In the summer of 2016, Mick Mulvaney promised an experiment of sorts to resolve just what had motivated the Republican Party’s fanatical opposition to Barack Obama. Mulvaney proposed that the answer was not partisanship or racism, but instead principled adherence to the Constitution. The test would come when the president — a man Mulvaney acknowledged to have dangerous instincts and contempt for governing norms — was a Republican.
“We’ve been fighting against an imperial presidency for five and a half years,” he said in June 2016, after Trump had captured the nomination. “Every time we go to the floor and push back against an overreaching president, we get accused of being partisan at best and racist at worst. When we do it against a Republican president, maybe people will see that it was a principled objection in the first place. So we actually welcome that opportunity. It might actually be fun, being a strict-constitutionalist congressman doing battle with a non-strict-constitutionalist Republican president.”
The result of Mulvaney’s experiment could not be more clear. Under Trump, the entire party has abandoned its putative constitutional scruples. Indeed, Mulvaney himself has gone to work for the president whose authoritarian tendencies he once loathed and sat silently by as Trump has abused his power to lash out against his enemies and enrich himself and his family.
One of the debates that have split both parties is whether Trump is an outlier from the Republican Party or a continuation of a trend. Republicans like Ben Shapiro and Democrats like Joe Biden have depicted Trump as a freak who invaded a once-respectable party and whose removal, like a malignant growth, might leave behind a relatively healthy body. Tim Alberta’s American Carnage, a deeply reported account of internal Republican deliberations over the past decade, ought to drive a stake into this fanciful notion. Alberta shows how deep the rot goes, how little resistance the party elite put up against a man they privately fear, and how ripe conditions had grown for his demagoguery.
This is not to say it was inevitable Republicans would elect somebody exactly like Donald Trump. In some ways, he truly does stand apart from his party — in his amateurish ignorance of basic political and policy facts, his refusal to learn, and his utter lack of self-control, Trump is a sui generis man-child. Alberta has added to a vast trove of inside-the-room scenes of Republican professionals standing mouth agape at the Mad King.
In one meeting, after Paul Ryan has engineered a House vote to strip health protections from people with preexisting conditions, a gratified Trump tells him, “Paul, you’re not a Boy Scout anymore. Not in my book.” Ryan is momentarily flummoxed until he realizes that “Boy Scout” is a Trumpian term of contempt. Another hilarious scene depicts Karl Rove patiently tutoring Trump on the basics of the Electoral College map. Trump successfully expresses his shock to learn that Oregon, New York, and California would not make for inviting targets in the fall. “If you spend a day trying to win votes in places like California or New York or Oregon, it’s a day you can’t spend trying to win votes in Pennsylvania or Iowa,” Rove explains, to which Trump replies, puzzled, “I can win Iowa?”
At another point, after having spent the morning tweeting angrily about fired aide Steve Bannon, Trump appears unusually engaged in a briefing with his secretary of Defense. But then his aides notice that Trump’s “notes” are a series of points with the all-caps header “SLOPPY STEVE.”
Alberta is a conservative, which enables him to understand and gain the confidence of Republicans but which also colors his analysis, which is sprinkled with tendentious Republican talking points. “Obama’s perceived exploitation of racially driven identity politics,” he asserts at one point, “drove Republicans crazy.” (The most flagrant example of “racially driven identity politics” Alberta can muster is Obama giving deportation relief to Dreamers, a policy so obviously humane even Donald Trump has endorsed it.) Alberta writes that Republican claims that the IRS “systematically targeted right-wing groups … had been substantiated,” when in fact Republicans ginned up a report claiming to find this by exclusively examining IRS scrutiny of right-wing groups — which is a bit like claiming the refs are biased against your team and then “proving” it with a study limited to penalties called against you. A subsequent report that looked at all political targeting found that the IRS was applying the same standards to progressive groups as to conservative ones. And Alberta refers to “the forced passage of Obamacare,” invoking the peculiar conservative belief that an exhaustively debated bill that assembled 60 Senate votes was somehow illegitimate.
That said, Alberta shows the GOP slipping into Trumpian madness during the Obama administration, its irrational rage at the president leading the party further and further from reality. At one point, Roger Ailes, the head of the most powerful news network in America, tells John Boehner that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim who is trying to have him killed.
The book’s greatest weakness is that it lacks a robust theory to account for the behavior the author so expertly portrays. Alberta is admirably merciless as he shows his subjects abandoning their putative principles and falling in line behind Trump. (And the reporting is truly impressive — the scenes he reconstructs are both far more numerous and far more interesting than those in almost any “behind-the-scenes” reported political book I can recall.) But his only explanation for why so many Republicans betrayed their supposed values to support Trump is personal weakness, which is fine for explaining one person’s choices but is inadequate in accounting for how a party followed a single course en masse.
The answer, though, can be pieced together fairly easily from the story Alberta provides. That story emerges through Paul Ryan, the book’s central and most vividly drawn character. Alberta presents Ryan as the party’s legislative mastermind, who crafted a “comprehensive set of proposals on poverty, health care, and taxation” in 2015. Fast-forward 160 pages: Ryan is taking control of the legislative agenda in Trump’s first year while Trump meekly assents. Gone are the comprehensive plans for poverty and health care; all that’s left is a massive tax cut for the wealthy. Alberta depicts the choice to cut taxes for the wealthy rather than reform the tax code as a failure. But nobody is blamed for the failure. He writes about the tax cut as if the bill wrote itself:
Republicans never seemed enamored of the bill itself. It would deliver the disproportionate bulk of its benefits to corporations and the wealthy, undermining Trump’s pledge of targeted relief for the middle class. It would offer less assistance to working families than many in the party hoped …
the bill was nothing what many of them had envisioned when Ryan described harpooning his white whale of tax reform. Even as the Speaker muscled it through the House, he recognized that the bill did more cutting than reforming …
However imperfect, this legislation represented their best chance in three decades.
So why did Republicans design a tax cut that gave a huge windfall to the rich? Perhaps because that was their actual goal, and the stuff about reforming the tax code and helping the working class was just a sales pitch to cover up the unpopular objective.
Alberta reports that internal polling by conservative groups found that voters had no interest in an anti-spending message. Republican elites wanted to run on small government, but they realized that culture-war messaging was what moved their voters.
This would seem to confirm the conclusions that liberals have long harbored. The Republican Party’s political elite is obsessed with cutting taxes for the wealthy, but it recognizes the lack of popular support for its objectives and is forced to divert attention away from its main agenda by emphasizing cultural-war themes. The disconnect between the Republican Party’s plutocratic agenda and the desires of the electorate is a tension it has never been able to resolve, and as it has moved steadily rightward, it has been evolving into an authoritarian party.
The party’s embrace of Trump is a natural, if not inevitable, step in this evolution. This is why the conservatives who presented Trump as an enemy of conservative-movement ideals have so badly misdiagnosed the party’s response to Trump. The most fervently ideological conservatives in the party have also been the most sycophantic: Ryan, Mike Pence, Ted Cruz, Mick Mulvaney, the entire House Freedom Caucus. They embraced Trump because Trumpism is their avenue to carry out their unpopular agenda.
The most interesting revelation in Alberta’s book may be the degree to which Republicans convinced themselves of their own lofty rhetoric. When he predicted that he and his allies would resist Trump’s authoritarianism, thereby proving that their opposition to Obama was genuine, Mulvaney clearly believed it. And when Ted Cruz told his aides during the primaries, “History isn’t kind to the man who holds Mussolini’s jacket,” he surely had no idea what lay in store for him. If Trump has accomplished anything, it is to force Republicans to see their party and themselves a little more clearly.