The Republican Party insists — despite its backing of the Wall Street bailouts, immunity for corporate polluters, and willingness to let billionaires live tax-free — that it’s the party of personal responsibility.
So even though the media has been an invaluable enabler, the responsibility for Donald Trump’s rise falls squarely on Republican voters. This was a tougher case to make when Trump’s support was still theoretical and could be ascribed to his name recognition. But now that he’s won three states easily and leads in every other primary, except Ohio and perhaps Texas, it’s clear: Republican voters want what Trump is selling.
Trump’s rise reveals trends in American politics that have been latent for years but not discussed in polite company, for fear of offending the supposed experts who believe that “blaming both sides” proves their objectivity. But the party’s attraction to the personification of its worst instincts shows that a large percentage of Republicans — possibly even a majority — is proudly embracing qualities that would have been considered smears just a few months ago.
So what has Trump revealed about a large chunk of the GOP base?
- They’re scared and infuriated.
Republican leaders have fundamentally misunderstood the Trump phenomenon from the beginning. To this day, adults in the party are still accusing Obama of being responsible for the rise of a birther. But the anger that’s coming from the white working class is clearly an existential rage targeted at both parties and themselves, as the numbers of middle-aged white Americans who are drinking, drugging, and eating themselves to death continue to grow. For half a century, the GOP has provided its base with villains to focus their hate, as it’s drained the economy of the regulations, tax base, and strong unions that built the middle class. “But the fact that lots of voters hated the Clintons, Sean Penn, the Dixie Chicks and whomever else, did not, ever, mean that they believed in the principle of Detroit carmakers being able to costlessly move American jobs overseas by the thousands,” Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi explains in his terrifying exploration of the Trump campaign “How America Made Trump Unstoppable.”
- They want a tyrant.
One moment Trump is decrying “political correctness,” a slur that’s supposed to suggest that Americans have become intolerant of their neighbors’ intolerance. The next moment, they’re cheering him for wanting to punch a protester. Trump is a 69-year old Putin fanboy with a history of cheerleading fascism. Republicans decried Obama’s delay of the employer mandate in Obamacare or temporary delay of deportations as “tyranny.” Now they’re backing a guy who is vowing to roll back freedom of the press. “Limited government” has always been a code for “limiting government for everyone else,” but when you trust the government enough to back a “deportation force” that will round up millions — knowing that when America rounded up undocumented people during the Depression up to 60 percent of those deported were citizens — you want a government that’s more powerful than any liberal would dare imagine.
- Racial resentment drives them.
How did the religious right go from backing the first “born again” president Jimmy Carter to the GOP? It wasn’t abortion, or not just abortion; it was the attempt to desegregate private schools set up to avoid integration in the South. Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy merged conservative philosophy with opposing the advance of civil rights, but it wasn’t till the late 70s that fundamentalists rose up with an army of foot soldiers willing to counter the left’s army of union workers. Using “dog whistles,” conservatives have mastered the art of focusing their base on drug testing welfare recipients, demanding photo IDs for voters, and imagining undocumented immigration is rampant when it’s really way down.
In the South, Birther Trump’s faux prosperity gospel has caught on with “evangelicals,” not because they respect his collection of three “traditional marriages” — but because they’re inspired by his appeal to racial resentment.
- “Religious freedom” is another term for “religious domination.”
Probably the most hilarious moment of the last GOP debate — besides when Trump told conservative AM radio host Hugh Hewitt that no one listens to his show — is when Hewitt asked whether Trump would use “religious liberty” as a litmus test when appointing a Supreme Court Justice. Hewitt might as well have asked, “Besides banning Muslims, how do you feel about religious liberty?” Republicans have gone from pretending that a woman’s access to birth control and being paid to bake a cake for a gay wedding represent tyranny, to backing a guy who has said he would register American Muslims and ban 1.6 billion people from traveling to this country. Conservatives have always been fierce defenders of your right to practice their religion. But this election has shown that devotion to “religious freedom” is just a half step on the slide to religious domination.
- There’s no escape hatch.
When Trump says Obamacare is going to destroy the economy, Republicans believe him because they’ve heard it a million times before. Since they’ve effectively insulated themselves from facts, the have no idea that we’ve been gaining jobs from the moment Obamacare became law. In the years since the law’s exchanges opened in 2014, 17 million people have gained coverage and we’ve had the best two years of job creation this century.
Republicans have spent decades immunizing their base against factual discourse. And when Trump contradicts himself — often within the same sentence — it doesn’t matter. His lies sound like their lies. He’s affecting the blustering leadership, Obama-hatred, and disgust for objective sources that have become staples of the GOP base. For months, America expected the GOP to fight off this infection, as Trump humiliated himself and the party that had taken him seriously after decades of watching him pretend to run for president. But now we realize that was giving conservatives too much credit — they’ve been building a system that’s coded to fail. If America stops Trump, it will be despite the Republican Party.