In some ways, the most interesting political story of 2015 was not Donald Trump but the widespread pundit reaction to Trump. Throughout the year, until a different conclusion became unavoidable, the expert consensus was that Trump was a single day or one inflammatory statement away from self-destruction, that his ceiling of support was 25 percent of Republicans at most, and even that was transitory. Another theme was that once Republican primary and caucus voters saw that Trump was anything but a true conservative—given his past support for a single-payer health-care system, his insistence on taxing the rich, and his contributions to Democrats, including Hillary Clinton—he would collapse.
The willful suspension of disbelief by so many political professionals and analysts had multiple roots. One part was a deep belief that history rules—since rogue and inexperienced candidates had always faltered before, it followed that it would happen again. Another was that nothing has changed in a meaningful way in American politics—there has not been real polarization, only natural “sorting,” and the establishment will rule, as it always does. A third was that there are certain characteristics expected of a president—prudence, civility, expertise—that would eventually cause Trump and the other outsiders like Carson, Cruz, and Fiorina to fall by the wayside.
Those roots remain resilient in the punditocracy and political community. They were and are wrong. Both Trump and a broader phenomenon—call it Trumpism—are stronger and deeper than most veteran political analysts realized or were willing to acknowledge. They are neither immediate nor transitory phenomena. The disdain for the status quo, for authority figures of both parties and other institutions, and the anger at inexorable changes in society, are real, enduring, and especially deep on the Republican side. Ideology forms a significant part of that anger, but it transcends much of the predictable divide between liberals conservatives. And even if neither Trump nor Cruz—who also channels much of the Trumpist message and approach—win a presidential nomination, it will persist, and contend for primacy in the GOP, well beyond 2016.
For the past several months, every poll has shown outsider candidates, either those vigorously attacking their own leaders and other societal elites or those having no experience at all in politics or governance, garnering over 60 percent support from Republican voters. The main insider, establishment figures hover at around 20 percent support. And of course, the most outsider, populist, and bombastic among them, Donald Trump, has led the field in the vast majority of national polls—and in most state polls, as well.
At the same time, Freedom Caucus members, the most conservative in Congress, were attacked from the right for supporting Paul Ryan as speaker—a man who is by far the most conservative speaker of the House in history. And probably the second most conservative speaker, John Boehner, was hounded from office for not being radical and tough enough.
But who is responsible for the rise of Trumpism? What caused the crippling migraine headaches now afflicting the toughly pragmatic conservative-establishment wing of the GOP? Here are the people and institutions who played a role—however deliberate, unwitting, or inadvertent—in laying the groundwork for Trumpism to flourish in America:
From the day he arrived in Washington following his election to the House in 1978, Newt Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House—something that had not happened since 1954. His strategy eventually worked. Unfortunately, it also wrought immense collateral damage. Newt worked to nationalize congressional elections to reduce the advantage enjoyed by individual incumbents—and to create a climate in which Americans would be so disgusted with Congress that they would say, collectively, “Anything would be better than this.” He wanted them to throw the In Party out and bring the Out Party in.
That meant a long campaign to delegitimize Congress, politics, and politicians, and to provoke the Democratic majority to overreact, thereby alienating even moderate Republicans in Congress and uniting them against the evil Democrats. A series of scandals, real and not-so-real, including the House Bank and post office, helped. His campaign included using ethics charges as a political weapon, resulting in the resignation of Speaker Jim Wright, reinforcing the image of a scandal-ridden, insular and out-of-touch majority.
