Over the past 50 years the Republican Party has turned racial politics into an art form, demonstrating not only contempt for minorities but for democracy itself. Today Trump’s GOP manifests few of the nuances and most of the crudities of this wretched saga. Trump and his operatives aggressively stoke racial prejudice and channel it into votes to support their revanchist agenda. The party that once merely practiced racial politics now embraces white nationalists tied to and tolerant of domestic terrorism. Thanks to the nativist con-man-in-chief, the politically unacceptable has become the political norm.
Trump’s core supporters not only find his demagoguery acceptable, they expect and embrace it. Trump does not disappoint. White nationalist Patrick Casey gets an escorted tour of the White House. Ex Klansman David Duke is a Party standard bearer. Among the neo-nazis and skin heads are many “good people.” Migrants are “rapists and murderers” who come from “shithole countries.” Progressive women of color who serve in congress should “go back where they came from.” Only a small minority of Americans agree with Trump, but it’s his minority and he is making the worst of it.
Senate Republicans – complicit in bigotry or profiles in cowardice – are the new silent majority. But hitching a rough ride on the Trump express has proved to be too smart by half for the Party establishment. The GOP is reeling from self-inflicted wounds and fractured politics. Trump’s overt racism – grits and gravy for white supremacists – drives away moderate and center-right conservatives. Republican suburban voters, many of whom are women, are heading for the exits, leaving Trump to rant to the choir. Impeachment looms large. The craven accommodation the Party hierarchy made with Trump is looking less like a Faustian bargain and more like a suicide pact.
Trump’s core support in Congress remains nestled in the loving arms of the Freedom (sic) Caucus, some 40 hard-core rightwingers, ultra-nationalists who euphemistically call themselves conservative or libertarian. Their religious inspiration comes from the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jr.; their political talking points originate with Sean Hannity and Rupert Murdoch. Theirs is a slash and burn agenda that originally targeted the federal budget deficit, hoping to cripple or eliminate social programs and enfeeble the federal government. Today the focus is on deregulation, immigration, program elimination and tax cuts for the fat cats who bankroll the members. The new caucus chair is Jerry Biggs (AZ), but former co-chairs Mark Meadows (NC) and Jim Jordan (OH) are Fox News regulars. They are so extreme they make country club Republicans look like flaming liberals.
Meadows, an early birther and untiring Obama critic, is Southern savvy, slightly paranoid, and as ambitious as they come. Too shrewd for the overt racial politics of a Jesse Helms, Meadows has been a loyal enabler and defender of his racist-in-chief. I will leave it to the philosophers to decide whether one can enable racism and not absorb the stink. When he comes home to North Carolina and speaks to the true believers (invite only) at Hawg Wild BBQ, the place is surrounded by city police and sheriffs’ deputies to keep out the riff-raff. One or two of the hired guns are black and at least one has a Spanish surname, but the irony is lost or ignored by all.
Bankrolled by the Koch heads and other corporate mogulites, Meadows surfeits cable TV channels with propaganda ads that would make Goebbels proud. He blasts SOCIALISM, advocates more tax cuts for his wealthy backers, urges completion of the border wall, and accuses liberals of conspiracy and treason. He is creating a national profile for himself and will challenge one of the state’s two Republican senators if he does not see a bigger opportunity. But Meadows is a cowardly politician who fears his own constituents, although he, like Jordan, comes from a mostly white, heavily gerrymandered district. His spinal infusions come from Jordan who former House Speaker John Boehner labelled a “legislative terrorist” and from Mick Mulvaney whose policies and priorities reflect deep roots in evangelical politics. He shapes Trump’s agenda as much as anyone other than the president himself.
The caucus thrives while the GOP reels from internal contradictions and political disarray. The loss of the House of Representatives is the most recent indicator, but there are others. Once a cohesive, corporate-dominated political machine, the GOP has become a playing field for assorted rightwing nuts, including white supremacists who have gravitated to the caucus. They have made it a white man’s club whose members feed on fear and racism. The most extreme among them profess loyalty to Donald Trump, but others see him as weak, erratic and vulnerable. Trump’s response, no doubt, would be that he is president and they are not. But the caucus offers the extreme right a policy base and a platform. Trump offers only himself and his pathetic tweets.
You won’t find it identified as such on the website, but the Freedom Caucus has morphed from the old Tea Party into a political training camp for white nationalist and corporate fascists. And its future success is not tied to the political fortunes of Donald Trump. If he wins in 2020, they win because Trump and the FC share a fascist worldview. But even if he loses, they win because the FC will still be positioned to exploit the fears and anger of the paranoid right and draw support from across the country. They will sabotage progressive government any way they can, presumably stopping short of fomenting armed rebellion. The caucus grew from the grass roots and will survive, perhaps thrive, with or without Trump. Its mission is to create a national movement, not to feed the narcissism of a celebrity Tweeter-in-Chief.
Meadows and his fellow caucus members’ “suspicious malcontent” is straight out of the politics of paranoia. (See Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”) Paranoia, racism, and nationalism make a toxic brew, feeding reactionary impulses that are potentially fatal to democracy. But democracy is far from a priority for the Freedom Caucus. It is, in fact, a major source of most members’ angst. They reveal their true colors when they volunteer that they are not Puerto Ricans or that the country needs more white babies. Or when Matt Gaetz (FL), Meadows, Jordan and some 20 others storm troop into a closed impeachment hearing hoping to cow Democrats and intimidate witnesses. Gaetz – mouthpiece for racism, white nationalism, and anti-semitism – is the poster boy for Trump loyalists. Daddy must have been proud.
