And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king! –Richard II
There are many things to say as we watch the collapse of one of the world’s great political parties play out in real time. Let’s begin by going back to the last time the U.S. of A. experienced a party realignment comparable to this one. The realignment, like most other relatively recent big social changes in this country, took place in the 1960s.
In the year 1960, the presidential election pitted the incumbent Republican Vice President – Richard Nixon – against a young, handsome, articulate son of one of the nation’s wealthiest families. This particular son was not supposed to be the family’s political standard-bearer (that role belonged to the eldest), but World War II changed a lot of things for a lot of families. The Kennedy’s, even with their great wealth and prestige, were no different.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was optimistic, energetic, and beautiful on screen. Richard Milhous Nixon was unattractive, somewhat creepy, but highly qualified. The result of the contest was one of the closest and most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. Kennedy won, barely, and to this day many are convinced that votes, especially in Chicago, were bought or stolen.
Kennedy’s presidency is a strange one to describe. The beautiful man with his beautiful wife and beautiful children captivated the sentiments of many, but accomplished little tangible domestic reform. Abroad, there was the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also the Bay of Pigs debacle. His administration is remembered more for its captivating rhetoric and great dreams deferred than any legislative or diplomatic accomplishment.
In 1963, the president was assassinated. We had won the war, fighting to save what was left of decency in Western civilization, only to see our charismatic leader gunned down in broad daylight in a car on a Dallas street. Perhaps the country lost something then that it will never get back, but to say so definitively requires a lot more wisdom than anyone could possibly possess. Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson became our 36th president.
In the 1964 election, incumbent President Johnson won 44 states, with a 15.5 million popular vote margin of victory. That year the Republican Party had been taken over by a new face with new ideas. Barry Goldwater, a businessman and senator from Arizona, had strong anti-Communist, anti-labor union, anti-New Deal views. Unlike the Dwight Eisenhower presidency and Nixon candidacy, he was a Republican who rejected much of the American political post-war consensus. Though Goldwater was crushed in the general, his nomination legitimized the Conservative Movement and made clear that its members were noteworthy on the national stage, and key players in the Republican Party. The movement had its fierce opponents – such as Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney – supporters – such as aspiring force Ronald Reagan – and converts – moderate Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush.
In 1968, just four years after President Johnson’s landslide victory, the Democratic Party collapsed. The passage of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, while extending unprecedented protections for black America, drove out the white, segregationist Southern Democrats who had long formed one of the party’s core constituencies. A Democrat and avowed white-supremacist – George Wallace, governor of Alabama – ran and won five states in the deep South. The white South began its long drift away from the Democratic Party and everything it had stood for, including labor unions and a federal government sympathetic to economic stimulus. The growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War alienated the Democratic Party’s youth movements and pacifist base. Despite the dramatic Civil Rights accomplishments, black people did not enjoy anything near equality in the political and social spheres of American life. They were being drafted and sent to die for a country that didn’t sufficiently protect them or want them. Bobby Kennedy was gunned down just when it looked like he could be a unifier. There was no obvious constituency large enough to deliver victory and no charismatic leader to patch the divided factions together. Crowds took the streets during the 1968 convention demanding an anti-war nominee, horrifying much of America with their willingness to foment disorder and use violence for accomplishing political ends. Richard Nixon, consigned to the graveyard of political has-beens, won 32 states for a commanding electoral win (though he had less than one million more votes than Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey).
In office, President Nixon worked brilliantly to bring the alienated Southern Democrats into the fold of the Republican Party. Speaking of the “silent majority” and calling on all Americans to reject disorder and crack down on crime (especially urban crime), he amassed huge popularity. The Democrats never found an identity in this time and new party rules following 1968 afforded the people much more power in selecting their party’s presidential candidate through primary elections. These two factors, among others, would prove disastrous for the political prospects of the Democrats. In 1972, President Nixon crushed his opponent – George McGovern – in the general election. He won 49 states, with a margin of victory of almost 16 million popular votes.
It is worth noting that, while President Nixon was (like most successful politicians) an opportunist and played to a lot of terrible instincts, people did have legitimate fears. The chaos at the time was real. The sheer volume of crime was frightening in ways that are difficult to comprehend now in an era in which Manhattan is one of the safest cities in the country. President Nixon also passed the most significant environmental protection legislation in the country’s history, judged by the standards of then and now. Today, the Clean Air Act is what President Obama uses to defend his executive actions to shut down coal-fired power plants. Perhaps most importantly, President Nixon never rejected the Civil Rights acts of the Johnson Administration. Yes, he played to people’s fears. Yes, he craftily manipulated the American original sin to get elected. He was a criminal and a bully, perhaps even a paranoid schizophrenic with deep drug addictions. His worst acts – Watergate and the Drug War – have left a terrible legacy, staining the dignity of the Oval Office and empowering the state to make war on an entire class of its people. However, he did keep some of our basest instincts at bay. (This was not enough for the Washington Post, who tasked some of its best and most ambitious young reporters with bringing Nixon down. He deserved it, but probably so have many other shady occupiers of the Oval Office who didn’t get that kind of scrutiny. Whatever the judgment there, Republicans have not yet forgiven the Post, or the “liberal media” for that move.)
