One of the latent questions in American politics for both parties is whether Donald J. Trump is some sort of horror-movie version of a unicorn, who after this term, and perhaps another one, will retreat to Mar-a-Lago, leaving the Republican Party — and the United States — scarred but not fundamentally changed. For obvious reasons, Republicans don’t discuss this view of their own future very openly, lest their master resent the suggestion that he’s a man whose moment is rapidly slipping away. You hear the subject discussed more among Democrats, particularly those who are running for president to consign Trump to the ash bin of history. Joe Biden, for example, has made it clear he considers the 45th president an aberration, whose evil spell over Republicans will dissipate once he’s out of office.
But Trump’s undoubtedly strange and outlandish personality should not make us forget that the party he took by force in 2016 was already exhibiting an alarming extremism on multiple issues. Here’s Barack Obama being hopeful about Republicans in 2012:
President Obama told supporters that he expected the gridlock to end after the election, when Republicans can stop worrying about voting him out of office.
“My expectation is that if we can break this fever, that we can invest in clean energy and energy efficiency because that’s not a partisan issue,” Obama said, speaking to supporters in Minneapolis.
Obama pointed to deficit reduction, a transportation bill, and immigration reform as initiatives that could well pass in November.
None of that happened, of course. And instead of getting over their “fever” of policy extremism and tactical obstructionism, what did Republicans do? They nominated Donald Trump as their next presidential candidate.
Yes, there were more moderate strains in the GOP pre-Trump that have largely been silenced since his election. But it’s important to remember that such sensible-sounding themes (like the inclusiveness urged upon the party in the famously rejected 2013 “autopsy report”) were mostly tactical cosmetics designed to give a lighter touch to a political machine devoted to radical policy goals: the demolition of the New Deal and Great Society programs; the re-criminalization of abortion; the reversal of progress toward treating LGBTQ people as equals; stuffing as much money into a bloated Pentagon as possible; all but outlawing unions and collective bargaining; and restricting the franchise.
Mitt Romney, one of the GOP’s most respectable figures, advocated immigration policies arguably to the right of Trump’s in his pursuit of the 2012 presidential nomination. He also endorsed the Ryan budgets (reflecting the party’s hard-core commitment to “entitlement reform” and an end to decades of anti-poverty measures), and supported the cut, cap, balance pledge to permanently shrink the size of the federal government. And most famously, he embraced one of the foundational myths of conservative extremism in his remarks that the votes of “47 percent” of Americans had been corruptly bought by welfare-state benefits, thus implicitly making those votes illegitimate.
For the ninth consecutive time, the GOP platform on which Romney ran in 2012 called not just for the reversal of reproductive rights in Roe v. Wade but the constitutional enshrinement of fetal (even embryonic) rights in a Human Life Amendment that would ban states from allowing abortions from the moment of conception.
All that was mainstream Republican policy pre-Trump. In the ever-more-militant conservative wing of the party, the big fashion in the early years of this decade was to call oneself a “constitutional conservative.” As I tried to explain at the time, this meant something genuinely alarming:
I do worry that the still-emerging ideology of “constitutional conservatism” is something new and dangerous, at least in its growing respectability. It’s always been there in the background, among the Birchers and in the Christian Right, and as as emotional and intellectual force within Movement Conservatism. It basically holds that a governing model of strictly limited (domestic) government that is at the same time devoted to the preservation of “traditional culture” is the only legitimate governing model for this country, now and forever, via the divinely inspired agency of the Founders. That means democratic elections, the will of the majority, the need to take collective action to meet big national challenges, the rights of women and minorities, the empirical data on what works and what doesn’t — all of those considerations and more are so much satanic or “foreign” delusions that can and must be swept aside in the pursuit of a Righteous and Exceptional America.
A first cousin to, or perhaps just a corollary of, constitutional conservatism is the belief, which has spread rapidly through the GOP ranks, that the Second Amendment is the most important element of the Bill of Rights and includes an implicit right to armed revolution against “tyranny,” as defined by, well, constitutional conservatives. It wasn’t Donald Trump who espoused that point of view during the 2016 Republican presidential nominating process, but his rivals Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson.
Constitutional conservatism has more or less been absorbed into “America First” Trumpism, but the way of thinking hasn’t gone away — as evidenced by Trump’s tendency to disregard those aspects of the Constitution that don’t suit his needs, while deifying those that do. When it comes to extremist goals like banning abortion entirely, or defending an absolutist view of gun rights, or sealing the borders, or making freedom of religion contingent upon its consistency with “Judeo-Christian heritage,” Trump is a louder champion of extremism, but hardly novel. And even where Trump has departed from hard-core conservative orthodoxy, he seems to have coarsened it more than anything else, viz the open pro-corporate mercantilism of his trade policy, and the supposed “non-interventionism” that is accompanied by constant threats of military violence.
Yes, there are long-term demographic trends that could make Republican extremism no longer practicable, but you have to figure the GOP will have to lose a few more presidential elections before that lesson sinks in; extremism does, if nothing else, help mobilize the party “base” and attract highly motivated donors. For every Democrat baffled by Trump’s win in 2016, there’s a Republican who believes the formula will work forever. For the legions of younger Republicans who have probably never met a genuinely “moderate” GOP leader in their lives, the “fever” could be especially persistent.
Practical politics aside, progressives need to take seriously the possibility that their counterparts on the right feel just as passionately about fetal life, the alleged threat of immigrants to civilization, and the decline of religious affiliation and 1950s-style patriarchal “family values” as those on the left feel about climate change or equality. Those who doubt the staying power of conservative extremism beyond its relationship to Trump should take another look at Michael Anton’s 2016 essay arguing that the condition of liberal-dominated American society is so catastrophically dire that voting for Trump is a survival impulse like that of the terrorism victims who stormed the cockpit of United Flight 93 on 9/11. Trump’s 2016 victory was in no small part the product of that brand of extremism, not its cause.
It’s fine for Democrats to appeal to the tiny band of remaining swing voters by arguing that Donald Trump is an outlier who, despite his aggressive Americanism, finds his closest spiritual allies in menacing overseas figures like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the Philippines’s Rodrigo Duterte, and of course, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. But they should not embrace the illusion that once Trump — or his sycophantic subordinate Mike Pence — is gone, politics will return to normal. The GOP hasn’t been normal for a good while.