Sen. John McCain, erstwhile guest in a North Vietnamese prison camp for five years — no continental breakfast, but torture served daily for free — fell short of Trump’s criteria for war hero-dom because “I like people who don’t get captured.” Everyone agreed a crescendo of some sort was reached on the morning after the debate, when Trump, having tangled the night before with moderator (and Fox News anchor) Megyn Kelly, seemed to suggest that her “silly questions” were prompted by menstrual cramps.
Two facts about all this deserve special notice. The first is that the tenor of Trump’s rhetoric has been directly related to the trend in his poll numbers — the wilder and harsher the former, the higher he has climbed in the latter. The second is the desperate (and largely futile) struggle of our political media to make some sense of the first fact. Many declined to believe, prior to his June speech, that he would actually run. This may well have been a prudent skepticism, given Trump’s history of quadrennial flirtations with presidential politics. But coverage of his campaign since June has fallen into a predictable pattern: It mainly consists of an incredulous commentator asking “Will this finally be the end of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate? — where this refers Trump’s most recent rhetorical excess.
Many insiders were sure that Trump would be widely disavowed after charging that undocumented Hispanics, even the ones who aren’t rapists, are “bad. They’re really bad.” When this didn’t do Trump in, just as many, maybe more, were certain he would be cashiered after his disparagement of McCain. It didn’t work out that way, and Trump went into the first debate leading the national polls among Republicans. Then came his gynecological speculations about Kelly, and the political media were steadfast in their conviction that now, at last, he had crossed a red line that no red state partisan could accept. It was perfectly OK for him to carry the torch for birtherism, to vilify an entire ethnicity, to impugn the reputation of a decorated veteran — but now he had insulted Megyn Kelly of Fox News! He was done, washed up, toast, and the sober pundits whose eternal vigilance safeguards our liberty could finally turn their attention to “serious” candidates such as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee.
As I write this, the most recent post-debate polling shows Trump on top with a 10-point lead over his nearest rival.
When you repeatedly get something wrong, you need an explanation — an account of your error that gets you back on track by identifying its source. (It goes without saying that the preferred account attributes the error to something other than ignorance on your part.) In our present case, that explanation is the meme, repeated ad taedium if not ad nauseam, that the GOP base likes Trump because he seems as angry as it is. His pugnacious manner, his willingness to insult opponents — or just anyone who disagrees with him — his brusque tone and dismissive gestures: All these things, we’re told, are like catnip to the Republican faithful. Mostly older and white and male, and wholly pissed-off, these folks are tired of namby-pamby politicians who whine about “bipartisan solutions” and want to find ways to “work with the other side.” They want someone who calls ‘em as he sees ‘em, and who sees, as they do, that “the other side” largely consists of fools, traitors and knaves. Trump, it turns out, is their tribune.
As explanations go, this one isn’t completely off-track. It does get one (very important) thing right: the GOP base is mad as hell. But as a theory of Republican politics, it’s sort of like attempts to attribute the Napoleonic Wars to Bonaparte’s shame over his small stature. There has to be something more than anger at work in the GOP, because anger alone doesn’t explain the distinctive shape of its obsessions. The real question is this: What is it angry about?
It’s Not Personal, It’s — Well, OK, It’s Personal
Why are the political media so uninterested in looking behind the GOP’s anger? One thing the Trumpapolooza has exposed is the depth of the media’s allergy to the notion that what people believe — what they think — is at least as relevant to their political behavior as how they feel.
This reluctance has several sources. One is genuine loyalty to the canons of journalistic objectivity, coupled with the dubious premise that it is easier to remain objective when describing emotions than when exploring thoughts. Several notches below this on the nobility scale, especially where the non-print media are concerned, is the need for narratives and pictures that create drama. For the average talk-radio producer or cable news president, this is more likely to mean people engaged in yelling at each other than in carefully dissecting an idea. “Come, let us reason together” may have worked well for Plato, but he didn’t have to justify the latest Arbitron numbers to his shareholders.
This relentless drive to refigure the political as the personal means (among many other things) that Donald Trump is, in a sense, the perfect candidate for our political media. He is the culmination of the effort to divorce politics from thought, to depict it as simply a moment of neurotic display. Indeed, it is not hard to imagine that Trump really has no political ideas at all, outside of the conviction, common among the exploiting class, that government should always conduct itself in such a way as to maximize the value of his assets. Trump’s campaign is the latest episode in a life devoted to an endless exhibitionism: it’s solipsism as prurience. It’s essential for the exhibition to occur in progressively larger theatres — hence his interest in the presidency — as this demonstrates that no setting in the past was adequate to his amplitude. He is electric with appetite, a hissing, popping field of arcing ambition. His almost painfully obvious need for attention and approval would be poignant if it were not so raw with belligerence and aggression. In his brittle narcissism, he suggests nothing so much as a demonic version of Ted Baxter, the preening egoist of the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, but touched up with the sneering, scheming face of a particularly louche and sordid version of American capitalism: Jason Compson with a comb-over.
