Well, Republican America, you asked for it, and now you’ve got it. The Trumpocalypse is officially upon us. A certain Oompa-Loompa-toned, tumbleweed-domed, opulently pecunious, braggadocious real-estate developer, reality TV star, and one-time professional wrestling promoter will officially be the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in the 2016 general election.
When Donald Trump crushed last-remaining GOP lizard man Ted Cruz in the Indiana primary, he breezed well past the required 1,237 delegates needed to clinch his party’s nomination. In the aftermath, every pundit in America who dismissed the Trump Train as the biggest political carni act in a generation that was doomed to fail worse than New Coke instead issued their confused mea culpas. The list of talking severed heads now stuffed into The Donald’s money bag includes New York Times statistics dweeb Nate Silver, University of Virginia political Nostradamus Larry Sabato, and pretty much everyone else who pays attention to the trillion-dollar sh*itstorm that is American politics.
Indeed, since announcing his run for the Oval Office last summer, The Donald has become the closest thing ever to a post-modern presidential candidate; the kind of unstoppable force of nature that has laid waste to the established rules of conventional politics while gleefully performing a public, antemortem autopsy on the Republican Party in the process.
Beyond Trump’s brazenly uncouth disregard for haute political decorum (he’s accused Fox News host Megyn Kelly of publically menstruating, claimed that former GOP presidential nominee and Vietnam P.O.W. John McCain was “not a war hero” because he was “captured,” and threatened to nuke half of Europe to combat ISIS), Trump has incurred the wrath of bigwigs within the GOP and the broader conservative movement for being insufficiently conservative. After all, Trump has zero political experience, and he has, at various times in the past, advocated for such downright liberal policies such as single-payer health care, a woman’s right to choose, and progressive taxation of plutocrats like himself. Moreover, he’s built his entire campaign for the White House around conservative heresies like forceful economic protectionism, a massive build-up of government power to carry out his cockamamie plan to deport illegal immigrants en masse, and a vigorous defense of cherished New Deal entitlements like Social Security.
Given Trump’s non-history in politics, his insufficient conservatism, and his incoherent grab-bag of policy positions that range from mathematically impossible to borderline insane, how did The Donald manage to become the figurehead of a political movement that, for decades, has veered ever more to the Right? How did the party of Reagan become the party of Trump? The answer boils down to one word: resentment.
If you view American conservatism as a coherent sociopolitical ideology geared towards enacting specific policy positions, then Trump’s triumph is baffling. However, if you understand American conservatism for what it actually is, a multi-branched, often contradictory maelstrom that encompasses varying strands of reactionary thought held together by a common desire to uphold the power of the privileged few over the downtrodden many, then Trump’s rise, while still historic and pretty shocking, nonetheless makes total sense.
I’ve cited it many times on this site before, but Corey Robin’s definition of conservatism helps explain Trumpism in all of its contradictory glory. Robin writes that, “conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes.” Whenever previously downtrodden groups demand a more equal share of power from numerically lesser elites, usually under the banner of Left Wing ideologies, conservatives have vigorously defended the elites, asserting that only the wealthy, the powerful, the privileged have the capacity and the preordained duty to reassert the necessary authority over the smudge-cheeked rabble.
The most recent example of this conservative defense of elite privilege comes from Andrew Sullivan. Writing for New York magazine, Sully blames Trump’s rise on an excess of direct democracy fueled by the rabble’s attempt to exact sweet revenge on the bumbling elites who destroyed the economy and squelched the American Dream. Millions have embraced Trump for his railing against “elites” of all kinds, from outsourcing CEOs to self-serving Congresscritters. Sullivan views this as problematic. He believes that the rage of the democratic mob cannot be contained, hence its embracing of a demagogue like Trump. While he admits that the elites have failed spectacularly, Sullivan nonetheless insists that we need the elites as the last bulwarks against the popular fascism that direct democracy inevitably unleashes. “Elites still matter in a democracy,” he claims, “we need them precisely to protect this precious democracy from its own destabilizing excesses.”
No matter that the elites themselves have so often been the cause of such “destabilizing excesses,” Sullivan insists that we need the elites because they are elites. Such tautological political theorizing is often the fire that stokes the conservative hearth.
Yet anyone who’s paid even passing attention to American conservatism over the last few decades knows that it was the elites themselves who provided the lighting that eventually animated the Trumpenstein monster, even as they have the gall to criticize the torch-wielding villagers.
If there has been a single, prominent theme running through the rise of the New Right in modern American politics, it’s been resentment; the idea that some undeserving “other” is taking what is rightfully yours, and that conservatism is the panacea that will help you reassert your dominance. During the 1972 presidential election, Richard Nixon was the first GOP contender to successfully embrace the modern politics of resentment by courting the so-called “Silent majority” of white, blue-collar and lower middle-class voters who believed that the America they cherished was under assault from hippies, liberals, blacks, feminists, and other scheming minorities. Much of Nixon’s strategy benefitted from the work of a young opposition researcher named Patrick J. Buchanan (the guy who coined the phrase “Silent Majority”). In his book The New Majority, Buchanan touted Nixon’s victory as a victory over the “liberal elite” and the triumph of “traditional American values and beliefs over the claims of the ‘counter-culture,’ a victory of the ‘Middle America’ over the celebrants of Woodstock nation.”
