interesting times

Why Republicans Let Trump Take Over Their Party

It’s my party now. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

One of the more remarkable political developments of the last six months — the culmination in some ways of the last 18 months — is the transformation of the Republican Party into the Party of Trump.

Think back to early last year. Close to every major Republican politician regarded Trump as an excrescence that would eventually go away. Today, the GOP owns Trump completely and Trump owns the GOP. In Gallup, he receives around 85 percent support of Republicans, with only some minor softness around the edges. At his inauguration, he had 86 percent support. That’s the key reason why his general approval ratings have leveled off at around 40 percent. That seems to be the floor.

Think back over what we have learned these past six months, and let that sink in. This solid 85 percent is despite a deeply unpopular Obamacare replacement, which clearly targets Trump’s core voters, and would wreak real havoc in their lives. It’s despite fading prospects for any kind of tax cut. It’s despite a failure to make tangible progress in building the border wall, boosting economic growth, or bringing back any manufacturing jobs. This is despite almost complete legislative failure — while controlling both House and Senate. Neil Gorsuch is his only solid victory. And that came only because Republicans trashed the judicial filibuster for the Supreme Court and, prior to that, Senate tradition by denying Merrick Garland a hearing.

But the loyalty endures — even deepens. “For now, there’s no way out, only through, and through it together,” writes Rich Lowry, explaining why he, and his magazine, National Review, are now in favor of party over country. Lowry was, you may recall, a prominent Never Trumper, throwing the entire Buckley legacy against the parvenu narcissist during the Republican primaries. This was not just because, as Bret Stephens notes, Trump represented the death rattle of anything that might be called a conservative intelligentsia, although he did. It was because it was hard for any Republican to back a candidate — and now a president — who equivocated on NATO, morally equated Russia with the U.S., preferred autocracies to democratic allies, embraced “America First” as a rallying cry, and was threatening to slap a crude tariff on all steel imports. Can you imagine if Clinton ran on that? And yet Trump’s chief propagandist, Sean Hannity, is now being honored with the William F. Buckley Award for Media Excellence.

How did Trump manage this takeover? First, he demagogued the base, simply deploying the anti-establishment lines that had been honed and tuned to perfection in the GOP for years, against the party itself. Second, in an amazing stroke of luck, the Democrats gave him an opponent only slightly less despised than he was, and infinitely less talented. Now, in his latest twist, Trump is using the mainstream media as his foil to cement party loyalty behind him. In other words, he picked three things every Republican hates — the D.C. Establishment, Hillary Clinton, and the MSM — and made himself the only alternative to each. Brilliant when you think about it.

And in his latest war against the media, he is clearly winning. Close to 90 percent of Republicans believe the most patently mendacious president in history over the flawed, but still generally earnest, CNN. More to the point, as one new paper suggests, they support him even when they know he’s lying. And he has used this near-blind support to construct, in just six months, the close equivalent of a disciplined state-run media, across various platforms, from Fox to TMZ, to Sinclair and One America, from the National Enquirer to talk radio across the country, and potentially even Time Inc. in the future. In some ways, this media complex operates for Trump the way RT does for Putin. Yes, in America, unlike Russia, there’s a vibrant alternative, but, in some parts of America, that alternative barely peeks through, as this report from rural Iowa notes:

Most people here watch Fox News, and have for a generation. Fox News is always on the TV in diners and other restaurants. In bars, if there isn’t a game on, Fox News is there. If there are a couple of televisions or more, one will most likely be tuned to Fox. And it’s not only TV. It’s radio. Our big “blow torch” conservative radio station out of Des Moines blasts conservative indignation and self-righteousness for hours a day and serves up Sean Hannity for hours every night.

The point of Trump’s otherwise super-stupid tweets is clear: to signal the new party line — which his internet underlings and media flacks then repeat. This can, of course, require them to contradict themselves in no time at all, as Trump’s moods shift. But the “willingness to say black is white when party discipline requires this,” as Orwell noted, is key to authoritarian success.

The Republican Party elite’s defense of all this — their only faintly honest argument — is usually along the lines of: Stop going nuts. Yes, it’s all pretty appalling, but not a big deal. We can ride this tiger, and dismount when necessary. As Ben Shapiro argued: “The media are wrong that their liberties are under some sort of existential assault from a president who is merely mouthing off the way he has his entire career.”

Which is to say: There’s no difference between a New York mogul “mouthing off” and the president of the United States. I’m sorry but I beg to differ. This decadent insouciance is recklessly complacent about democratic norms, dangerous in what it is prepared to tolerate, and, at best, a form of collective denial.

A president can come and go. But when he remakes one of the two major political parties into a threat to liberal democracy, it’s a far deeper and more durable shift. Let us just note for the record that, in this first Trump summer, the mainstream conservative Establishment has, like conservative Establishments in other countries before it, averted its eyes from or openly endorsed this transformation every single step along the way.

