In 2016 the Republican party had a chance to put in place their agenda of less government spending, lower taxes, an embrace of freer trade, and economic competence. Part of it was good timing – the recession’s impact had waned, and the economy looked to do well regardless of who was in charge. Also, many saw Hillary Clinton as burdened by the past. A good number of Americans felt it was time to give the GOP a chance.
An undercurrent of all this, of course, was the seething discontent of the lower middle class. These are people harmed by out-sourcing, earning less than their parents, and seeing few opportunities. For twenty years this class has grown. Disproportionately white and uneducated, they had done well in the post-WWII economy. After 1945 life was good for well trained professionals, business leaders, and uneducated workers willing to put in the effort. Indeed income disparities became less from 1945 to 1980, as unions represented the interests of these workers.
Since 1980 the economy has shifted against the working class. Unions have dissipated, hated by even those whom they served. The educated “elite” – professionals at all levels – have managed to maintain their standard of living. Working class folk have not; jobs have left the country and despite low cost goods from China, a kind of hopelessness has spread. The Republicans hoped they could be the solution.
The argument: Democrats no longer represent the workers. Instead they represent special interests – minorities, immigrants who take the few jobs remaining, and the professional elite of educators, bureaucrats and white color workers. The GOP would now be the party of the workers by bringing back jobs, and shifting power away from the professionals and back to the workers. It was a seductive message, inducing many long time Democratic voters in places like Michigan and Wisconsin to shift their allegiances.
Donald Trump seemed a flawed but effective face of this movement, speaking to working class concerns while eschewing the angst of politically correct discourse. He’d be crude and offensive, but that was what the masses wanted – someone to thumb their nose at the way in which the culture had shifted in the last 30 years. Republicans like Jeff Sessions of Alabama saw in Trump a vehicle to undermine the culture shift of the past generation, to wrestle power from the professional elite and give it back to both workers and the conservative base of the GOP. Sure, Trump would have to be controlled, but he represented the kind of change that mainstream Republicans had been unable to generate.
That now lays in tatters.
The marriage of Republican policy to working class concerns was always a stretch. While talking the talk of defending workers, the party has historically sided with big business and big money. Trump, like Pat Buchanan twenty years earlier, shifted the rhetoric, but couldn’t shift the party.
The Trump Presidency, however, has proven deadly to the Republican party. Unless something changes they could lose their majority in both houses (no small feat, given how few Republicans are up for re-election in the Senate) and set up a 2020 election that might be a tidal shift to the Democrats. What happened?
Simply: Donald Trump proved be far more volatile, uncontrollable and erratic than most Republicans expected. They thought that the “never-Trump” rhetoric was a bit over the top, that once in office the desire to succeed would lead Trump to listen and follow their lead. Instead, he battled from the beginning with his own party, including early supporters like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Instead of being a Ronald Reagan like icon of a new era of GOP activism, Trump became poison even to the GOP agenda. Free trade was replaced by tariffs, tax cuts were not accompanied by spending cuts, creating a massive increase in the federal deficit. Obamacare was neither repealed nor replaced, and as we head to the 2018 election the news of of scandals – collusion with Russia, affairs (including one with a porn star while his child was young) – fly about. Add to this a drama about the future of the special prosecutor which finds Democrats gleefully watching as Republicans attack each other, and no one can say the GOP is in good shape.
Paul Ryan’s retirement is more than a canary in a coal mine. It is a screeching alarm.
Unless the Republican party decides to exorcise this failed President from their party, they will go down with him, and the hope of showing Americans a new path based on limited government and fiscal responsibility will be seen as a rhetorical pipe-dream. Sure, they ran on that, but they never intended to do it. Unless the Republican party rises up against their leader – who is really an usurper damaging the GOP as well as the country – the Democrats look set to have two of their best election cycles ever.
Since I tend to support Democrats, one might think that this would please me. It doesn’t. We need two strong parties with viable differences to allow us to debate, discuss, experiment and compromise. When one party’s best visions are blighted by an incompetent leader, it hurts all of us.