Here is a New York Times article you may have seen. It describes the GOP’s panicked, hyperbolic and yet utterly ineffectual rush to stop the Donald Trump juggernaut. As I’ve said before, the GOP’s Trump problem reminds me of the regional and global powers’ efforts to destroy ISIS. Every party sees the problem, is terrified by the problem. And yet every player has some other angle or priority that’s just a bit more pressing or important. The Saudis, Iran. The Turks, the Kurds. The US, Assad. And on and on. Yet it goes without saying that Trump isn’t the real problem. He didn’t bamboozle the heads of the RNC into signing some one-sided contract they can’t live with. The problem is Republican voters. Look at the polls and you see that in virtually every state in the country between 30% and 50% of GOP voters currently back Trump. And only unicorn thinking supports the idea that the 70% to 50% who do not constitute some sort “anti-Trump” faction. That’s the problem, not Trump himself.
When I read the Times article, observe recent weeks as they’ve fluttered by and think about how things got to this point, I come back again and again to conversations I have with our chief tech, Matt Wozniak. Matt uses the metaphor of debt to describe the inevitable trade off we face building and maintaining the software that runs TPM.
If we do a project in a rough and ready way, which is often what we can manage under the time and budget constraints we face, we will build up a “debt” we’ll eventually have to pay back. Basically, if we do it fast, we’ll later have to go back and rework or even replace the code to make it robust enough for the long haul, interoperate with other code that runs our site or simply be truly functional as opposed just barely doing what we need it to. There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s simply a management challenge to know when to lean one way or the other. But if you build up too much of this debt the problem can start to grow not in a linear but an exponential fashion, until the system begins to cave in on itself with internal decay, breakdowns of interoperability and emergent failures which grow from both.
This is a fairly good description of what the media is now wrongly defining as the GOP’s ‘Trump problem’, only in this case the problem isn’t programming debt. It’s a build up of what we might call ‘hate debt’ and ‘nonsense debt’ that has been growing up for years.
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.”
Take Trump’s plan to deport 11 million people living in the US illegally or build the planned Trump Taj MaWall. As John Kasich has futilely tried to explain in debate after debate, whatever the rights and wrongs of it, this is simply never going to happen. Such an effort would be more on the order of a post-War World II population transfer than anything remotely like a conventional immigration enforcement action, costing probably hundreds of billions of dollars and perhaps even constituting something approaching a war crime. As for the Wall, of course, in the real world net immigration across the US-Mexico border has actually gone into reverse in recent years. More are leaving than coming. But in the Republican/Fox news world, hordes of feral Mexicans are still streaming across the Southern border – them and a layering of ISIS death squads who fly from Ankara to Belize and then walk to the Arizona border.
But this is just the hate and nonsense debt coming due from 2013. You can either let the status quo go on or you can devise a way to regularize at least the majority of people who are here illegally. There’s no other option. Unless you just want to say ‘No Amnesty’ and pretend the problem will go away with ‘self-deportation’ or some other such nonsense. And that of course is precisely what Republican congressional leaders did. All Trump did was say openly, clearly, more coherently what Republicans were already saying themselves, while also saying out of the sides of their mouths that somehow they’d get to the mass deportation later.
The truth is virtually Trump’s entire campaign is built on stuff just like this, whether it’s about mass deportation, race, the persecution of Christians, Obamacare, the coming debt crisis and a million other things. At the last debate, Trump got pressed on his completely ludicrous tax cut plan. He eventually said growth (which if you calculate it would need to be something like 20% annual growth on average) would take care of the huge budget shortfall it created. But Republicans can’t really dispute this point since all of Republican campaign economics is based on precisely the same argument. What about Obamacare? Can Marco “Establishment” Rubio really get traction attacking Trump for having no specific plan to replace Obamacare when Republicans have spent the last five years repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare without ever specifying a plan to replace it with? On each of these fronts, the slow accumulation of nonsense and paranoia – ‘debt’ to use our metaphor – built into a massive trap door under the notional GOP leadership with a lever that a canny huckster like Trump could come in and pull pretty much whenever. This is the downside of building party identity around a package of calculated nonsense and comically unrealizable goals.
On other fronts, Republican party leaders have sanctioned repeated government shutdowns, threats to default on the national debt and various other totally crazy things. But if you notice, it’s always in the outyears – not in election years and never during presidential election years when more is at stake and the electorate leans more Democratic.
There’s some metaphor or analogy here about a hostile takeover, though hostile takeovers don’t usually take place because of excess debt. They’re proxy battles or stock purchases. But there are numerous ways that profligate spending and excess debt can leave a highly leveraged company vulnerable to a guileful schemer who strangles the ownership and takes the carcass for himself. Some version of that is the story of Trump – a raid on a hopelessly leveraged GOP ‘establishment’ which barely realized that it scarcely exists.
Having said all this, I always try to remind people that as observers of contemporary politics we ascribe far more power to political leaders than they actually exercise. They are more like riverine engineers. They can reinforce the banks, shift a river’s direction a bit. In extraordinary cases they can even dam a river. But even that only regulates the flow of the water. It seldom stops it entirely. The deeper causes of the recent trends in the GOP go deep into the society and culture of the American right and American society generally. But Republican elected officials have increasingly coddled, exploited and in some cases – yes – spurred their voters’ penchant for resentment, perceived persecution, apocalyptic thinking and generic nonsense.
Until now GOP elites have managed to maintain a balance or needle-threading sleight of hand wherein the GOP had become the functional equivalent of a European rightist party (UKIP or French National Front) yet masqueraded as a conventional center-right party (UK Conservatives or French Republicans) – all under the go-along leadership of the people The Washington Post editorial page imagines run the GOP. But the set up was already under extreme strain, as evidenced by the 2011 debt default drama, the 2013 Cruz shutdown and the end of the Boehner Speakership in 2015. Trump is very little different from the average candidate Republicans elected in 2010 and 2014, in terms of radical views and extreme rhetoric. All Trump’s done is take the actual GOP issue package, turn it up to eleven and put it on a high speed collision course with RNC headquarters smack in the middle of presidential election year.
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