Donald Trump did what I didn’t think was possible: he got elected President of the United States. Nothing else has changed. He is still a vulgar ideologically-unmoored proto-fascist con man who has enabled and emboldened the worst elements of the alt-Reich. No amount of surrounding him with GOP handlers is going to keep Trump from, well, being Trump. In fact, this is likely to transform the GOP from a party that at least pays lip service to the idea of limited government into a populist party of anti-liberal grievance politics.
In my lifetime, the GOP has been very, very good at talking about limited government. The platform even has many of the bedrocks of it: lower taxes, less regulation, more state control, all things I’m happy to accept and support. The problem is that the GOP is best at talking about these things when they have zero power to act upon it. This has been true whether it has been the loss of control in Congress or the White House. During the Bush presidency, they vastly expanded state power via the PATRIOT Act, multiple foreign wars, domestic spying, No Child Left Behind, and Medicare Part D.
As soon as the Democrats swept Congress in 2006, the GOP went right back to talking about small government again. The talk continued from 2010 through now since Obama was virtually guaranteed to veto most efforts to actually shrink government (the sequester being a rare exception of victory). Once we have someone far to the left of George W. Bush, a notorious expander of the federal government, why would we expect the lip service to turn into action?
Once the Republican Party embraces a wide and large federal government, the intellectual core of the party, those who have been more-or-less under the banner of classical liberalism, will be politically homeless. Many of them have already fled like refugees because they knew how disastrous Trump would be. I’m only still around in the probably vain hope that the storm can be weathered, but I’m having my own doubts too. Parties rarely buck their presidents and are effectively lead by them. The era of a small government Republican Party will be effectively over.
It doesn’t end with the GOP. The Democratic Party, despite losing very, very badly at the polls on heavily depressed voter turnout numbers, is absolutely giddy at the impending and obvious GOP implosion to come. If you don’t believe me, look at the many, many concern troll posts by Utah’s own Rep Brian King (who blocked me for calling him on it). To them, this means the GOP can finally be relegated to permanent minority party status, swept out through its own incompetence and shifting demographics towards racial minorities that Democrats have been continuously pandering to for decades.
But this spells doom for the Democrats too. Trump’s ascendancy has its roots back in the Clinton presidency. The people who were feeling most anxious, the rural working class, were assured that passing NAFTA would bring more jobs and be good for them personally. Despite not being able to pin the blame on NAFTA (that belongs to the advance of technology making manufacturing a high-productivity, low-employment industry), they nonetheless correlated it with their own diminishing economic prospects. Feeling betrayed by Democrats, who had long owned the blue-collar demographic, they felt they had no choice but to try the other flavor of big party politics.
Unfortunately for them, this came at a time when the Democratic Party wasn’t just ignoring those economic issues, it was also embracing identity politics that alienated most of the same block. As minorities (racial, religious, sexual, and otherwise) were constantly pushed to the forefront of the Democratic policy priority list, it became very hard to wonder how they should care about affirmative action, hijabs, or gay marriage when there were few job prospects and an underwater home to pay a mortgage on. The party that once ran on “it’s the economy, stupid” had quickly moved on to tackling as many first world problems as they could think of.
It wasn’t helped when white upper-middle class coastal elites interpreted this overly-simplistically as “they’re a bunch of bigots in flyover country” and went to work siccing the entire media-industrial complex on them. Almost every source of entertainment quickly became a platform to express Good Liberal Values™ and ruthlessly mock rural and religious populations as uneducated hillbillies. It was made intensely personal, adding insult to injury, and the perpetrators still don’t feel bad about it at all. After all, they’re subhuman troglodytes who are dying of meth overdoses and their own aging values who deserve all the worst things, right?
Meanwhile, the party took controlling the White House and both halves of Congress as an open invitation to push hard on some large pieces of pet legislation. Virtually excluding Republicans from the process, they quickly passed ARRA, PPACA, and Dodd-Frank on the premise that this would save the economy, bring tons of jobs, oh yeah, and advance progressive policy interests in ways not seen since Johnson’s Great Society. And yet, the economic booms did not happen. Jobs didn’t return to Main Street. Health care costs continued to skyrocket. All the while, Washington policy wonks crowed about the growing economy and low unemployment despite it skipping over significant swaths of the country.
So it’s no surprise now that these really angry people alienated both economically and socially, are looking to throw a brick through the window. It’s reprehensible that the first brick they found happened to be a charlatan with no ability to deliver on his grandiose promises with a strong appeal to the until-then-almost-silent white nationalists and actual overt racists, but what exactly has anyone else done to speak to the concerns of these people? Absolutely nothing.
It’s a mistake to assume that their hostile takeover of the GOP (and subsequent flight of conservatives) means that the Democratic Party is going to sit pretty. Hillary Clinton was the worst possible candidate they could have fielded. She has a long history of turning public service into private profit, the worst embodiment of DC politics as usual. She had to stack the deck within her own party over two decades, building connections and installing favored party leaders, to barely beat an independent who waged his own hostile takeover attempt because the party had long ignored economic issues. Bernie was the brick through the political establishment on the left.
Like the GOP, the Democrats give their base plenty of lip service (Free college! High minimum wage! Free health care!), but they don’t really act on it. They’ve created their own alienated base, upwards of 40% of the party who knew Bernie Sanders was a better choice for them. After a huge electoral loss, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to build bridges back to them, especially when the message after the primary loss was more or less “shut up and fall in line or you’ll get something far worse”. And they have entrenched themselves so heavily on advancing their major victories in the culture war that it may be impossible to turn from them.
And really, this is what both major parties have become: culture warriors. It’s “traditional values Christians” versus “enlightened modernists”. This enabled both parties to make emotional appeals based primarily on fear of what The Other Guys will do if they have power without having to make much of a stand on their own, simultaneously promising to enshrine those cultural values into our system of law. The presidential election was the pure embodiment of it, neither candidate spending much time on anything that wasn’t convincing you of the apocalypse coming for your deeply held values if they lost. All the while, economic issues are mere window dressing, barely mentioned or addressed and certainly not with any meaningful substance.
The GOP nominated Trump because it was tired of being ignored economically and ridiculed culturally. The Democrats almost nominated Bernie Sanders for many similar reasons. I expect Trump will prove unable to address the economic issues of the GOP base and the schism between his brand of populism (which has enabled some pretty awful racists and religious bigots) will further drive out traditional conservatives. The Democrats won’t be introspective enough to lay down their culture war arms when they’re in the winning position (I already see many liberal friends choosing to double down) and drive out the young people who wonder why they have student loans and can’t find jobs.
This is what’s undoing both parties. Voters have already recognized they can’t find jobs or afford homes or pay their student loans or cover their medical costs and that political “leaders” are distracting them with fights that don’t solve a single one of those problems in any meaningful way. Throwing out cultural red meat doesn’t build workable majorities and it doesn’t make for any kind of consistent governing philosophy. While it’s a lot of fun to argue about abortion, wedding cakes, and what defines a racist, those are discussions for people who aren’t worrying about how to make financial ends meet. And ultimately, neither party seems able to move past it.