Meadows and Jordan have a direct link to Trump through his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former congressman from SC and one of the “brains” behind the original Tea Party movement. Mulvaney is a hard-right Catholic with a strong nationalist bent and a quiet commitment to white supremacy. He is known for his sarcasm and bull-dog tenacity. Smarter than Meadows or Jordan, Mulvaney gives the impression of growing more extreme, even brash, now that he is a hotshot in the White House. Deregulating with a frenzy, he is a precision tool for corporate fascism. In the words of an Old Guard Republican senator from the South, he is “the most dangerous man in Washington.” (Eat your heart out John Bolton.)
One would think that Mulvaney, as Trump’s main henchman, would be loyal to his narcissistic boss. But Trump is not one of “them;” he is more celebrity than politician, more useful idiot than rightwing strategist. Idiot or not, his usefulness to the Freedom partyers is fading as his liabilities increase every day. Ukraine looms large. Trump’s repeated claim that there was “no quid pro quo” had already begun to ring hollow when Mulvaney acknowledged that there was a quid pro quo and that it happens all the time. He then gratuitously added that the press might as well “get used to it.” Presumably Mulvaney has become used to the possibility of being sacked at any moment.
But Mulvaney is nobody’s fool. A smart lawyer and seasoned pol, he would never have accidentally or inadvertently thrown the President under a bus, especially one routed to impeachment. Mulvaney knew whereof he misspoke. It was a shocking betrayal, one that could lead to Trump’s impeachment. With Trump out of the picture, Mulvaney would have an opportunity to help shape what is left of the party and extend the influence of the caucus. We could expect him and his allies to rally around Mike Pence, a man after their own heart. They will be pushing their agenda long after Trump has retired to Mar a Lago or to a federal prison.
Anticipating that less extreme Republicans may revert to type after Trump, the caucus leadership is reportedly exploring the practicality of forming a new party. A launching pad is already in place. Offspring caucuses now exist in Idaho and Texas. Virginia boasts a grass roots movement aimed at controlling school boards, local governments and other institutions. No doubt other states will succumb to the virus. This is a key part of the evangelicals’ “war on secularism” that Mulvaney and other right-wing Catholics, AG William Barr, for example, are happy to help wage. Packing the courts with reactionary judges is another front in that war. Progressives need to up their game and take on what is rapidly becoming a serious threat to democratic governance.
If Democrats fail to stop Trump and he wins re-election in 2020, the transition from authoritarian to dictatorial will be a natural move for him and his base. Should he lose, it would not be out of character for him to challenge and attempt to negate the result. Republican precedents for this loom large. With Trump’s blessing, the extremists in the party would happily ditch the Constitution to maintain power. Who needs to accept the results of a fake election if you can impose martial law? An executive order from Trump followed by Tweets to his Attorney General and to the Joint Chiefs of Staff should do the job. That was the dark vision painted last year by political guru Norman Ornstein; since then things have only gotten worse.
One could argue that if the Democrats prove too feckless to protect the integrity of the 2020 presidential election, they deserve to lose to Trump. True enough, but the nation does not deserve to be dragged down that dark hole. A fascist America is too high a price to pay for the stupidity and cowardice of the Democratic Party. The message from constituents to Democrats should be clear: defeating Trump in 2020 is imperative, but it is not enough. Every effort must be made to form a broad political alliance with the singular goal of stopping not just Trump but the incipient fascism he exudes.
Tracking organizations like the ADL and the ACLU report a spike in hate groups – now approaching 1,000 – and the crimes they commit. A dozen or so vocal white supremacist ran for political office on the Republican ticket last fall. They did not fare well, but these sharks are still stirring, keenly aware that Trump and the GOP have created a unique opportunity for them to organize, recruit, and promote their own brand of bile. As several observers have pointed out, they operate within the mainstream of the Republican Party. Their aim is clear: to advance their cause as far as possible within the framework of the GOP. If that avenue closes, they will find another.
Trump has spoken publicly – perhaps in jest – about making the White House his permanent home. Has there ever been an aspiring dictator who did not want to ensconce himself in power? But Trump will need more than a hollowed-out Republican Party to keep him in office. The GOP, like the Vatican, has no divisions; but there are potential shock troops Trump could draw on, namely white supremacists and over the top Christian nationalists. The love affair between the GOP and Gavin McInnes and his thugish Proud Boys shows promise as does Franklin Graham and his flock of double down born agains. They have been waiting for an uber leader who gets it alles, one who speaks their language and can give them a place to call home. Real or potential, they now have one, sitting in the White House watching Fox News and formulating his next Tweet. A Mussolini ultra lite, but heh, nobody’s perfect.
Fascism has moved into our lives while we were dancing with the stars, watching the latest Tarantino gore-fest or fixating on why Joe Biden missed the bus some forty years ago. For more than two years, the most insightful observers on the left have written at length about the neo-fascist components of Trumpism and, to a lesser degree, about those of the Republican Party itself. Yet the mainstream media and the vast majority of political operatives and junkies avoid the label despite the evidence. Skirting the obvious, they label Trump narcissistic or Islamophobic or racist. He is all these things, of course, and more. But when his personality traits are linked with his words and deeds, only an obscurantist would call a spade anything other than a spade.
Militant opposition is essential, not only to render neo-fascism impotent but to ensure the future of democracy. How many Americans will it take to deliver a coup de grace to the zombie creatures we know as the Republican Party and its Freedom Caucuses? Fewer than you might think if House Democrats and the courts do their jobs. A big IF indeed.
Howard Zinn told us that mass protest movements can be more effective than putting our faith in elected officials — or in a Supreme Court that has gone AWOL. By taking to the streets, the brave people of Puerto Rico, Russia, Hong Kong, Lebanon, and many other places have shown the way. If we take a pass on any opportunity to de- fang Trumpism, it is we who will be sowing the seeds of authoritarianism. Who wants to tell the kids that mom and pop were complicit in the death of American democracy?