It took 16 years for Gingrich to succeed. A Democratic president provided his key. For Bill Clinton’s first two years, Gingrich and his allies worked to demonize and delegitimize Clinton, and at the same time helped House Republicans coalesce into a unified opposition from the beginning to the Clinton agenda. That made Clinton’s policy efforts a huge strain, eventually killing his signature health-reform plan. The bitter messiness—government as a scandal-plagued partisan mud battle—set up Republicans for a huge midterm election in 1994. Newt won and became speaker, although Democrats almost brought him down with a set of ethics charges that evoked those he had used against Jim Wright. Along the way, his strategy also brought with it a deeply damaged image of Congress and alienation from government, sharply enhanced partisan enmity and rancor, and tribalized politics. Gingrich assumed that when he became speaker, he could co-opt the radical outsiders he brought with him to Washington. It never happened. Their disdain for Washington, government, and Congress continued, even during their majority status. And, as Sean Theriault writes in The Gingrich Senators, many of them migrated to the Senate, making its culture more partisan and combative.
There was another Gingrich effect. One of Newt’s first acts as speaker was to get rid of the highly professional, nonpartisan Office of Technology Assessment, Congress’s scientists who could use their expertise to inform lawmakers and adjudicate differences based on scientific fact and data. The elimination of OTA was the death knell for nonpartisan respect for science in the political arena, both changing the debate and discourse on issues like climate change, and also helping show in the contemporary era of “truthiness,” in which repeated assertion trumps facts.
Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Jim Wright, William Rehnquist, and Newt Gingrich (Again)
Newt’s effort got a big boost in 1988 and 1989. Outgoing President Ronald Reagan, incoming President George H.W. Bush, every congressional leader (including Jim Wright and Newt Gingrich), and the leaders of the judiciary, including Chief Justice William Rehnquist, supported a sizable pay raise for lawmakers, top executive officials, and judges. The raise was recommended by a blue-ribbon panel to make up for a long period with no pay increase, but it came at a time of economic stagnation and enraged the public.
The pay raise brought a populist uprising, from Ralph Nader on the left to Pat Buchanan on the right, covered amply by press outlets like Newsweek, which portrayed Congress as a collection of pampered and rich elites more like Marie Antoinette than working Americans, with chandeliered dining rooms providing posh free meals, a first-class spa, and other services, all available to lawmakers at taxpayers’ expense.
Rush Limbaugh had been a minor talk radio host in Sacramento, just moved to New York before the pay raise brouhaha and ready to establish a bigger career thanks to the demise, a short while beforehand, of the FCC’s fairness doctrine. No doubt, Limbaugh, an immensely talented entertainer, would have been a success regardless. But the pay raise gave him a huge boost. He jumped on it, and it became the vehicle for his national rise and celebrity—and the blossoming of conservative talk radio as a major political phenomenon. Limbaugh, of course, has been joined by Laura Ingraham, Mark Levin, and a host of others who have built huge audiences by attacking not just evil Democrats but their own establishment leaders. Among them is Alex Jones, whose wild conspiracy theories, including that the U.S. government was involved in both the Oklahoma City bombing and the 9/11 attacks, and that the president, the military, and others are conspiring to take people’s guns and property and create a dictatorship, have helped generate an atmosphere of distrust that plays right into the hands of Trump. Trump, of course, went on Jones’s show and praised his “amazing reputation,” while Jones said his listeners agreed with 90 percent of what Trump stands for.
Talk radio is its own phenomenon. Cable news is another, reinforcing the impact in a different media. For years following its creation in 1980, CNN dominated cable news. Sixteen years later, Rupert Murdoch created Fox News Channel and named Roger Ailes as its head. It started with a tiny fraction of households, with no outlets in New York or Los Angeles. But Ailes transformed it into the overwhelming leader in the cable news world and the most profitable element of the vast Murdoch empire. Along the way, Ailes changed the worlds of news and politics. He did so by creating a new business model, using fast pacing and graphics, and charismatic and talented hosts. But mostly it was a model based on luring an audience of staunch conservatives who felt neglected by other television news outlets, treated with contempt for their views by a liberal mainstream media. Ailes used the slogan “Fair and Balanced” to appeal to this audience, but of course the content was neither; Fox adopted a sharp partisan and ideological viewpoint, and attracted a consistently robust audience of more than 2 million viewers of the right demographic for advertisers at any given time, which made it a highly profitable operation.
