The Republicans started their own fire. But Donald Trump is a whole new kind of arsonist and the party's now burning out of control

There are two competing descriptions of what's going on in the Republican Party right now. One, (which appeals to Donald Trump's modus operandi in business) is a "hostile takeover" of the Grand Old Party. The other, that Trump is the party's own Frankenstein's monster and they are reaping what they have sowed.

There is, as is often the case, truth in both. The Republicans did not want this revolution from this man and they certainly didn't want it months from a general election. Trump is a parasite on the party and his voting base, while not big enough to win that election in November, is looking big enough to seriously damage the party. He is breaking the party's rules and alienating those who have led it.

But I find more to like in the second version of events.

The Republicans have toyed with fire for decades. Arguably US politics has a long tradition of corruption and the Democrats are far from immune. But since the southern strategy emerged in the 1960s under Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater (using racism to wedge southern Democrats away from their political roots), it has used the more divisive tactics.

The Reagan revolution dismantled a generation or two of policies aimed at bolstering and protecting the middle class, driving inequality and wealth to the wealthiest in the name of opportunity.

Then, George W. Bush used fear of the other to prosecute his "war on terror".

I'm not in any way saying that the Democrat leaders amidst this were without sin, but the Republicans always pushed the envelope.

More recently came the mad Birther movement and the anger of the Tea Party, with its willingness to undermine, even close, the entire machine of government to make a point. Both hid fear of change (which is understandable) and racism (which is not) near to their heart. Politics as "the art of compromise" was abandoned.

These were fires lit at the door of democracy, used to scare people away from their opponents. They were cynically fanned in the hope that it would ensure that democracy -- and the government that operated within it -- remained small. The political ideology giving it fuel was simply small government beliefs in new drag.

What the Republicans didn't appreciate is that their party too lived in the house of democracy, and that fires once lit can be impossible to control.

Those small fires set by the Republicans are now burning out of the party's control, and the "establishment" are forced to play firefighter, trying hose down the flames now threatening to engulf their party.

Donald Trump was once a chosen fire-starter, as the GOP egged on his efforts on the Birther front, questioning Barack Obama's citizenship. Instead of declaring it the "moon landing" nonsense that it is, they hoped to let it burn up the Obama presidency.

But Trump is an arsonist extraordinaire; he's off the leash and beyond the reach of the party he's trying to lead. They have become spectators, because Trump is not looking to lead a movement or follow a coherent set of ideas. Their rules and ambitions are not his.

Trump is, in the worst sense, his own man. He does not believe in anything, as his many switches of position have showed. His goal is entirely individual, his campaign a massive ego trip. Look at his obsession with the size of his hands; it's all about him.

And so we have a position where the immediate past Republican nominee for president is calling the presumptive nominee a "fraud" and urging his party members to vote for anyone but Trump.

At the risk of extending the metaphor to breaking point, Romney has, it seems, been sent out to burn the village to save the village. Who knows what will remain, but the Republican leadership are doing all they can to ensure it won't be a village of Trump towers.

As conservative commentator David Frum has pointed out, in 1964 libertarian Barry Goldwater even got "something like an endorsement" out of the great moderate Dwight Eisenhower, though Eisenhower was no fan. So this is unprecedented.

I can only hope precedent reasserts itself soon, however late in this campaign. For months I've kept waiting for the norm to re-emerge, for the system to steady its own boat, for the wisdom of the crowd to triumph. Sadly, it seems the Republican's fire has consumed too much common sense in that party. Perhaps a contested convention can save some charred remains, but surely the Republican's chances of actually winning this year are beyond saving.

What gives me most hope is that, of course, the Republican Party is not the American people. I still assume that the maths and maps of US politics and the decency and wisdom of middle America will kick in. They will hose this down. Once the vote extends beyond the angry white people inside the GOP, you'd assume that the Latino, Black, young and women's vote would rally against Trump.

 It will need to rally around someone who is far from squeaky clean herself and knows something of political fire-starting. But Clinton also has a sense of the limits, of how to survive in the fire without being consumed by it. And right now she must be counting her lucky stars and thinking, 'surely I can't lose it from here'. 