Fast-forward to 1999 – President Nixon’s collapse into his own paranoia and narcissism, Carter’s earnest but insufficient (for political purposes) morality, Reagan’s brilliant communication and surprisingly pragmatic governance, Bush I’s success undone by his “no new taxes” naïveté, the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bill Clinton’s emergence – a revived and rebranded Democratic Party, the Gingrich Revolution, an economic boom, the Rwandan and Serbian genocides, Clinton’s own self-destruction and narcissism, NAFTA. A great deal happened from 1972 to 1999, but it seemed to be contained within the forms established in the late 60s and early 70s. The striking success of the Conservative Movement became more apparent, bolstered by Nixon and the deterioration of the New Deal Democratic Party, culminating with the triumphs of President Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s greatest flaw was the flaw of all great success: no one could live up to his legacy. President George H.W. Bush was flayed not because he raised taxes (Reagan did that quite a few times), but because he couldn’t speak to or contain the boldest and most ideological members of his party. It took Bill Clinton, a much reviled and worryingly successful Democrat, to unite the Republicans in opposition.
New House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich saw the potential and seized it. He campaigned on a flavor of bitter purity, demanding that Republicans not only oppose Democrats and counter their agenda with a different one, but that Republicans should oppose Democrats in person, in interactions, and in principle. Traditionally respected non-partisan policy shops and government advisory offices, such as the Office of Technology Assessment, were shuttered and Gingrich urged his conference to fly home on the weekends and separate more of their lives from their work in Washington. Washington itself became more and more of rhetorical target. Reagan had pioneered this technique as a way of justifying cutting taxes and eliminating regulation, but it wasn’t until Gingrich that it became Republican dogma.
Democrats, intimidated by the Republican success and sobered by the failures of some of the Big Government priorities, accommodated what they judged to be a new country. Bill Clinton only sought marginal tax increases, reformed the federal welfare system, and famously declared that the “era of big government is over.” Gone were the vast ambitions of the New Deal, New Frontier, and Great Society. Now in was fiscal discipline and a belief in the positive powers of a globalized capitalist world. Trade deals were crafted, such as NAFTA, as diplomatic tools to prevent war and tighten relations with key neighbors. Many of the negotiators didn’t bother with the details of jobs. The budget was balanced. The financial sector was deregulated, with regulatory structures in place since the 1930s dismantled. Most notable among these efforts was the passage of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed Glass-Steagall’s separations of commercial banking, investment banking, and insurance.
This unraveling of the New Deal principles was great news for what I’ll term the professional class. The professional class is doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, financiers, essentially anyone with the intelligence, willingness, and means to get high-quality education, along with the social capital to penetrate the white-collar world. As the professional class grew more lucrative, it became more competitive and fragmented as well. Undergraduate college, which had previously been all you needed to have a chance at a good-paying professional job, became a huge industry of its own and much more highly specialized, catering to the high demands of businesses who could afford to be choosy with the influx of new graduates. The total collapse of the American industrial base further intensified the desires of parents to get their kids out and into school. Small rural communities, the mythic core of American life, were choked. People realized that in the globalized world there are people willing to do grunt work for a lot less pay than what Americans would demand. Unions, already severely damaged by the Reagan Administration, could do nothing to prevent corporate officers from relocating their factories to other countries. The cost savings were just too much to resist. The destruction of traditional barriers to communication and trade were immense.
In 2000, George W. Bush, the governor of Texas and eldest son (for a long time the screwup son, it was his younger brother Jeb who was supposedly destined for political greatness) of the former president, was elected in one of the closest and most controversial elections in U.S. history. More people voted for Al Gore, Vice President at the time, than Bush. The election came down to Florida and its 25 electoral votes. Voters in the state, governed by George Bush’s brother Jeb, reported tricky ballots that they couldn’t understand and had trouble punching all the way. Hand recounts were ordered, then ordered to halt in the Supreme Court’s 5-4 Bush v. Gore decision. Vice President Gore, deciding that the election had gone on long enough, conceded to George Bush, who became the 43rd president of the United States.
