For the past 34 years, the Republican Party has waged an unending propaganda war upon our political system and the men and women who try to make it work. Ronald Reagan brought this campaign to the White House in 1981, declaring that government was the problem, not the solution, and Newt Gingrich developed a vocabulary to make the campaign continuous background noise in American life. An army of talk radio hosts and Fox News correspondents waged the campaign with a relentless ferocity that a Stalinist propagandist might envy. Meanwhile, thanks to tax cuts, the growth of enormous fortunes, and finally the Citizens' United decision, politicians became slaves to economic power, doomed to four hours of fundraising a day. The campaign has now reduced the Democratic Party to a Congressional minority and threatens to complete the destruction of the Progressive, New Deal and Great Society reforms of the last century next year, but in the past two months it has taken an unexpected turn. It has taken its revenge upon the Republican Party itself, elevating Donald Trump to the lead in Republican primary polls. Thanks to Republican strategy over the last few decades, the United States, which needs real leadership as much as it ever has in its history, is focused upon a fraud and a buffoon who wants to ride the hatreds of his fellow citizens into the White House.
We can understand Trump's success by comparing him to his rivals. Recent Repubican candidates fall into two types. The first is dynastic Republicans, such as George H. W., George W., and Jeb Bush, but also Mitt Romney, who had politically successful fathers, substantial wealth, and ready-made networks. The two Bush brothers both settled in the Sun Belt and jumped into the forefront of the pro-life and anti-government movements. Romney settled in Massachusetts and morphed into a moderate Republican as Governor, but quickly tacked rightward in his presidential runs. The second type might be described as "bright young men," such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Thomas Cotten. Although they come from relatively modest backgrounds, they often have Ivy League undergraduate and legal educations, and began their working life as clerks to conservative federal judges. Cotten, a veteran, is unusual in that he is trying to make his name mainly as a foreign policy expert. (He is not, of course, a presidential candidate, but I expect he will get some attention as a possible vice president.) They have generally been adopted by one or more billionaires to whom they are beholden and they have made their names attacking Barack Obama, rather than trying to accomplish anything positive for the nation.
Nativism, or anti-immigrant feeling, as become a tenet of Republican faith in the last thirty years, and it is rather striking that even the bright young men whose parents were immigrants--Cruz and Rubio--take a harsh line towards the 11.5 million immigrants who are now deeply embedded in American life. Jeb Bush, whose wife became an immigrant when she married him, is a liberal by Republican standards because he wants to give those people some kind of legal status, albeit without allowing them actually to vote in elections. Meanwhile, none of the Republican candidates, including Bush, seems very interested, much less insightful, about foreign policy. They all want to undo the Iran agreement and they all cherish the fantasy that by spending more on defense and talking tough (like Ronald Reagan!) they can make our enemies disappear. (Here Rand Paul originally sounded like an exception, but like all Republican candidates confronted by a controversial issue, he is losing his nerve.)
Whether Trump can win the Republican nomination remains an open question. The number of Republicans who say they will never vote for him exceeds the 28% support he has in the last poll--although the gap has been narrowing. But it is clear how he has managed to get as far as he has--and it is deeply depressing.
First, of course, Trump is not a politician and he is making no attempt to sound like one. I know it is unfashionable to compare anyone to Adolf Hitler, even favorably, but Hitler made far more of an attempt to sound respectable while contending for power than Trump has. Trump is a famous entrepreneur--although one who has, to put it mildly, had his ups and downs in his business career. He has also been a star of reality television for about a decade. That gives him a much bigger place on the radar screen of the average Americans than any politician. That is one consequence of what the Republicans and the media have done to us over the last few decades. When politicians are constantly trashed, their personal lives scrutinized minutely, and any real attempt to do something for the country ignored, it is rather foolish to expect the bulk of the American people to pay much attention to what they are doing, But they have paid attention to Trump, partly because he is so outrageous, and partly because he has an image of wealth and success, which also became a focus of network TV dramas during the Reagan years and has continued to captivate Americans, even as the majority of us lose econoic ground.
Secondly, Trump is the first candidate willing to pander to the worst prejudices of the Republican base on the subjects of race and gender. George W. Bush, to be sure, pandered shamelessly to homophobia, and some of today's candidate are doing the same, but until Trump came along, only hate-mongers like Anne Coulter referred routinely to Hispanic immigrants as rapids. Trump has now gone so far as to advocate the ethnic cleansing of 11.5 million residents of the United States, more than 3% of the population. He has also built on his reputation for misogyny, repeatedly and publicly insulting Megyn Kelly of Fox News. I have long wondered whether it was a mistake to drive racism and misogyny underground in this country. It may have been easier to fight them when we knew where everyone stood. Trump is reaping impressive poll numbers by putting them back into the open.
What is most extraordinary, however, is that the Republican primary season has become a contest in which the other candidates compete to see who can sound the most like Trump. The new litmus test in the party isn't abortion, it's whether you're willing to try to repeal the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of citizenship to everyone born here. Jeb Bush, after struggling for days to find a safe way to attack Trump, settled on Tump's political past as a Democrat.
Trump seriously threatens the American political system because he is a high-rolling businessman (who has lost nearly as often as he has won) who has shown no talent for public service and is rousing some of the worst instincts of the American people. But he would never have gotten so far had not two generations of Republicans convinced millions of Americans that no politician can be trusted. It's appropriate that those chickens are coming home to roost in the Republican primaries, but it's terrifying that the Republican drive to discredit our political system has been so successful--because we need it to function effectively as a nation.