Buchanan has floated between the mainstream and the fringes of U.S. politics for decades. As an aid for Nixon and Reagan, he helped shape conservative policy, but as a fringe challenger to Republican Party elites, he also helped cement the now common right-wing notion that American politics isn’t really about bloodless policy wonkery (although policy isn’t unimportant), but instead a battle over the very definition of culture itself, a battle with clear winners and losers. In 1992, Buchanan challenged embattled GOP incumbent George H.W. Bush for the presidency, running to the President’s right on issues of free trade, immigration, and overall cultural conservatism. Uncle Pat lost the primary and eventually endorsed Bush, but at the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, he delivered his famous “Culture War” speech, one of the most influential political speeches in American history and an oratorical thread that leads directly to the 2016 Trump campaign:
My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe, and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.
Buchanan portrayed politics as a war in which resentment was the Right’s primary weaponry, and privilege the spoil of victory. He railed against “liberals,” “radicals,” and “malcontents” who threatened traditional America by calling for “unrestricted abortion on demand,” “homosexual rights,” “school choice,” and “radical feminism.” Buchanan’s message was clear: campaigns were not mere arguments over policy; they constituted a battle between good and evil, between those with privilege and power and those who would take said privilege and power away. “My friends,” Buchanan concluded, “we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.” You might even say that Pat wanted to Make America Great Again. In this view of politics, the actual machinations of government fell by the wayside. In fact, government was the enemy, an outgrown skin to be shed, discarded, denigrated.
The notion of politics-as-war only grew within the New Right in the years following Buchanan’s speech. During the Republican Revolution of 1994, the GOP gained a majority in Congress for the first time since 1952. At the center of this revolution was Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich, who took Buchanan’s politics-as-war idea to a brutal new level. In 1996, in an effort to dethrone Bill Clinton from the presidency, Gingrich drafted his infamous memo Language: A Key Mechanism of Control, in which he outlined the kind of verbal bullets conservatives should fire at liberals. These included words like “corrupt,” “decay,” “destructive,” “traitors,” “steal,” “pathetic” and “cheat” — all of which the Right was to use to describe their political opponents. Again, the message was clear: Democrats and liberals were corrupt, pathetic traitors looking to cheat and steal their way into power.
During the 1990s and into the 2000s, the Machiavellian theorizing of elites like Buchanan and Gingrich filtered throughout a vast conservative infotainment empire that included books, talk radio, television, Super PACS, think tanks, and local grassroots organizations that embraced resentment as the primary fuel of American political discourse.
Thus, radio bloviators like Rush Limbaugh made millions and influenced elections by spewing a daily cloud of noxious verbal gas over American airwaves, all centered around the notion that liberalism was more than an oppositional political ideology, it was an existential threat. “I see liberalism expanding. I see it growing. I see it dominating more and more of our culture,” El Rushbo warned in 2014. Other right-wing infotainers echoed this belief. Ann Coulter published books accusing liberals of being slanderous, treasonous, Godless, and even literally demonic. Since its founding in 1996, the Fox News Channel has acted as the unofficial propaganda media arm of the GOP and the broader conservative cultural movement.
The entirety of the right-wing media empire thrives on the basic concept that you the conservative must resent your enemies, because they’re trying to take away the privileges which are rightfully yours. This is the history that created Trump. From the high theorizing of elites like Buchanan and Gingrich grew the conservative infotainment complex, and all of these elements put together created a cultural movement fueled by resentment, mindful of privilege, and dedicated to using the former to preserve the latter.
Trump, more than any politician in recent memory, has stoked the fires of American resentment so skillfully, that he didn’t even have to be sufficiently conservative to rise to the top of America’s conservative movement. What The Donald understands, and what his naysayers failed to realize, was that the New Right had already spent decades building a cultural infrastructure tailor-made for a demagogue to hijack. When you spend years convincing a huge swath of the electorate that government is the problem, that liberals are the enemy, and that “Real Americans” need to “take their country back” from the hordes of undeserving, politically correct minorities, policy and procedure take a backseat to nebulous rage. Thus, it’s hardly surprising that a voting bloc convinced that government is merely the superfluous tool of the enemies of freedom has embraced a presidential candidate who views policy and decorum as the failed refuge of elite scoundrels. Of course, Trump can nonetheless bask in the endorsements of two GOP elites: Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich.
Democracy didn’t deliver the Republican nomination to Trump. Rather, it was elites who are disdainful of democracy, who convinced millions of Americans that democracy would open up the door to “losers” who wanted only to take but never to give, that led to Trump’s rise. The GOP and the entire conservative movement made this political bed, and now they’re in for a hell of a rough night.