This symbiosis of man and media is perfectly captured in the one thing the latter is prepared to demand from him: an apology. Coverage of Trump has assumed an almost ceremonial quality, in which he emits an insult and the media then pelt him with questions about whether he will “apologize.” On the Aug. 9 edition of “Meet the Press,” Chuck Todd harried Trump so relentlessly about a Kelly apology that one couldn’t help thinking of the medieval torturers in “Game of Thrones.” It was a revelatory moment in which the media’s sense of itself became crystal-clear: they are the superego of our politics, whose charge is to police the Monsters From The Id that shadow its environs — with no id quite so monstrous as Trump’s. It is a view of politics as acting out, as the expression of infantile emotions, and of journalism as therapy.
The irony is that while Trump’s lack of ideas may make him the perfect foil for our media, it renders him singularly ill-suited as a champion of the GOP base. These people really have ideas. They also have a history of being snookered by the Republican politicians who claim to represent them.
The Tea Party Tragedy
Trump is a self-promoter of genius, so it is no coincidence that he structured his campaign around a series of insults directed at Hispanics, a Vietnam-era POW, the Bush dynasty, and women. Each of these targets represents an actor of special significance in the haunted passion play that is the Tea Party mind.
A political party shapes its electorate as it shapes itself. The GOP as it exists today is the legacy of decisions made 50 years ago in the wake of white Southern reaction to the civil rights movement. To make itself attractive to the millions of voters suddenly unmoored from their century-long allegiance to the Democratic Party, Republicans adopted a darker, harsher version of conservative politics. They would no longer combine a pragmatic acceptance of the modern state with a cautious, realistic assessment of its limitations and delusions. The state engineered by progressive Republicans such as Theodore Roosevelt and New Deal Democrats such as his cousin, Franklin, was not a compromise with history to be carefully managed: it was an abomination to be destroyed. It did not represent a prudent adjustment to the new realities of industrial capitalism, urbanization, and aspirational democracy; it constituted a secular-minded reversal of a traditional order anchored in divinely decreed hierarchy.
Today’s Republican electorate — mostly white and male, and clustered in the small towns of the Midwest and, especially, the South — is the electorate you get when this is the message you preach for half a century. It consists of the ever diminishing numbers of people who continue to find it compelling. But however implausible it may seem to the rest of us, this dark vision of modernity as essentially a kind of heresy is the source of the Tea Party’s rage. It has an idea of what the world should look like, and it is shocked and horrified by the distance of that idea from the reality it detects all around it.
Central to that idea is the concept of dispossession. As I have argued before, the deeply Protestant roots of Southern revanchism posit a world in which rightful authority belongs to white heterosexual males who have, through fortitude and invention, wrested wealth from the detritus of a fallen world. The men of the Tea Party experience modern life as one continuous assault on this birthright. It began with the hated Lincoln’s defeat of the Slave Power, which toppled the racial order of the Old South; today’s hysteria over “illegals”— not to be confused with a rational concern for border security— simply sublimates this most primal of racial insults. Then came socialist-inspired efforts to level wealth and to distribute its hard-won gains to the undeserving and unproductive; then the agitations of “feminism” to remove women from their rightful place in a domestic sphere presided over by men.
But given their contempt for formerly subject groups, the Tea Party finds it difficult to credit them with all the blame for the disaster of modernity. Surely there was an enemy within? You bet there was. For the very elites who should have died defending the pre-modern order— the misty reaches of the “real” America, the kingdom of the Constitution In Exile — instead capitulated to its usurpers, offering them aid and comfort if not outright cooperation. This is where Trump’s assaults on McCain and Bush come in. Each is a synecdoche, the former for a feckless warrior class that delivered the nation its first lost war; the latter for a flaccid cabal of economic royalists too inured to the corruptions of “big government.”
The GOP base is indeed angry, but its anger is not some free-floating tantrum. It is an expression of a particular worldview, one that sees modern life as a deliberate, willful, well-designed effort to divest the virtuous white remnant of its privileges and to shower these on the unworthy and unholy. The Tea Party does not need a time-out; it needs better ideas about modern politics.
The ultimate irony here may well be its fixation on Trump as the proper agent of its cause. For just as it is all too easy to believe that Trump has no (political) ideas of his own, so it is perfectly plausible that he has no real anger either. His bluster and bravado chime with the Tea Party’s view of social life — and hence of leadership — as a battle of wills rather than the search for a mutually acceptable consensus, but his outrageousness itself, its very exaggeration, suggests something false and affected. It speaks of the stage, not the battlefield. For a practiced poseur like Trump, faking outrage is as easy as faking sincerity. If Trump is really angry about anything, it would seem to be the necessity of admitting (now and then) that he is not the only human being on the face of the Earth.
This merely perpetuates the long, sorry story of the GOP’s relations with its fabled “base.” The Tea Party and its predecessors — the John Birchers and the White Citizens Councils, the Goldwaterites, the Reaganites, the Moral Majority, the “Contract With America” crowd and the Christian Coalition — have a history of bestowing their loyalty on politicians, and on a party, whose interest in them is more strategic than principled. Their much-noted contempt for the Republican establishment, their uneasy position within the party itself, reflects not only the fact that as recently as a generation ago many of them were registered Democrats, but also their knowledge that they have been ill-used by their adopted party. Who can forget the images of Ronald Reagan addressing yet another crowd of fervent pro-life activists and announcing, via loudspeaker, that their cause was his cause, if only he could be troubled to join them? Donald Trump, scourge of the elites, hammer of the modern world, is merely the latest avatar in a long line of failed gods.