Here’s a book review I just came across that seems to me an intellectual shift. It’s a review of a new book by Fordham law professor John Pfaff, Locked In, about mass incarceration in America, and it upends a plank of conventional wisdom on the left. The book argues strongly against the notion that our vast and indefensible prison-industrial complex was deliberately created by an explicitly racist war on drugs that swept up nonviolent drug offenders, primarily black, from the 1980s on. The data don’t back it up:

All told, low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, the focus of much reform rhetoric and effort, make up only about 1 percent of all inmates in state prisons. If we released every prisoner who has been sentenced solely for a drug crime, we would still be the world leader in incarceration. Most strikingly, the racial disparities of our inmate population would barely budge: in state prisons, the percentage of white inmates would go up one point, the percentage of black inmates would go down one point, and the Hispanic percentage would remain the same.

The War on Drugs was not, in other words, a decision by “white supremacists” to respond to the end of segregation by rounding up random black men on the streets and creating a new archipelago of racial separatism behind bars (see Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow) or to construct a new system of modern slavery (see Ava DuVernay’s 2016 documentary 13th). The War on Drugs was a terrible, awful idea — but it didn’t create mass incarceration. Neither did theoretically longer prison sentences (which Pfaff shows were, in reality, mostly reduced to one to three years).

So what did? Here’s the emotionally unsatisfying answer: unsupervised and unaccountable prosecutors seeking tougher sentences all over the country, and given many more options, under the law, to do so. Here’s the gist (my italics):

Consider, for example, the period from 1994 to 2008, when per capita incarceration rose every year. Over that period, reports of violent and property crimes fell steadily. So, too, did the number of arrests. The probability that a felony case, once charged, would lead to incarceration did not change. And the average time actually served stayed pretty much the same. What changed was the number of cases that prosecutors charged as felonies in state court: the likelihood that an arrest would lead to a felony charge doubled over that time. In other words, it was not crime rates, arrests, or sentence lengths, but admissions to prison, driven by decentralized prosecutorial decisions, that accounted for most of the growth in incarceration.

No racist conspiracy; just tougher prosecution. And no top-down policy shift; a bottom-up change in felony charges. And then another key factor from James Forman Jr.’s new book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America: the insistence by African-American communities and civil-rights leaders in the 1970s and 1980s that the police protect them from the ravages of drug-related violence — which began with heroin in the late 1960s. DuVernay lightly touched on this — but only to minimize it. But it was a core factor in a shift in policing: “Among those who embraced a war on drugs in response to crack cocaine were D.C. mayor Marion Barry … who called drug dealers ‘the scourge of the earth’ … Jesse Jackson, who bragged that he would out-tough George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in fighting the ‘war on drugs’; and Harlem’s congressional representative, Charles Rangel.” Honorable mention: Eric Holder. They were responding understandably to black democratic pressure — not caving to white supremacy. Yes, there was racism in many whites’ enthusiasm for a crackdown. But you also tend to find that members of communities destroyed by heroin and crack are also serious prohibitionists and fans of law and order on the streets.

In case you think I’m just rehashing a conservative critique of the excesses of today’s racial left, I should let you know that this review was written by David Cole, the national legal director of the ACLU. It’s published by The New York Review of Books. And its aim is toward prosecutorial reform, rather than racial grandstanding. It seems to me we need more of the former, and a good deal less of the latter.

The Democratic Party is the lamest political organization in the West. But you knew that. It was briefly saved and given some coherence by the genius of Obama, but is now in its default state of listless mediocrity. People keep asking me if I see anyone out there who might be able to offer a clear and appealing message in a manner that could win over the center. The answer is no. Worse, its inability to face why it lost last year suggests an eight-year term for this nutjob. The other night I was talking to a solid Democrat who, when asked to defend Clinton, still actually said that whatever her faults, she was, at least, competent. A party that can still be this deluded deserves to be doomed.

But even I could not have come up with their attempts this week to create a new 2018 bumper sticker. Only months after running a campaign whose only real message was “Trump is a nightmare,” and “She’s your only real option,” the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee offered: “Democrats 2018: I Mean, Have You Seen The Other Guys?” After a dreadful campaign that began with the toe-curlingly smug “I’m With Her,” they’re now proposing: “She Persisted; We Resisted.” For fuck’s sake. And please understand — please — that Elizabeth Warren, for all her virtues, is Trump’s dream opponent. Another inspiration: “Make Congress Blue Again.” Seriously, guys. That’s all you got?

If you are reassuring yourself that next year will be a wave election, just remember: Never, ever underestimate the Democratic Party’s capacity to screw it up. A much larger anti-Trump coalition has to make sure they don’t.

See you next Friday.

Why Republicans Let Trump Take Over Their Party