In a new story at NBC News, Steve Kornacki says there is a new GOP uprising underway leading into the 2018 election. It is a replay or the next stage of similar eruptions in 2010 and 2012 and to a lesser extent in 2014. We know the pattern: establishment Republicans get picked off by increasingly radical or simply crazy ‘grassroots’ conservatives. Many end up losing races to Democrats which a more conventional Republican could have won. But some or most get through.
That pattern allowed Democrats to hold on to the Senate through the first six years of President Obama’s presidency. And it was the GOP’s relative success at preventing primary-driven self-immolations in 2014 and again in 2016 that finally allowed them to claim the majority and hold it. Everyone who has observed US national politics in the last decade knows this pattern.
As Kornacki explains, establishment Republicans have struggled over the Obama years both to tame Tea Partyism and remake the GOP in its image in order to create a party that can gain from rightist energy while not being torn apart by it. Now everything seems to be coming home to roost after the GOP took control of both houses of Congress and elected a President who embodies far-right tea party crazy and yet have proven unable to – at least in formal legislation – do anything with it. As Kornacki writes, “It could be a moment of reckoning for the leaders of Washington’s Republican establishment. For nearly a decade, they have strained to channel the base’s energy into a unifying platform. But it may be that all the base has ever really wanted was for them to be gone — all of them.”
This is all true. But there’s a deeper dynamic here that goes beyond ‘establishment’ and ‘tea party’. Indeed, when the President is Donald Trump and people elected in the Tea Party wave election of 2010 (and successive elections) dominate the congressional GOP, it is a bit hard to say what the GOP ‘establishment’ even is at this point other than the current occupants of the top of the GOP hill trying to fend off radicals calling them sell-outs who can’t deliver for the base.
This is the crux of the issue. Last spring I said the Trump phenomenon was a product of what I termed ‘nonsense debt‘. Republicans had spent years pumping their voters up on increasingly extreme and nonsensical claims and promises. This worked very well for winning elections. But it had also built up a debt that eventually had to be repaid. Concretely, they were making claims and promises that were either factually ridiculous, politically unviable or unacceptable to a broad swath of the voting public. Eventually, you get elected and need to produce. By definition that’s never really possible: both because the claims and promises are nonsensical and unviable but also because a politics based on reclamation, revenge, and impulse is almost impossible to satisfy through normal legislative politics.
A lot of what Trump in 2016 did was hijack an opening created by this build up of nonsense debt. Here’s how I described it in February 2016.
This crystallized for me after the last GOP debate when Trump told Chris Cuomo in a post-debate interview that the IRS might be coming after him because he’s a “strong Christian.” Set aside for the moment how this unchurched libertine was able to rebrand himself as a “strong Christian.” What about the preposterous claim that he is being persecuted by the IRS because he is a devout member of the country’s dominant religion? Republicans simply aren’t in any position to criticize this ludicrous claim because they have spent years telling their voters that this sort of thing happens all the time – to Christians, conservatives, everyone the liberals at the IRS hate. And this, of course, is just one example of hate and nonsense debt coming due. Shift gears now and they’re “RINOs.”
Now we have all of this coming home to roost in a far more explosive way. Republicans were never going to be able to turn back Obamacare and its death panels while Obama was President. That was straight up obvious. Anyone should have understood that. But it really should have been possible for them to do it when they controlled the entire government. They clearly can’t. That same pattern has played out across the whole legislative landscape. But it’s not really a matter of two groups battling each other. It’s the fallout of a conservative movement engaging in massive resistance against the rest of the country and the inevitable cycle of extremity and betrayal that goes with that.
Last year we discussed at some length the way that the core of Trumpism was a revolt against social change in America driven overwhelmingly by white voters outside the major urban centers. There are myriad ways to describe this dynamic, sympathetic and unsympathetic. It is the condescension of the urban elites and coastal America against ‘middle America’. Or it is white, non-urban America in revolt over the eclipse of white privilege. Regardless of the interpretation, there’s broad agreement over the dynamic itself: it is a tactically aggressive but strategically defensive action by people who feel they are being overrun and losing what should be theirs.
When I wrote about this last year, I thought that demographics made it quite unlikely that Trump would win. That was wrong. But the overall dynamic is the same. Trump was able to win by super-charging his ‘base’, corralling most other Republicans through existing partisan polarization and benefitting from divisions and lower motivation among Democrats. Even with that he lost the popular vote and won by pulling off three razor-thin swing state wins that gave him a decent sized electoral majority. But the same pattern remains: an inflamed core of voters who feel they are on the losing side of change and, in Bill Buckley’s phrase, standing athwart history and yelling STOP. A mix of partisan polarization, the built-in electoral advantages enjoyed by rural America, hyper-efficient gerrymandering and the concentration of Democratic voters in urban enclaves all give Republicans and the Trump base power significantly greater than its numbers. In the House and the Senate, Democrats can easily get more votes and remain in the minority. A GOP nominee can lose the popular vote and become President. It’s happened twice in the last five elections. So while I expect 2018 and 2020 will go quite badly for Trump and the Republicans, it is not at all impossible that they will get a minority of votes and retain all power.
That is disastrous for Democrats and the country. But it doesn’t change the essential dynamic of early 21st century conservatism, an infinite loop of inflammatory and engaging promises, claims and demands which are mostly entirely unrealizable, creating a permanent cycle of establishmentism and grassroots’ betrayal which continues spinning forward even as the players in each category change.