The Cure for Trumpism? Put Good Republicans Back in Charge!

And if you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in

Today is part two of my response to Robert Kagan’s influential op-ed on the imminent threat to our democracy from Trumpism. You can read part 1, published on Monday, here.

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Robert Kagan’s widely-read Washington Post essay (September 23, 2021) about the ongling dangers of Trumpism rests on three critical premises: that Donald Trump himself poses a danger to constitutional government that is unique in American history; that the Founders could not have anticipated political parties or the stress they would cause to a democratic system, and thus left us defenseless against Donald J. Trump’s demagoguery; and that Trump himself is a unique phenomenon in American history. As I argued in my last post, these are fallacies.

What is most troubling about Kagan’s essay, however, is that he offers no explanation, and no apology, for why his party collapsed like the Maginot Line after Trump was elected in 2016. Instead, even as he admits later in the essay that there were plenty of rewards for party leaders to knuckle under to Trump, Kagan portrays their failure to stand up to him as a reasonable set of choices that any party leaders, anywhere, might have made in the face of an ignorant, mendacious lout. As he writes:

Despite their known abhorrence of everything Trump stood for, these old lions refused to criticize him. They were unwilling to come out against a Republican Party to which they had devoted their professional lives, even when the party was led by someone they detested. Whatever they thought about Trump, moreover, Republican elders disliked Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and the Democrats more. Again, this is not so unusual.

But they didn’t have to “come out against a Republican Party to which they devoted their professional lives.” All they had to do was come out against Trump, and they didn’t. Why?

Yes, there were the courts, and a variety of conservative goals that could be accomplished specifically through an executive who had no idea what he was doing. But why did they not see the dangers the rest of us did in the massive social movement that delighted in lies, mendacity, and fantasies about beating, jailing, and executing their opponents?

What Kagan never says, but I suspect probably knows, is that Republican leaders thought these people were a joke. The Tea Party, after all, had quickly evolved into a political movement with electoral goals and an Astroturf strategy.

Furthermore, the “old lions” had contempt for Trump and his voters. They believed that they could control all of these ignorant people, from the Big Guy down, taking what they wanted and leaving the rest. They thought they could simply accomodate Trumpism and do business as usual—which in part, Kagan points out they did.

But Kagan’s analogy, again, makes this seem like a reasonable miscalculation made by reasonable people. “German conservatives accommodated Adolf Hitler in large part because they opposed the socialists more than they opposed the Nazis,” he writes, “who, after all, shared many of their basic prejudices.”

For example, against Jews. Who could have known what Hitler really had in mind, right? Stopping socialism was the project! And it worked! Until it didn’t!

Yet the analogy is disingenuous. Republicans actually know that there is no real socialism in America, and that defeating the Democrats is not the same as beating back the specter of Bolshevick revolution. They also know that their own party has manufactured and recirculated that fear for generations to bring conservatives to the polls. Mainstream elements of the GOP have been using the words “socialism” and “Communism” since the New Deal to describe everything from unemployment insurance to desegregation to gay marriage to taxes.

Kagan’s analogy is simply wrong. What was actually astounding about the swift collapse of conservative politicians to Trumpism is how few values Trump and his new party shared: traditional Republicans are all about big business, have a recent history of brokering immigration deals that support global corporate profits, and are enthusiastic interventionists when it comes to foreign policy.

Trump ran against all of these things.

Kagan fails to account for what, exactly, allowed the “good Germans” in his party to get behind this madman once he was elected, except this: “Trump is different, which is one reason the political system has struggled to understand, much less contain, him.”

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But that’s not true: what Kagan means is not that Trump is different, but that he is worse, and has taken Republican party tendencies to an extreme that no one in the party had discussed yet. For decades, Republicans have nurtured populist voters, if not populism itself, within their own party without actually doing anything that improved those voters lives. Kagan deliberately minimizes the economic harms of Republican policies-—flat wages, outsourced jobs, austerity, union-busting and, most importantly, the deregulated capitalism that has mired ordinary Americans in debt.

In other words, policies that Kagan himself has championed since he entered political life in 1980. In 2008, these policies broke millions of American households in 2008, stealing homes, pensions, and jobs, and creating a sea of outrage with no outlet in traditional politics.

But Kagan brushes off any attempt to explain Trumpism as a phenomenon that could be understoodd in this way. Instead, he writes:

The American liberal worldview tends to search for material and economic explanations for everything, and no doubt a good number of Trump supporters have grounds to complain about their lot in life. But their bond with Trump has little to do with economics or other material concerns. They believe the U.S. government and society have been captured by socialists, minority groups and sexual deviants.

Why did Trumpists believe their government has been captured by their enemies? Kagan is fuzzy on this point—but I am not. The Republican party has been winning elections for decades by mobilizing hatred, fear, culture wars and outright racism, and the chickens finally came home to roost when it became possible to organize ruined, angry people on the internet. (Sidebar: what kind of a person wants to make common cause with Democrats by using the phrase “sexual deviants” to describe LGBT people in a national publication?

But Kagan insists that Trump, and only Trump, is the problem. “Unlike establishment Republicans,” Kagan continues, “Trump speaks without embarrassment on behalf of an aggrieved segment of Americans, not exclusively White, who feel they have been taking it on the chin for too long. And that is all he needs to do.” Yet it seems never to have occurred to Kagan that if the Republican party had been willing to do the same thing, or had worked with Democrats to pass legislation to support struggling Americans in the years after 2008, that the Trump movement might have been defanged.