9/11 changed everything. President Bush came into office representing a new kind of conservatism. “Compassionate conservatism,” as it was called, promised to blend the neo-liberal devotion to free markets with a Christianity-informed care for the poor and beaten down. An active government would not be seen as anathema to the U.S. per se, but as one of many potentially useful tools to stitch society together. 9/11 did not stop the pursuit of these policies, but instead of the domestic being of primary concern, foreign affairs took precedence. Any national debate about the role of government or the global world economy’s effect on American workers was tabled in favor of a frenzied hunt for America’s enemies, as they were defined by the Bush Administration.
It is not worth a blow-by-blow account of that time. Suffice it say, while many of American conservatism’s problems have deep roots (as described above), the Bush time brought them to a head. President Bush came into office with a budget surplus of $236 billion, considered at the time to be an enormous and impossible-to-believe accomplishment for the U.S. federal government (looking even harder to believe now). By the end of his presidency, the budget deficit had ballooned to $458 billion (about to grow much larger with the economic collapse), with over $1.7 trillion added to the national debt during his time in office.
The Iraq War was a strategic disaster. Almost 4,500 Americans, most of them kids, lost their lives. Estimates on Iraqi civilian and military deaths range from 174,00 to over one million. Apart from the brief time of the surge (which was more of a stopgap solution founded on bribery, political extortion, and additional troops who were only ever able to stay for a temporary period of time) there was no extended period in which Iraq was peaceful, stable, or had any hope of forming a unified and effective government. It created chaos in the region, empowering Iran, Iraq’s powerful and Israel/American-hating enemy. Following the very predictable collapse of the Iraqi army, the absence of authority allowed ISIS to have its way. This war, launched on an unimaginative reading of problematic intelligence at best and an outright lie at worst, drew our attention away from Afghanistan, which was (or should have been) the real strategic goal of the War of Terror and the primary location of the group that actually attacked us on 9/11.
At home, another election in 2004 was won partially thanks to the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, who attacked the military service record of a Vietnam War hero, Massachusetts Senator and Democratic nominee John Kerry. The hypocrisy of George W. Bush, who went AWOL from the Air Force and likely avoided court-martial only because of his dad’s political clout, criticizing another’s military service record was little noticed. After the election, the real disaster unfolded. A massive hurricane, predicted for decades, hit the extremely vulnerable city of New Orleans, Louisiana. Its people were left for days with no federal aid despite the weather warnings and knowledge of that particular state’s consistent corruption and governmental incompetence. A huge unfunded entitlement – Medicare Part D – for prescription drugs was passed, clearly identifying Republicans as the tax and spend party (at least as long as they had the power of the purse) for anyone who cared to examine the data. To top it off, a massive financial meltdown occurred in his last few months, the biggest since 1929.
George W. Bush had the misfortune of governing at a the wrong time. Perhaps in normal circumstances he would have been decent or mildly bad but harmless. Instead, at the very beginning of his presidency he was forced to preside over a crisis: the biggest security failure in U.S. history. 9/11 changed the world and W. was not up to managing the new reality. The aftermath of the disaster emboldened the most hawkish members of the party who seized the opportunity to remake the world in the American image. President Bush either believed in what they said, didn’t know enough to stop them, or perhaps did know enough but was powerless to interfere. At home, he grew government, cut taxes, and presided over a further loss of blue-collar labor jobs while doing little to replace them. He ignored signs of a massive bubble in the housing market. He left the country in tatters, with an economy in shambles and a reputation around the world as a warmonger. Indeed, the last time this country was united on an important political issue was when it unequivocally rejected the administration of George W. Bush and the Republican Party for an entirely new direction.
Along comes Senator Barack Obama. The most outside of all outsiders, with an all-time slogan: Hope and Change. He was born, of mixed race, to a single mother in Hawaii (yes, he was born in Hawaii). His father was a Kenyan of radical (from any conventional American perspective) political persuasion. Molded by significant portions of his childhood spent abroad, tropical living, Ivy League education, South Side Chicago and elite political and academic Chicago, he represented an entirely new figure. He was and is powerfully American – a person born straddling cultures and identities. Only in America could his rise have been possible. His presence and popularity represented a true threat to the traditional American elite. Quite rightly, Republicans saw him as an existential threat. Those Republican legislators still standing had endured successive wave elections in 2006 and 2008, which dramatically empowered Democrats to their most powerful state since the post-Watergate President Carter years.