But Fox’s impact went way beyond its core audience. It became an opinion leader and agenda setter for conservatives and Republicans. It is a core source of news for Republicans. Much of the anger at Barack Obama, at Obamacare, at attempts to deal with climate change and the scientists supporting them, and even at immigration, has been fueled by Fox shows and Fox hosts. It is not omnipotent; when Trump went after host Megyn Kelly in misogynistic terms, it did not hurt his standing at all—indeed, Fox’s very success meant that many of Trump’s supporters saw it as another part of the establishment attacking their anti-establishment hero, who responded by punching back, hard. But it has had much to do with the way many other outlets, including radio, bloggers, magazines, and internet news aggregators, have organized their business models, catering to apocalyptic forces, fueling fear and anger, contributing mightily to the partisan tribalization that helps Trumpism flourish.
CNN and MSNBC
Fox’s dominance of cable news has left its main rivals, CNN and MSNBC, floundering for business models and audiences. MSNBC has tried to emulate Fox on the left, but has adjusted to doing so only in prime time hours, trying straight news during the day. CNN has tried, without notable success, to hold to a middle ground. But both have seized on Trumpmania as a way of luring viewers. Nearly every Trump rally is covered in real time; every outrageous Trump statement or action gets blanket attention. Meanwhile, equally outrageous statements by other candidates—Ben Carson saying a Muslim shouldn’t be president, Mike Huckabee saying God’s law trumps the Constitution, Chris Christie threatening to go to Defcon 1 against Russia—barely get mentioned. Trump thrives on attention, good or bad.
To be sure, there are many co-conspirators here. Network Sunday news shows like Meet the Press apply different rules to Trump, allowing him to be interviewed by telephone, something they would not do for other candidates. Eyeballs count, on TV and on websites, and since Trump provides eyeballs, the rules of journalism go out the window.
CNN has had another, broader impact on discourse. Its longstanding attempt to be straightforward has meant that its shows either follow the Crossfire model—someone from the left edge of the spectrum yelling at someone from the right edge, or a spinner from the Democratic side facing off against a GOP spinner—or insist on bringing in “experts” from both sides to discuss or debate issues. By creating a sense that discourse is all one extreme against the other or one cynic against another, CNN has added to the corrosive cynicism that permeates politics, fertile ground for a Trump. And by having every discussion of climate change include one scientist who says it is real and manmade against another who denies it, CNN has contributed to an atmosphere where “facts” are not real—you can find an expert anywhere to deny them.
What could an Englishman with no connection whatsoever to American politics have to do with Trumpism? The answer, of course, is that Tim Berners-Lee is widely credited with inventing the world wide web. It has brought wondrous changes to the world—I can now sit at my desk and have immediate access to more information than the entire U.S. government, with all its resources and supercomputers, could have had in the pre-Internet days. I can watch events in the world unfold in real time. And thanks to the social media that followed, I can connect and interact instantly with multiple communities, of friends, kin, and interests.
But these remarkable advances have also brought unintended consequences, including a dramatic deterioration of civil discourse and social standards. A world with a massive cacophony of voices and sources engenders efforts to grab attention, which means shouting and shocking. On cable television, talk radio, blogs, video games, Internet comment pages and chat rooms, nothing is too coarse or off limits anymore—whether it is calling the president a “half-breed mongrel” or a monkey, or saying Mexicans are rapists and thousands of American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks. It is not just politics. Violence and graphic sex are everywhere, further deadening reaction to violations of societal standards. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan had an incisive term: “Defining Deviancy Down.” It surely applies here.
Conspiracy theories, demagoguery, and anti-elitism are rooted in American culture, as the historian Richard Hofstadter ably documented in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. But when Hofstadter wrote, in the 1950s and 1960s, the collection of individuals deeply receptive to those appeals were fragmented and had limited opportunities to communicate together, form communities of interest, or engage in collective action, except via face-to-face meetings in localities. The web and social media have changed all that.
