The mind boggles at the fact that, even with Hillary Clinton for an opponent, Donald Trump won in 2016.
According to the most reliable polling data, some forty percent of the electorate still supports him. This is even harder to process.
How could Trump not embarrass even the most doltish voters? How could they not care that, day after day, he adds to a mounting pile of evidence that proves beyond a reasonable doubt that he is corrupt, ignorant, incompetent, out of control, and, despite formidable competition, the worst president in modern times?
The short answer is: because nearly all of Trump’s remaining supporters identify as Republicans.
They are not all stupid or vile or non compos mentis. Most of them are, in fact, of sound mind. Many are good and considerate people, able to carry on conversations and to negotiate their ways through life’s vicissitudes.
And yet, they support Trump.
Explanations abound, but nothing quite dissipates the bafflement the Trump phenomenon arouses.
Trump voters feel dislocated and disrespected, they hate Hillary and her supporters (can’t blame them for that!); Fox News and other rightwing media have dumbed them down; they cannot bear to admit that they have been duped.
All true — but, even taken together, they don’t entirely explain why Trump is able to hold onto his marks; why so many of them remain bamboozled. One wants to say that there must be some straw out there that will eventually break the proverbial camel’s back. But perhaps there is not.
I will have more to say about that possibility shortly. First, though, I want to call attention to an obvious explanation that is very relevant, though frequently overlooked – that, with apologies to James Carville. it’s the institutions, stupid.
Our established and semi-established institutions are why we have Democrats and Republicans; and it is because we have Republicans that we still have Trump.
It seems like centuries, but it was only a few years ago that the Republican Party was, broadly speaking, “respectable.”
It was, however, a bundle of cultural contradictions, held together mainly by malice and greed.
It had a still thriving “establishment,” an Old Guard comprised of captains of industry and finance, local gentry, and well-off suburbanites. There were also parts of the country – mainly, but not only, in the Midwest and rural New England – where being Republican came with the territory, where it was a family tradition.
Then there were free market ideologues, intent on “starving the beast” (precipitating fiscal crises) and deregulating everything they could, regardless of the consequences for everything other than capitalists’ bottom lines.
The GOP was home too to Bible thumpers and social conservatives of all persuasions. Notwithstanding the comparatively liberal views of well-off, Republican ladies in the suburbs, they thought – and evidently still think — that their chances of pushing a “pro-life” (anti-abortion) agenda would fare better under Republicans than under Democrats. On this, if nothing else, they are surely right.
And there were the victims of later-day capitalist de-industrialization.
The enemy there is ultimately late (overripe) capitalism itself. But the lives of many working people have been made worse by the neoliberal economic policies Democrats – and Republicans too – have been promoting since the late seventies. Unfairly, but inexorably, Democrats have gotten most of the blame.
One reason why they have is that the Clintons and others in their cohort effectively purged their party’s feeble, left-leaning “populist” wing. It doesn’t help either that they have been known to disparage the victims of policies they support.
Thus, many working class and rural voters have lately found themselves in the Trump camp – alongside the racists, nativists, and fascist wannabes who have crawled out from under the rocks Trump overturned.
It is an unlikely alliance, replete with yet more cultural contradictions. However, there is at least one thing distraught workers do have in common with the vilest of the vile: their support for Republicans is not based on calculations of self-interest. They are both where they are because they have nowhere else to go.
Needless to say, Republicans before Trump were, and generally still are, Protestant and white. There were, however, Catholics and Jews also within their fold. Not all of them were stubborn contrarians; some became Republicans because they identified with Protestant elites; some because, having become prosperous, they thought that they would be better off with the GOP in power. Before 9/11, there were Republican Muslims too.
There were even black Republicans. Their identification with the GOP never amounted to much because, even in the North, black disenfranchisement was extreme. But it was a fact of some consequence that, from Reconstruction on, the GOP was a more natural home for politically active African Americans than the party of the Solid South.
This is why, in some African American circles, especially in the northeast and the mid-Atlantic, there was reluctance to being swept up into the Democratic ambit – even as northern Democrats began to champion civil rights, and as the Solid South slowly changed its allegiance to the other duopoly party.
Pockets of reluctance lingered on into and beyond the Kennedy-Johnson years. Why would they not! Well into the seventies, prominent Republicans were more likely to champion civil rights than to endorse overtly white supremacist views.
But, of course, those days are over. African Americans still on board with the GOP, especially with Trump in the White House, are not there because of long memories or historical grudges; they are there because they are troubled souls.
Meanwhile, the Republican establishment has been hard at work recruiting useful idiots, people with whom they have no cultural affinities or ideological agreements, and with whom they would never socialize, but on whom they depend for votes.
Barack Obama’s election energized those recruits; it also awakened the demons of more than a few of them. Thus the Tea Party was born, putting Democrats on the defensive not just in Congress but in state and local governments as well.
