The US Republican Party has made an accommodation to Donald Trump its leaders may come to regret.
‘Now is the winter of our discontent,’ declared England’s Richard III in Shakespeare’s famous play. Democrats understand his frustration. In January ‘impeachment managers’ from the United States House of Representatives presented the case to the Senate for removing Donald Trump from the presidency, as the constitution requires. The evidence that Trump had committed ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’, the latter an archaic term for ‘misbehaviour’, seemed overwhelming.
Trump had attempted to oblige the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to assist his re-election campaign by defaming his most competitive Democratic rival, Joe Biden. To do this, he withheld military aid desperately needed by his Ukrainian counterpart—aid he was required by law to deliver. He forbade all members of the State Department and other executive agencies to assist Congress, a co-equal branch of government, in its inquiries into the affair. Many diplomats chose to co-operate with Congress despite the president’s threats; the evidence appeared damning.
And yet it wasn’t. Senate Republicans, holding a majority in that body, voted to reject the charges.
‘Four more years’
The day before the Senate vote, Trump gave his ‘State of the Union’ address. This is an annual report required by the constitution but is frequently used to tout the president’s plans and achievements. Trump used the occasion to announce the themes of his re-election campaign and was greeted by thunderous cheers of ‘Four more years!’ by Republicans in the chamber.
Trump’s presidency however offers little in which traditional Republicans might find solace. The party is normally identified with small government, liberalised trade and fiscal responsibility. Trump has undermined all those tenets: government has expanded in illiberal directions, he has disrupted previous free-trade agreements and he has added trillions of dollars to the public debt. And yet Republicans fall in line smiling. Why is this?
Pundits frequently point out that, while elected officials may be uneasy, the average Republican voter adores Trump: over 90 per cent of declared Republicans claim to have a favourable view of the president. Yet this analysis glosses over important fault-lines in the Grand Old Party, which is in fact divided.
The electoral base of the Republican Party is essentially rural. This has not always been the case. When founded in the mid 19th century, out of the cinders of the old Whigs, it was America’s urban party. It represented northern abolitionists opposed to slavery for moral reasons, but also northern industry and the urban working class, many of whose members had recently arrived from Europe. The Democrats, on the other hand, descended from the Democratic Republican Party founded by Thomas Jefferson, mainly articulated the interests of agriculture, its voters strongest in the south.
The Civil War greatly weakened the Democrats, and the Republicans dominated national politics afterwards, with the notable interregnum of Woodrow Wilson, who was economically progressive but deeply racist. The Democrats only returned to power, and hegemony, with the Great Depression of the 1930s. Franklin Roosevelt managed to peel labour from the Republican orbit and cobble together an electoral coalition by adding north-eastern labour to the southern rural party. This coalition ruled the US for most of the three and half decades that followed.
Change came from below. In the 1950s and 60s, African Americans began effectively to challenge the segregationist status quo. The death of John F Kennedy, an ineffectual liberal, opened the way for his presidential successor, Lyndon Johnson, to engineer the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, as a response to the organised actions of African Americans. The federal government finally became an ally in their self-liberation.
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The Civil Rights Act transformed US politics. Southern Democrats left the party and became Republicans. Consequently, the center of gravity of the Republicans shifted from the interests of midwestern family farms and agribusiness to the political orientations of the deep south.
Southern politics was dominated by efforts to maintain a racial hierarchy and a regressive economy. Southern whites identified with the interests of plantation elites in much the same way east-Elbian peasants had accepted the leadership of the Junker aristocracy in Germany. Just as German peasant voters were ultimately seduced by the nationalist appeals of the Nazis, American southerners were receptive to the thinly-veiled racism of the Republicans.
There are other parallels with interwar Germany. Traditional German elites, fearing encroachment from the left, enlisted peasant support and a rising populist movement led by Adolf Hitler. They were appalled by Hitler’s extremism and vulgarity, yet felt they had little choice but to work with him. The results of this strategy are sadly well known.
Republican elites in the US are equally appalled by Trump. Historically, they are ‘libertarian’—the American term for classical liberalism. Republican elites prefer small government, low taxes and deregulation. They abhor policies that might redistribute wealth. GOP politicians complain about deficits if they can make a plausible case that these are caused by social programmes but tolerate them if the cause is tax cuts and military spending. These policies offer little benefit to their impecunious southern supporters, so they have used social conservativism—highlighting the rise of secularism, threats to traditional gender relations and (indirectly) changes in the racial hierarchy—to attract votes.
Trump used these same issues, flavoured with jingoism, xenophobia, and economic nationalism, to wrest control of the party from its libertarian elite. Disaffected whites became the engine of his success. He was able to train their attention on the social treasons of an urban elite, an elite his voters view as over-educated and out of touch. America’s societal elite of both parties had always shunned Trump’s own social aspirations, in the liberal bastion of New York and nationally.
Republican leaders were secretly aghast but publicly supportive. In the past they had used the same sentiments to gather support for their libertarian nostrums. Now, in the interest of power, they were forced to tolerate the worst inclinations of their voters.
The main political problem of the Republican elite is that, while they are still libertarian, their voters are now fascist. Previously they had been able to obtain their economic preferences and control their base by playing to the latter’s conservative social values. Trump has changed all that. The game is up.
The veneer of civilisation has been ripped away, as Republican politicians have been swept into a maelstrom of social grievance. They have thrown in their lot with a demagogue who uses them the way they have used their uninstructed supporters. It will not end well.