The web and its adjuncts have also changed the way people get and process information. Americans are less likely to share a common body of facts received passively via a small, collective set of sources like three television networks and one or two daily metropolitan newspapers. Now they can all actively seek out the information sources they want—and actively avoid those that provide dissonant information. And that has created a set of closed information loops for large numbers of people, supplying them with “facts” that may or may not be true. And often those “facts” are shared more widely via email and social media like Facebook and Twitter. Thus, 23 percent of Americans in 2014 did not believe that Barack Obama was born in the U.S., and an additional 17 percent were not sure. When “mainstream” media sources point out that “facts” are fiction, those who believe simply discount the mainstream sources. So Donald Trump can say anything, and fact-check organizations showing that his statements are false are ridiculed and attacked by those who support him and believe him no matter what.
Hank Paulson, Tim Geithner, and Larry Summers
There is no doubt that without direct and swift government intervention, the financial crisis in the fall of 2008 would very likely have led to a global credit freeze, and a resulting depression that would have eclipsed the 1930s. To their great credit, George W. Bush, Hank Paulson, congressional leaders of both parties, and the two presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, endorsed that swift action. But in a major warning sign, their package created a populist backlash among House Republicans, who at first rejected the package, before a precipitous drop in the Dow brought enough around to get it passed.
The effect of the bailout package was huge and still reverberates today—even more because of the actions and inactions of the Obama administration’s economic team in the still-shaky economic turmoil that followed Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Both Paulson and his successor, Tim Geithner, focused on saving major agents in the financial system, but refused to countenance any actions to punish, or at least bring to the dock, any of the miscreants who had caused the collapse. What Americans saw was elites conspiring to protect their fellow elites—who got off scot-free, along with bonuses, while the rest of the country suffered, losing homes or seeing their home values drop precipitously, losing jobs and nest eggs. No one went to jail. In the meantime, the Obama administration put forth a tepid plan to protect homeowners from foreclosure, which was not fully implemented, and put no significant pressure on banks to free up the huge amount of capital they held in reserve to help out middle-class homeowners.
No surprise: It produced a huge populist surge. The Tea Party movement blossomed on the right, and Occupy Wall Street exploded on the left. Bernie Sanders’s strength in the Democratic presidential nomination battle is one reflection of that anger. But the Tea Party has been much stronger and more organized. Its immense support from talk radio hosts like Limbaugh, Ingraham, and Levin and from bloggers like Erickson, has helped it to defeat powerful House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary, push Speaker John Boehner out of office, and block his designated successor, Kevin McCarthy. It has also fueled the anti-establishment mood that has enabled Donald Trump to flourish.
The Young Guns: Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan
Speaking of Cantor and McCarthy, they, along with Paul Ryan, leapt to the forefront after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. The three wrote a book called “Young Guns,” heralding a new strategy, starting on or before Obama’s Inauguration, to regain Republican majorities in Congress and sweep him out of office after one term. One part of that strategy was to get Republicans to unite in opposition to anything and everything Barack Obama wanted, just as Gingrich had done to such great effect against Bill Clinton. Drawing another page from the Gingrich playbook, the Young Guns also fanned out across the country recruiting Tea Party populists to run for Congress in the midterm elections.
Their playbook started with the debt ceiling—the Young Guns instructed their recruits to use it in their campaigns, an easy vehicle to show commitment to keeping the debt in check by vowing never to support an increase in the debt limit. Along with that was a promise to use the debt ceiling as a hostage, to force Obama to his knees by making him give up his key policy goals and accomplishments to prevent economic catastrophe via a breach in the debt ceiling. Thus, a new Republican majority could force repeal of Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and make the president support dramatic cutbacks in domestic government and spending.
The Young Guns told their recruits that they would act even before the debt ceiling was reached, promising a good-faith down payment on the conservative revolution to eliminate most government by immediately cutting spending by $100 billion after the new Republican majority was sworn in.
