The crisis in the Republican Party is not — repeat, NOT — the fault of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Barack Obama, Reince Priebus, John Boehner or any other single figure. It goes much deeper than that, to a series of fundamental contradictions that I’ve tried to distill into “The Three Howevers”:
1.) A core constituency of the Republican Party — the white working class male with a high school diploma — has seen his world shrink around him. Good-paying factory jobs, work in which you produce and build things, have disappeared and the humiliating service industry beckons. Their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters are dying earlier than ever under the stress, and they see themselves increasingly cast as losers in the popular culture. Their frustrations are natural and heartfelt, and the Republican Party has stoked that frustration as a way to build partisan loyalty.
The party that relies so heavily on the support of economically besieged white voters — Mitt Romney drew 61 percent of white voters over 45, yet lost — is constitutionally incapable of championing policies that would address their challenges or even offer them hope.
Simply put, the GOP does not believe government is a legitimate tool for helping people, and that core ideology leaves their toolbox bare when challenged for solutions. After seven years of promises, for example, they still can’t propose an alternative to ObamaCare because any program that would increase health coverage would require an activist federal government. The same is true of programs that might address the disparate impact of free-trade policies, which benefit some enormously while gutting the future for many others. So instead they offer nothing, and at some point nothing is no longer good enough. (Their proposals to “save” Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and other safety-net programs — i.e., by slashing benefits — also run directly counter to the best interests of those who look to them for help.)
2.) The Republican Party has long been the party of big business. Its core economic policy has been and continues to be to cut taxes on the wealthy, enhance corporate power, eliminate unions as a force, defund the social safety net and fight efforts such as increasing the minimum wage. That is the party’s identity. The people who have paid the party’s bills — who have bought the TV ads and created the think tanks and funded the SuperPACs and organized the AstroTurf groups — have insisted that their own upper-income economic interests dominate the party ideology and platform.
The American people, and more specifically the Republican base, are caught up in a populist uprising in which traditional GOP policy is no longer tenable. Poll after poll reflects a fundamental lack of faith in the current arrangement. In the most recent Gallup numbers, for example, just 11 percent say the wealthy are taxed too much and just 9 percent say that corporate taxes are too high, yet further slashing the tax burden of both groups remains a core Republican position. In a Pew poll released in February, 65 percent of Americans and 54 percent of Republicans agreed that the current economic system unfairly favors the powerful; just 31 percent describe the current balance as fair.
And within the Republican movement?
That’s a stark dichotomy. Sixty percent of Republicans with a six-figure income think the system is fair. Conversely, 60 percent of Republicans making $75,000 or less believe something quite different. Yet the party to whom those lower-income Republicans have pledged their support pursues an ideology in which that inequity must become more profound, not less. It didn’t take a political genius to recognize that disconnect as a huge opportunity; it took Donald Trump.
3.) To fend off demographic change, disguise the failure of their ideology, intensify partisan loyalty and build a lucrative audience for conservative media, Republicans committed themselves to a strategy of depicting Barack Obama not as another misguided political opponent, but as a dire, intentional and even existential threat to the future of the country, the free world and Christian civilization. He became the source of all problems, and his defeat became the singular cure. Hillary Clinton is now being groomed to play that same role.
That game is no longer sustainable. Republican leadership has proved hapless in attempting to defeat Obama and is likely to be equally ineffective against Clinton, and their base has noticed. Obama was re-elected fairly easily in 2012, and even after the mid-terms, when the GOP base did its heroic best by giving Republicans control of both the House and Senate, nothing happened to reward them for that effort.
They didn’t impeach Obama, they didn’t shut down the government, they didn’t repeal ObamaCare. Instead they negotiated budget agreements with the devil and contented themselves with show trials in Congress that blew up in their face. They didn’t fight Obama to the bitter end because in their hearts they didn’t dare; they knew that the American people as a whole did not share the belief in Obama’s inherent evil.
In short, they succeeded admirably in their effort to create a master villain, then failed utterly in defeating that villain. That failure then created a perfect environment for claims that the GOP elite has conspired with the enemy and has itself committed treason, with results that are now obvious.
“Contradictions do not exist,” Ayn Rand once asserted. “Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” Not surprisingly, I disagree. Irresolvable contradictions are inherent in the human experience. We all face them, in our professional as well as private lives; we all find ways to negotiate our way around or through them.
So in that spirit, let me contradict myself: As with the rest of her writings, Rand isn’t wrong entirely. There’s often a germ of truth in what she says; her mistake is in elevating that bit of truth into some major, inviolable, absolutist Truth to be applied in all cases. So while contradictions are real and often can be manuevered around, certain contradictions cannot. When the contrast between what we prefer to believe and what we witness with our own eyes has grown too large, something has to change. Things have to be “trued up.”
HOWEVER, as we’re likely to witness in Cleveland, that can be a gut-wrenching process.