Add on Obama’s unwillingness to fight for his own side and his feet of clay and it was therefore no surprise that the Democrats were in the 2010 midterm elections. Their “shellacking,” as Obama called it, enabled Republican Governors and state legislators in states that had no effective Democratic opposition to gerrymander away all pretenses of majority rule. The consequences still resonate, eight years later.
But the pillars of the party were too clever by half. The inmates they had brought into their fold were taking over the asylum.
It took a while — by hook or crook, the establishment held its ground in 2012, Obama was elected to a second term, and Congress, while not getting any better, didn’t get a whole lot worse. But the writing was on the wall.
For the 2012 election, the best candidate the Republican establishment could come up with was Mitt Romney. Tea Partiers hated him, but voted for him anyway – grudgingly. When he lost, he took the establishment down with him.
Only loony tunes were left to take on the Democrats in 2016. They fought to exhaustion among themselves, but it hardly mattered; Trump crushed them all.
Thus he finished off, the GOP’s rotting hulk. The pre-Trump party establishment made feeble efforts to stay in control, and then gave up. Republicans won handily at all levels in the 2018 elections, but, for all practical purposes, the party was finished; it had become the Donald’s.
The old miscreants are still there, however; some like Mitch McConnell, a purported voice of reason, seem to be having a whale of a time; in McConnell’s case by encumbering the judicial system with rightwing judges who, with their lifetime appointments, will be doing harm for generations to come.
It has been truly astonishing too to see the Bible thumpers and free marketeers and other benighted ideologues compromise their principles and convictions in order to squeeze all they can out of Trump and the “deconstructing” deregulators he has empowered.
Who cares, after all, about payoffs to strippers when there is a chance of getting Planned Parenthood defunded!
“Make America Great Again?” Seriously? Their motto ought to be “venality conquers all.”
We cannot blame our Constitution of its authors for Republicans and Democrats; political parties came along after they had finished laying down the rules.
We can blame them, though, for the Electoral College, and for not implementing more (small-d) democratic electoral arrangements.
Were the rules they laid down more democratic, a President Trump would never have happened; and if somehow something like that did, it would be a lot easier to correct the mistake.
Blame for Republicans and Democrats lies with Republicans and Democrats. Over the years, they have seen to it that their duopoly status would be all but impossible to breach.
This is why voters don’t just give Trump the boot. They don’t because, in practice they cannot.
Neither duopoly party would survive under the slightly more democratic conditions that obtain in other liberal democracies. We however cannot rid ourselves of either of them.
And so, unless the electoral landscape changes radically in the Democrats’ favor after the November elections, Trump’s position is secure, and will remain secure for as long as he is able to maintain his hold over that wretched party.
Republicans of all stripes surely realize that were Trump to go and Mike Pence to take his place, they would be better off. The ones who are motivated solely by greed would do no worse; Pence would serve their interests as well as Trump does. And although he is every bit as awful, he would not scare off or disgust nearly as many voters as Trump does.
Dumping Trump would rattle a lot of cages, but surely the plusses outweigh the minuses. If the leaders of the GOP had any brains, they would go for it faster than the Donald can tell a lie or grope a playmate. But then if they had any brains, they wouldn’t be Republicans in the first place.
Therefore, much as they might like to see the back of him, they won’t be dumping Trump any time soon. Their fears of the useful idiots they recruited, in combination with institutions and practices that make it all but impossible for voters to correct their mistakes, insures that they won’t.
It is more likely that a cheeseburger too many will do Trump in or that his golf cart will be struck by lightening. Compared to that, he has nothing to fear from the party he has eviscerated.
It would be different if the economy were to turn bad in ways too glaring to ignore, or if an ongoing or future war goes disastrously wrong. Both are bound to happen, but probably not in time for November.
Neither is it likely that new embarrassments or new evidence of corruption would turn his base, or some significant segment of it, against him. There is so much evidence out there already. What difference would more make?
Maybe I am wrong about that; maybe there is some line that even they would not tolerate him crossing. Time will tell.
Romney wanted immigrants to “self-deport.” There would be a certain satisfaction if Trump would “self-impeach” — perhaps to save his or his children’s bottom lines or to keep from being a laughing-stock.
But even that is unlikely – first because, by disregarding laws and precedents and the norms of decency, Trump has actually been able to make money for himself and his children, even as he earns the contempt of his more thoughtful fellow citizens. It is unlikely too because he is too narcissistic to see how profoundly he has been harming the Trump brand, and too dense to realize that people all over the world already consider him a laughingstock.
My point is not that there is nothing to do but wait out his term in office, hoping that he doesn’t pull the plug on the world before it is too late to start reversing the harm he has done.
It is that getting rid of Trump would be no panacea, and that while efforts to remove him from office can do a lot of good, the struggle against Trump and Trumpism (racism, nativism, semi-fascism) – and for a better possible world – are best not bogged down by them.