In fact, what held Trumpism together was a widespread hatred, not just of Democrats, but of establishment Republicans like Robert Kagan. As Ryan Girdusky and Harlan Hill, both proponents of the national populism that cohered under Trump, explained in 2020, critics of illiberal democratic movements around the globe, fail to understand that this “political uprising didn’t need to happen. The rise of Trumpism and its counterparts around the world

occurred because of the actions of the governing class, not despite their efforts. The elite had countless opportunities over the last three decades to signal to voters that they were listening to their concerns, that the current system could work towards their best interests, and that the global liberal agenda was worth protecting….Through the latter half of the 20th century, governments around the globe have pushed forward their ideology that people, cultures, and countries are interchangeable and replaceable.

Kagan’s failure to understand that Trumpism is a movement, and not a mass delusion, also blinds him as to why his beloved GOP has become, in his own words, a “zombie” party. “While the defeat of a sitting president normally leads to a struggle to claim the party’s mantle,” Kagan writes, “So far no Republican has been able to challenge Trump’s grip on Republican voters: not Sen. Josh Hawley, not Sen. Tom Cotton, not Tucker Carlson, not Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

But anyone who knows anything about zombies knows that they perpetuate their dominance, not by being unique, but by the endless replication of zombies. And that’s what Hawley, Cotton, Carlson and DeSantis are. Zombie Trumps in a zombie party, trying to recreate the magic that propelled Donald J. Trump to the presidency.

Although Kagan rightly catalogues the errors, “miscalculations,” and sheer venality that the Republican party was responsible for between 2016 and January 20, 2021, he continues to insist that it is only Trump who is dangerous—and that the voters DeSantis, Abbott et. al. are now trying to woo would be just as happy to come back to a pre-Trump GOP. “Most Trump supporters are good parents, good neighbors and solid members of their communities,” writes, even though the research shows that vast numbers of these people have abandoned their friends and families to immerse themselves in MAGA conspircism. As he continues:

Their bigotry, for the most part, is typical white American bigotry (emphasis mine),” as Kagan glosses it, “perhaps with an added measure of resentment and a less filtered mode of expression since Trump arrived on the scene. But these are normal people in the sense that they think and act as people have for centuries. They put their trust in family, tribe, religion and race.

So what is the antidote? Put the “old lions,” who created this mess in the first place, back in charge. “It has become fashionable to write off any possibility that a handful of Republicans might rise up to save the day,” Kagan writes. “Yet, it is largely upon these Republicans that the fate of the republic rests.”

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This handful—and I am guessing that Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney are the standard bearers here—would form a Constitutional Republican caucus or party, which would be part of “a national unity coalition in the Senate for the sole purpose of saving the republic. Their cooperation with Democrats could be strictly limited to matters relating to the Constitution and elections.” Or they might cooperate on a range of issues—who knows?—but I am guessing not Medicare for all, universal childcare, or paid family leave.

And what might put a rod in some of these Republican spines? Democrats giving up their foolish ambitions about social change and returning to Clinton-style centrism. They could water down voting rights, reduce social spending, stop trying to interfere with the police, and abandon their own robust and well organized progressive caucus that has successfully pushed for social justice.

To do otherwise, Kagan argues is to use Trump as a cudgel to portray Reagan-era conservatism, and everythiing it spawned under three Bush administrations, as the problem. Forcing the GOP to be accountable for what it has done, he implies, is “opportunistic partisanship and conspiracy-mongering, [which] in addition to being bad history, is no cure for what ails the nation.” Instead, Instead, Democrats, Kagan urges, need to back off of their own idea of what democracy looks like “to give anti-Trump Republicans a chance to do the right thing.”

Now who is using Trump as a cudgel? Democrats, stand firm—and trust your own voters. Republicans had their chance and they blew it.

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Short takes:

  • It’s not that I begrudge them the money. Still, the next time you hear a Republican use the words “freedom” and “taxes” in the same sentence, throw this piece of spaghetti at them and see if it sticks: Audrey Dutton of the Idaho Capital Sun reports that $1.9 million of FEMA money has been applied for, and granted, to pay for Covid-19 victims’ funerals. That’s right: freedom to remain unvaccinated, freedom to not pay your Bureau of Land Management grazing fees—but call on the federal government to bury people who didn’t have to die. Across the nation, “The agency has provided more than $1.1 billion in financial assistance to nearly 170,000 people to help cover funeral costs for people who died of causes related to COVID-19 since Jan. 20, 2020.” (September 27, 2021)

  • Breaking: a public official in an ugly suit bashes medical marijuana legislation: if for nothing else, you have got to click through to see the outfit Mississippi Agriculture Commissioner Andy Gipson is wearing in the photograph. Yes, even by Deep South standards, this is an ugly suit. More seriously, Gipson shows that he has no idea how government works. His department is not prepared to administer such a program and he, personally, is morally agin’ it. But other states are reaping millions in tax revenue from a substance that helps many people not use prescription narcotics—part of what you use that money for, commissioner, is to administer the program. (Geoffrey Pender, Mississippi Today, September 27, 2021)

  • Why does anything a corporation does surprise me? Yet, I found myself unexpectedly disappointed and sad to learn that Liberty Mutual Insurance which underwrites my homeowner’s policy, is the top sponsor of Fox News and the lying liars who work there. As Judd Legum of Popular Information reports, “The company is advertising extensively on Fox News — a network dominated by Tucker Carlson — while claiming on its corporate website to be a champion of diversity.” But you can’t be for diversity and fund Tucker Carlson’s racist b*llsh*t. So unless they pull their dollars, I will find another insurer when my policy comes up for renewal. (September 27, 2021)