The tactics worked at the polls; Republicans won historic victories in the midterms, and achieved a robust majority in the House. But right after they arrived, the budget-cutting icon Paul Ryan was dispatched to give them bad news. They actually could not cut spending immediately by $100 billion. Ryan used “budgetspeak” to explain that the fiscal year had started well before the election, and they had to pro-rate the amount, and take into account the timetable of the budget process, so they could only achieve about a third of what they had promised. The Republican leaders staved off a revolt, but set in motion a distrust that encompassed traditional and older leaders like John Boehner but also the Young Guns themselves. As with Gingrich, the Young Guns assumed they could co-opt the new radicals. As with Gingrich, it did not work.
In the end, of course, the Republican majority in the House achieved none of its big promised goals—not the repeal of Obamacare or Dodd-Frank, not the elimination of Obama after one term, not the end of a single government agency. They were, however, able to bring to a halt any major new advances in Obama’s third and fourth years, and through the sequester cuts across-the-board in government, to sharply retard the growth of domestic programs. But those achievements meant little to a group of lawmakers and their activist supporters who had been promised the moon and were given a single slice of cheese instead.
At the same time, the promises to use debt ceiling and budget brinksmanship to bring Obama to heel resulted inevitably in Republican leaders backing down; the one time the government was actually shut down, briefly, in 2013 got them nothing in return. Added to the sense of promises unkept was a perception by conservatives of spinelessness on the part of Republican leaders—and a desire for someone who would not cave, who would respond to every slight or pushback not by reasoning or bargaining but by punching the other guys in the nose.
The deepening sense that Republican establishment leaders, inside Congress and out, were more concerned with winning and holding office than achieving policy goals, rankled and then enraged the conservative ideologues in the House. They grew unsatisfied enough even with the long-time right-wing caucus called the Republican Study Committee that they created their own rump Freedom Caucus. When most of the members of the even-more-right-wing-than-the right-wing caucus supported Paul Ryan for speaker, they were attacked—from the right. And Ryan’s masterful ability to strike a spending and tax deal with congressional Democrats and Obama itself was hit by many conservatives. Indeed, The Hill reported, “Conservative pundit Ann Coulter says Ryan, just seven weeks on the job, is ripe for a primary challenge. ‘Paul Ryan Betrays America,’ blared a headline on the conservative site Breibart.com. And Twitter is littered with references to the Wisconsin Republican’s new ‘Muslim beard.’”
But the disgruntlement went well beyond conservative ideologues, as David Frum described so well for The Atlantic. The resolve of Republican congressional leaders to strike deals with Obama to preserve tax breaks for the ultra-rich was not well-received by working-class white voters otherwise attracted to a Republican, anti-Obama message. It prepared the ground for an outsider populist alternative like Trump.
Anthony Kennedy, John Roberts, Mitch McConnell
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was a huge victory for Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, an ardent opponent of all campaign-finance regulation who had been thwarted in 2002 when the Court upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act known popularly as McCain-Feingold. Abandoning his pledge during his confirmation hearing to respect stare decisis and decide cases as narrowly as possible, Chief Justice John Roberts moved early in his tenure to take a narrow case and blow it open to a major one that challenged many decades of established law and Supreme Court decisions. Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion and provided the decisive fifth vote.
Citizens United alone did not eviscerate the campaign-finance regimen. But it, along with succeeding cases like Speech Now and McCutcheon, and the resolve of McConnell’s hand-picked members of the Federal Election Commission to block all regulations and enforcement of campaign laws and Court-endorsed disclosure requirements, turned the campaign-money system into an enhanced version of the Gilded Age, one in which limits were almost meaningless and a small number of oligarchs could dominate politics and politicians.
Interestingly, populists on the left and the right rebelled against this new order. The Freedom Caucus, for example, blocked McConnell’s attempt to remove even more limits on parties’ fundraising. So when Donald Trump condemned the role of big money, confessing that he had actively participated in buying and selling politicians but thought it was bad, attacking all his rivals for their Super PACs and billionaire sugar daddies, it drew to him even more populist support.
