Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Trump Disruption

So when people talk about American political parties, they usually make the mistake of assuming that parties are ideologically coherent, commonly-minded organizations. While this notion is sort of true in most parliamentary democracies, it bears little resemblance to how American political parties work.

See, US political parties are coalitions of groups that share enough interests in common to keep them together, but otherwise have different interests and goals. In essence, American political parties are engines built to win elections and then distribute benefits to members of the coalition. Hence Western Republicans get water rights and gun laws, while Southern Republicans get abortion restrictions. The coalition is opportunistic, not ideological.

Four groups at the heart of the Republican coalition for the last 40 years have been:

  • Southern evangelicals, who tend to want social policy changes like abortion restrictions, and more prayer in school, and tougher divorce laws, etc. – the culture warriors, if you will;
  • Northern and western working class whites who used to vote Democrat but who resent social welfare programs that such whites believe are aimed at minorities, especially African Americans. These whites share a fear of black urban violence with Southern evangelicals as well, and so support “tough on crime” legislation like the War on Drugs;
  • Small business operators who have been sold the doctrine of supply side economics, and believe that tax cuts for the rich will somehow make them rich, too. They also have been hurt by global competition in the era of free trade agreements and tax subsidies to major corporations. (Notably, both Southern Evangelicals and working class whites seem to subscribe to the same notions);
  • and the actual well off, who have gained wildly under Republican rule.

Basically, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the real politics of the Republican Party over the last 40 years have consisted of those in the fourth group – the well to do – mobilizing the anti-welfare, anti-tax and anti-liberal social, racial and gender biases of the other three groups to advance the tax cut agenda. The rich PROMISED that they’d end welfare, and affirmative action, and bring prayer to school and wealth to the masses if only the other groups would support tax cuts for the rich.

In the end, though, it was only the tax cuts that happened (in general – abortion has been significantly restricted in the US even though Roe stands as the law of the land). Welfare still exists, Obamacare happened; lots of people are struggling financially; college no longer seems like the Golden Ticket to success … the Republican coalition is pulling on fraying threads.

Then Donald Trump came along to rip the threads apart entirely. After all, much of Trump’s schtick is that the REPUBLICAN party elite has been screwing over ordinary REPUBLICANS. Those elites have made bad trade deals, Trump insists; they’ve created a dependent class of citizens and corporations that survive on the government teat; they’ve manipulated the passions of ordinary people for their own, elite ends. In contrast, Trump insists that he is his own man, beholden to no one for money or for political correctness litmus tests.

This is the real reason the Republican Party leadership hates Trump so much: he is picking at the scab that covers up the fractures inside the Republican Party. (They exist for Democrats too, but they’re not currently having quite so savage a slug fest.) The leadership is frightened that once uncovered, the fractures of the Republican Party coalition can’t be mended.

Can they be? I don’t know. Usually, the answer is yes. But this year has proved that “usually” is a lousy term of analysis. My guess is: not any time soon. Divisions this fundamental either take new coalitions to overcome, or see the end the party. In either case, it seems the Republicans are going through a Great Disruption, with Donald Trump as its driving force.

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