The Party Switch
The Republican Party of the USA has gone through various distinct forms. From the 1860s onwards, it had been the party of Lincoln. This party abolished slavery, fighting and winning the civil war over it. Even though the inactivity and corruption of the post-Lincoln republican presidents lead to stagnation and the abandonment of reconstruction, there was no question for African Americans about voting for it or for southern white racists about not voting for it.
This would irrevocably change in the 1930s. When the democratic president Roosevelt overcame the Great Depression, instituted the American welfare systems, included African Americans as its beneficiaries and won WWII, he remade American politics. Not only was he so popular in general that after his four consecutive terms, but a term limit of two was also introduced. He also won most African Americans over from the party of Lincoln to the party of Roosevelt. This change, often called the party switch, was solidified in the 60s, when the democrats endorsed the civil rights movement. However, they were aware that they lost south for a generation.
Here lie the roots of the current Republican Party. On the one hand, they were vehemently opposed to the post-Roosevelt economic policies. But to challenge them would have been political suicide. So even economically hard right republican presidents like Nixon did not attack the post-war consensus. On the other hand, social and cultural issues remained open to contestation. This increasingly took the form of regressive identity politics for the primarily white, male, heterosexual and well-off old majority, feeling threatened by change. The best description of this comes from republican strategist Atwater, describing the southern strategy: “Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes. All these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. “Simultaneously racialising economic and political issues and using financial and political language to dog-whistle about ‚race ‘, the right-wing could also attract poor voters, who stood to lose from the republican economic programme.
The Reagan Revolution
The post-war consensus would drastically end in the 1980s with the triumph of Republican President Reagan. In the global ascent of neoliberalism, Reagan could realise many of the old republican economic core issues:
- The crushing of labour unions
- The dismantling of most social systems
- Large-scale privatisation
But his biggest triumph can be seen as the acceptance of this economic vision by the Democratic Party. (See: “First Class Ticket on the Titanic: The current Democratic Party”) Democratic President Bill Clinton and his successors would never challenge the new economic status quo. Instead, they relied on one vital advantage to distinguish themselves from the republicans. Even while Clinton ramped up incarceration rates in the 90s, disproportionally affecting black men, just the slightest symbolic offerings to minorities delivered them safely to the democrats, as they would never choose the increasingly crazy republicans.
Like this, the Republican Party found itself in a dilemma. Economically any further turn right would lead into insane territory like the anarcho-capitalist elimination of the state itself. But while some financial backers of the party pursued such goals and some republicans enacted measures in this direction, such a message simply can not attract a lot of voters. But the traditional strategy of gutturalising and racialising politics had reached its limit, as the percentage of minorities in the overall populations steadily increases and the American society increasingly liberalised on social issues. Yet, the republican constituency was too entrenched in opposition to societal liberalisation to stop. In ‚normal ‘circumstances, the Republican Party would have been done for.
Descent into Authoritarianism
But the party prevailed. Its voting base may steadily decline. In fact, the Republican Party has not won the popular vote in a presidential election since 1988, except for Bush’s re-election in 2004. But three distinct advantages are on the republican side.
Firstly, their constituency may be shrinking but is far more enthusiastic and reliable than the democratic one. Large parts of the population would never vote republican but are not exactly thrilled about the democrats either, as they do not offer much themselves but are simply less terrible. To win, the republicans simply have to depress voter turnout by smearing their opponents, who provide plenty of targets.
Secondly, the American electoral system is in many ways hopelessly outdated. The Electoral College for presidential elections and the Senate heavily favour the small, rural states in the mid-west, which are dominated by the republicans. Furthermore, some areas like Puerto Rico and Washington D.C. lean heavily democratic but are excluded from voting.
Thirdly, the republicans are just more ruthless than the democrats. Not that the latter are not corrupt or power-hungry. But maybe Democrats are more complacent, relying on their seemingly inevitable demographic advantage. Perhaps they are content with republicans cheating because republican opposition keeps them from enacting change in the interest of their constituency, which would threaten democratic donors. In any case, republicans fight on an entirely different level. By aggressive gerrymandering, the redrawing of voting districts in their favour, they can sway results heavily to their benefit. By many small acts of voter suppression (refusing to set voting on weekends or holidays, supplying too few voting machines, insisting on forms of voter registration less likely to be fulfilled by poor people and minorities, and so on), they can depress voter turnout. By breaking norms to aggressively stack the courts with conservative judges, they can prevent change for a generation, regardless of the election results.
The Orange Clown
The Republican Party is caught in a cycle of self-radicalisation. The party establishment is regularly challenged or overthrown by more and more unhinged grassroots movements in their constituency. This even threatens their financial model. While some parts of the donor class are entirely on board with ships course and the Tea Party movement, as one of the mentioned challenges was primarily backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, other parts of the economic elites are unsettled. They would still back the Republican Party against any socialist challengers but tend toward economically right-wing democrats like Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump was the ideal solution for this problem. (Probably) a billionaire himself, he could (probably) finance his own campaigns. And exactly his ridiculousness and arrogance that turned away some moderate republicans allowed the republican circus of cruelty to go into overdrive. Vague suggestions of breaking the neo-liberal consensus favouring the ‚little guy ‘were enough to sway some working-class voters.
Meanwhile, Trump intensified the class warfare from above and emboldened the regressive parts of his constituency by strongman politics, nationalism and the xenophobic red meat they were craving. Are immigrant children kept in cages and mistreated? The base will love those pictures. Are fascists demonstrating violently for Trump? Fine people on both sides.
To be clear: While there actual fascists on Trump’s side, Trumpism is not in itself fascist. One example of difference to historic fascism is the anti-state attitude of the American right. But Trumpism checks quite a few boxes of what Umberto Eco analysed as ‚Ur-Fascism ‘, a diffuse mélange, from which actual fascism can easily emerge. “Disagreement is Treason “? Check, Trump’s enemies are all framed as traitors. “Obsession with a plot “? Check, some of Trumps most ardent supporters are conspiracy theorists. Is the enemy “at the same time too strong and too weak”? Check, they are all ridiculed as pathetic soy boys, but at the same time supposed to run the media and a deep state. “Fear of Difference “, “Appeal to a Frustrated Middle Class “, “Contempt for the Weak “, “Machismo “, “Selective Populism “? Check, check, check.
All of this has not started with Trump, and neither is it likely to end with him. He was the next logical step. If the Republican Party does not reinvent itself from the ground up, which is unlikely, but as history shows not impossible, the next logical step after Trump might be a competent trumpet or actual fascist. The short-term best case might be a split of the Republican Party into one old Republican Party and one Trump party. The ideologically diverse coalition of Trump was only held together by his cult of personality (which is another similarity to fascism). But in the long-term, only (at least) sweeping reforms will make wanna-be authoritarian leaders like Trump impossible.