There is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of Republicans do not like Barack Obama, to put it mildly. The partisan gap on presidential approval is the largest ever, and the Republican narrative on the Obama presidency is relentlessly negative. He is at once imperial and overbearing, using executive authority to run roughshod over the Constitution and trample his opponents, and weak and feckless when it comes to facing ISIS, al Qaeda, Putin, and America’s enemies. And of course, the failure of Republican establishment leaders to punch back and bring him to heel is a core part of the anger fueling Trumpism.
Obama as an illegitimate president was a theme pursued from the moment of his inauguration by ruthlessly pragmatic Republican leaders, much as they had done against Bill Clinton, as a tactical maneuver. But reinforced by tribal and social media, from Fox to Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, by “birthers” in Congress and around the country—including, famously, Donald Trump—the campaign to delegitimize Obama as a Kenyan-born socialist was more relentless and widespread. Campaigns that suggested Obama was going to seize Americans’ guns, reinforced on social media and talk radio, or plotting to advance a military coup to remain as president, advanced by Alex Jones and others as the Jade Helm conspiracy, and not repudiated by Texas Governor Greg Abbott or Senator Ted Cruz, added to the fire.
Race was not all of it, but it was undeniably a part, including comments like Ted Nugent’s that Obama is a “half-breed mongrel,” and Ann Coulter’s, on Fox News’s Sean Hannity Show, that the president was a “monkey” for Vladimir Putin.
Obama’s race, in many respects, became a symbol for a range of changes occurring in American society. Large numbers of working-class white Americans felt deeply unsettled as they struggled through a sluggish economy and the continuing aftereffects of the 2008 collapse—even as the 1 percent thrived more than ever. As social mores changed rapidly, including acceptance of same-sex marriage and the protests against police killings of unarmed civilians, and as social movements like Black Lives Matter emerged, the sense of frustration over a world where the social order was turning upside down became ripe for exploitation by Trump, Cruz, Huckabee, and others.
The immigration issue has been a symbol of all this change. Trump exploded as a factor on the scene when he adopted a position on immigration more extreme than other candidates—and in sharp contrast to the efforts by the Republican establishment, from Reince Priebus on down, to try to find a way to soften the rhetoric on the issue, and find a legislative solution that would give their party traction with Hispanic voters. The sharp tangle between Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio over the issue—Rubio trying to “taint” Cruz by suggesting he has supported a path to legalization, Cruz emphasizing Rubio’s key role in brokering a comprehensive plan for immigration reform in the Senate—is a measure of the issue’s importance as a dividing line between insiders and outsiders, at a time when outsider status is more valuable.
Consider a world where partisan tribalism—the sense that the other party is a threat to the country, the enemy, not just an adversary—is conjoined with race, one party becoming overwhelmingly white, the other largely non-white. The challenge for national unity will be much sharper than it has been in over a century.
To be sure, many elements of this saga—raging populism; coarsened culture; bitter, invective-laced politics; demagoguery and nativism inside and outside the political world; partisan media; and an intertwining of race and politics—are not new at all in American history. The news is more about the amplified impact of these factors in a corrosive witches brew, in a modern world of new technology. The stakes are high. Comparable challenges and crises, say in the early days of the new republic, in the hyper-populism of the 1820s, in the Civil War era, and in the 1890s into the first decade-plus of the 20th century, took a decade or more to work through and return to some semblance of normalcy and national unity. It is not clear we have any more the luxury of time. When I wrote an essay for Foreign Policy a few years ago that the editors titled, “Worst. Congress. Ever.” I got a lot of feedback saying, “Come on, is it worse than the period leading up to the Civil War?” I responded, “You’re right. Isn’t it comforting to be compared to the period right before the Civil War?”
Of course, the first real contest for the nomination is still weeks away, and it might well be that Trump, Cruz, and Trumpism will falter, leaving a path open for a more traditional establishment nominee. But the factors that created this dynamic will not fade even if Trump and Cruz do. The face of American politics, and especially of the Republican Party, will be different from what most pundits have experienced or expected, for a long time to come. And the dysfunction of American politics won’t disappear or abate with a single election, or two, or three.