There’s a point I wanted to address about the GOP primaries and the Trump phenomenon that connects up with my piece this morning (“Lust for Destruction“) and an earlier post on the GOP implosion and the concept of ‘technical debt’. I was listening to a CPAC roundtable late last week (televised, I wasn’t there) where the panelists, including The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes, discussed the basic division in the GOP today: between people who feel the party establishment has betrayed them and those who do not.
I could dig up polls that substantiate this. But there’s abundant public opinion data confirming this division. The only surprise is how abruptly and destructively it’s played out in this primary process. But it is worth unpacking just what this means. We can do a deep interpretation that places this sense of betrayal in the declining economic prospects for many middle class Republican voters or the broader climate of ethnic and cultural transformation in the country. But at least nominally it’s not about either one of those things.
The betrayal is that the GOP promised it would destroy Obama’s presidency (end it in 2012, defang it before and after) and turn back the various things he’s done to damage the country and ‘transform’ it. But let’s remember that Republicans played a high stakes game of brinksmanship in 2011, threatening to default on the national debt if President Obama didn’t comply with various demands, an event totally without precedent in more than two centuries of American history. There was the Cruz government shutdown in 2013 to attempt to force yet another showdown over Obamacare. There was the successful effort to kill immigration reform in 2013. There’s the current refusal to even receive the President’s nomination to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, at the beginning of the fourth year of his term – again, totally unprecedented in American history. (We had serial rejections in the mid-19th century, never a refusal even to consider a nomination.) And these are only some of the most high stakes examples.
I’ve never been terribly impressed when people note Mitch McConnell’s early declaration that his primary goal in opposition was to ensure that President Obama was a one term president. That’s almost always an opposition leader’s goal – the difference was that he said it out loud and how far he proved willing to take it. But by almost any objective standard, congressional Republicans have taken a long list of either rare or totally unprecedented actions to fight President Obama. And they’ve accomplished a fair amount – thought largely in negative terms – by doing so. This is the context for half the part feeling “betrayed” by the party establishment that opted for a get along and go along with President Obama.
This was also, of course, the backdrop to the last intra-GOP blow-up before the primaries really got underway: the overthrow of Speaker John Boehner. He resigned somewhat on his own terms. But it was largely a matter of choosing his moment to jump. The move to overthrow Boehner was largely driven by the belief that with Boehner out of the way, the far right faction of the party (about half the GOP) would finally get a clean shot at Obama. No more pussy-footing around, no more betrayals, no more chickening out at the last minute just when the shutdown was starting to work.
You can say all sorts of things about these folks being crazy, or extremists or whatever else. But set aside all these evaluative or partisan interpretations and one thing is fairly clear in objective terms: a large portion of the GOP is not satisfied with what can realistically be achieved by conventional political means. One might even add here working with allies on the Supreme Court to come close to overturning Obamacare on what were extremely flimsy grounds. Yes, it’s a bummer to take over the House and latter the Senate and still have Obamacare. But as long as you have a relatively popular President with a veto pen, that’s life. You need to elect a president too.
As I noted at the end of last month, some of this is a product of “hate debt” and “nonsense debt” – building up wildly unrealistic expectations by over-promising and trading in an increasingly apocalyptic political rhetoric. But it’s not all that. Something this powerful, as we’ve discussed, isn’t just ginned up by political leaders. It runs much deeper. But again, the overreaching point is important: The narrative of ‘betrayal’ – at this volume and intensity – only makes sense if you are dealing with a chunk of the electorate with expectations that are deeply unrealistic in the context of conventional political action.
That is a volatile situation when you’re talking about at least a quarter of the national electorate.
That gets you Trump. It also gets you Ted Cruz. And it may get you worse still.