 

Comments (6)

by Fentex on March 05, 2016
Fentex

I think Trump is merely the Republican option (where Sanders is the Democrat) for the protest vote which is very strong in the world for the same reasons the occupy movement had it's moment.

In general, and especially since witnessing the banking fraud created Great Recession for which no one was punished, many things including rising inequality are driving a separate wedge from those of right / left and cultural politics between the populace and the establishment.

Trump is doing better than Sanders because the Republicans do not produce (nor want for fear they would be uncontrollable) leaders while Hillary's perseverance has been very dogged (and is now a liability to her - to the disenchanted youth of the now biggest generation in U.S politics - the Millennials - she's been a constant presence their entire lives and regardless of what she does is cemented as a figure of the establishment).

Trump is a clown who's only asset is resentment of every other Republican. I do not believe the U.S as a whole is stupid enough to elect him. If he is the Republican nominee I believe Hilly will eviscerate him at the polls.

by barry on March 05, 2016
barry

You can only rely on dog whistles so long before the audience demands the real thing.  Trump is openly saying the things that the republicans have been hinting at for years to appeal to the tea party. 

I just hope that the republican domination by the tea party does not extend to the populace as a whole.

It is interesting that Trump and American politics seem amusing to us as certain NZ politicians seem amusing to commentators in America. :)

by Wayne Mapp on March 05, 2016
Wayne Mapp

I think it is premature to write off Trump as the next President. His appeal to middle America is much broader than is generally understood in New Zealand.

We tend to know and visit the liberal West Coast or the North East, but there is another America in between the two coasts. When you look at the size of the Republican turnout in the primaries, when you look at the angst of many Americans with the political system, then you can see why he has appeal.

In a general election his support will not just be confined to angry white working class men, in fact it is already obvious the composition of the crowds at his events is broader than that. Trump is also smart enough to know when he needs to moderate his message, which is already happening.

Coupled with the ambivalence of many Americans to Clinton, I say it is way too early to call this election. There will be the debates, there will be the message massaging, there will be a rallying of both parties around their respective candidate.

I suspect that in the end the result will turn on whether Americans will take the safe choice and go with Clinton, or whether they will take a risk of the unknown and go with Trump. Staying safe implies an acceptance, albeit reluctant, that things in the US are basically good enough. And the big unknown is whether Americans actually believe that.

by Andrew Geddis on March 06, 2016
Andrew Geddis

@Wayne,

We tend to know and visit the liberal West Coast or the North East, but there is another America in between the two coasts.

True that. But there aren't enough Electoral College votes in the places between the two coasts to win the presidency. Take a look at this map from the 2012 presidential contest and see.

Coupled with the ambivalence of many Americans to Clinton, I say it is way too early to call this election.

Maybe so. But let's note that the head-to-head polls between Clinton and Trump are pretty much all in her favour, while Trump's favourable/unfavourable numbers are way worse than Clinton's.

by Stewart Hawkins on March 07, 2016
Stewart Hawkins

I agree with Andrew though I would say that not only will Clinton beat Trump she would trounce any of the weak field of Republicans. The GOP needs to rid itself of the mad Christian anti abortionists and press the small government line - declaring religious and personal social matters not part of their political position. OK it won't happen but another 8 years of "Dimocratic" rule might make them think it over...

by DeepRed on March 29, 2016
DeepRed

Wayne Mapp: I look at the rise of Trump and Sanders as a symptom of an angry and confused US middle-class-turned-precariat that's been left behind by lots of different factors. It seems to be a very faint echo of when the Weimar Republic collapsed under the weight of the Great Depression and weak leadership, with Communist and Fascist movements only too happy to fill the void. Personally, Trump is a buffoon at best and dangerous at worst, though in fairness he's not bats*** insane like Ted Cruz, who wants to find out "if sand can glow in the dark".

Further reading below:

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/mar/24/white-working-class-issu...

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/02/15/we-now-join-the-us-clas...

http://www.newgeography.com/content/005143-trump-sanders-and-precariat

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