Saturday, October 08, 2016

October Surprise

Next April, David Fahrenthold will win at least one Pulitzer for his work--basically solo--of investigating the train wreck that is the life of Donald Trump. Yesterday afternoon he posted an article containing a three minute video that, 24 hours later, looks like it will bring down what remains of the Trump campaign. In the video, Trump is caught telling Access Hollywood host Billy Bush (first cousin of W., nephew of GW) a bunch of pretty horrible stuff, the worst of which is boasting about sexual assault:
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy; you can do anything.”
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We have this perennial specter of the "October surprise," but in my lifetime, only one incident--Iran announcing the release of the American hostages in late 1980--really qualifies. By October, the trajectory of an election is established and very little can happen that will upset the dynamics. The US has the longest elections in the world, and by October of an election year, candidates will have been actively running for 18 months. We know who they are.

In the 24+ hours since the videotape went public, the GOP has basically imploded. At current count, eight pols have reversed their endorsements and twenty more have called for Trump to step aside. Donors and party mandarins are trying to figure out how to dump Trump. Republican women are apoplectic. It's not entirely clear what the next few days hold, but it is at this point impossible to imagine the GOP putting this mess back together. The only question is what the wreckage ultimately turns out to be.

But here's the thing. Let's (cue Little Marco) dispense with the notion that the GOP didn't know what it was doing; it knew exactly what it was doing.

The Republican Party has been heading for a crisis of its own making for two decades. The precursors were a toxic stew deliberately chosen for short term gain. They were never sustainable. Let us review:
  • Racism. Since Nixon, the GOP has favored the post-civil rights "Southern strategy" (unspoken racism), which led it to a demographic blind alley. By the mid-1970s, when the Southern strategy was in full-swing, whites were an overwhelming majority of the electorate. But playing to white grievance means alienating nonwhites and works only so long as whites have that overwhelming majority. LBJ famously said the Dems had lost the South for a generation following civil rights, but, in implementing the Southern strategy, the GOP lost nonwhites for a generation, too. And that generation is now a much larger portion of the electorate--and the generation is only beginning.
  • The enemy is government. In his first inaugural in 1981, Reagan created the first tenet of modern conservatism: "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." It sent the Republicans on a war with government that undermined the authority of their own leaders. Contempt for competence became a badge of honor. For a long time, Republican leaders used this idea to undermine technocratic Democrats, but they failed to see that it would lead to a moment when their own authority was the target of the contempt they'd nurtured.
  • Contempt for Media and the Alternative Conservative Reality. Beginning with talk radio in the early 90s, Fox News in 1996, and then the internet and social media in the 2000s, Republicans built an information bubble that consisted of only right-wing talking points. Going back to the earlier part of the 20th century, with Father Coughlin and later the John Birch Society, conservatives always courted conspiracy. By arguing that the mainstream press was liberal and in on the conspiracy to suppress real (and to liberals, damaging) news, conservatives were able to build an alternative reality that included everything from Drudge and Fox news to Conservapedia, the right wing answer to Wikipedia. It is impenetrable and self-sustaining.
We could point to several more deliberate strategies the GOP put in place as short-term tactics to advance their elective ambitions, but these three are sufficient to explain the rise of Trump, a nakedly racist, know-nothing businessman who has never held any public office. When you look at the strategic decisions men like Nixon, Gingrich, and Rove made to consolidate Republican power, a Trump-like figure was inevitable. The only thing surprising about this October's revelations are that they didn't come out sooner.

Trump is  toast in 2016, but Trumpism will live on. It has been deliberately bred and nurtured by the Republican Party since the 1960s, and over 50 million people will show up to endorse it when they vote for Trump. Those 50m people are the hardcore base of the Republican Party, and they aren't going to be wooed back to business as usual with the warmed-over run of a Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Elites in the GOP always cultivated the racism, ignorance, and conspiracies with a wink, thinking that after each election, they could carry on with the usual program of tax cuts and corporate deregulation. Trump has forced the party into a reckoning they have attempted to delay for years.

The reckoning is here and there's no going back. When we look back on these 24 hours, I suspect we'll see them as the moment the GOP shattered and was forced to become a different party.

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