President Obama’s vision was to bring an end to partisan bickering as we knew it. People were going to be brought together under his watch and these bitter divides that had long vexed the country could be solved with good governance and good faith negotiations. It was a beautiful vision that only such an inexperienced politician could have, and one the Republicans viewed with great suspicion. They saw Obama’s vision as deeply naive, disingenuous, or both. It didn’t really matter which one of those it was. No matter what, as they saw it, the practical end result would be a triumphant reshaping of the political order Nixon and Reagan had created and the Republican rank-and-file had, for decades, maintained. Under this new order, Obama would be the figurehead and, henceforth, get the credit. Even if Obama were a benevolent winner, Republicans feared the Democratic Party apparatus – not as potent as in the past but with none of its potential potency lost – would seize the opportunity to dominate. To their mind, Obama was either an incredibly talented and cynical conquerer, or an incredibly talented but naive figurehead whom the party would use and co-opt for their own gain. Either way, things looked bad from their defensive posture. Republicans, under the leadership of the shrewd and calculating Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, resolved to take the path of total opposition.
And this, more or less, brings us to today. The last time the polity of the United States of America was really unified was in 2008, when it kicked out George Bush and gave the Democrats enormous power. At that time, when the president and Congress, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (perhaps the most cynical and manipulative of all current politicians, at least in the top three) pursued economic stimulus, healthcare reform, financial regulation, immigration reform, new energy policy, they found no friends on the other side of the aisle. Republicans rightly realized that the best way to kill Obama’s presidency was to make his key promise – bipartisanship and unity – fall apart. They made a deliberate choice (though there are questions as to much choice they had, given the wills of some key donors and powerful behind-the-curtain apparatchiks) to oppose everything, regardless of where the idea originated or what it had the potential to do for the country. In doing so, they prevented President Obama and the Democrats from rewriting the political order and did everything they could to stand in their way. In doing so, they empowered and encouraged the worst elements of their party. They stood by as Obama’s very birth, intelligence, religion, and patriotism were questioned. The Party let its loudmouth media – Fox News, talk radio, right-wing websites – take the leading role, belittling Obama in ways respectable politicians never could in public. And its politicians went further than ever, whether it was Mitch McConnell’s stated number one priority of making Barack Obama a one-term president, or Sarah Palin’s accusing him of “anti-American views” or, to this day, Marco Rubio’s belief that Obama has embarked on a strategy to deliberately weaken the United States. They essentially accused the President of the United States, the leader of the free world, of treason from inside the Oval Office.
Remarkably, considering how far they went to achieve their ends, Republicans failed utterly at almost everything they said they would achieve. They said they could stop the stimulus, they didn’t. They said they could stop Obamacare, they didn’t. They said they would stop financial reform and roll back “burdensome regulations,” they didn’t. Name one Conservative accomplishment of the past eight years. Heck, include President Bush in that and try to name one landmark Conservative accomplishment since 2000. Can you? Meanwhile, the three most significant pieces of progressive legislation since Medicare (1965) were passed in less than two years between 2009 and 2010. President Obama also negotiated a major treaty with Russia – New START, after Reagan’s famous arms control agreement with Premier Gorbachev – and ended “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Their only significant legislative victory was the temporary extension of the Bush tax cuts. Other than that the only thing the Republican Party could lay claim to was preventing the president and Congress from passing more progressive legislation, hardly substantial in the face of the avalanche that had already gone through the pipe.
Of course, the 2010 midterm Congressional elections delivered a massive victory for the Republicans. As a political maneuver, total opposition worked wonderfully at winning over the House of Representatives and state governments across the country, it just failed to deliver any tangible policy results whatsoever. They killed the Democratic hope, but not the change.
Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, an old-fashioned Washington wheeler-dealer who had waited his whole political life for this job, thought he could bring his caucus in line. He thought that Republicans could make some deals. He thought the norms of governance would make them recognize that compromise, though flawed, could satisfy voters and advance Conservative principles. He was wrong. There would be no Grand Bargain on spending and taxes. There would be no negotiations with President Obama and the Democrats – they would either give in to all Republican demands or there would be no deals, no functional government. Any Republican give, even in return for take, was capitulation and surrender, an abandonment of all conservative beliefs. Mitch McConnell had taught them how to govern and the real young guns were not going to abandon that approach, even if McConnell was willing to.
The result of this approach is strange to analyze. Republicans have made historic gains in the House and strong gains in the Senate (which flipped in 2014) and in state legislatures and governor’s mansions across the country. Their strategy worked brilliantly to mobilize voters and engender deep-seated, pathological hatred for President Obama and all his Democratic lackeys. However, President Obama was reelected in 2012, handily, despite the surreal protestations of Karl Rove on Fox News on election night. It was at that moment that the total extent of the “establishment” denial should have been clear. Not only were they losing the most important political contest to their most hated enemy, but it seemed as though they were intent on denying reality itself. Again, it’s not as though they didn’t have reason to continue with denial as a political strategy – look again at those huge gains all over the place, look again at how motivated their voters were. But look again at their failures too. Which one of President Obama’s achievements did they repeal? How many of their constituents, especially the worn-down, impoverished, uneducated people who had been pounded by the loss of blue-collar jobs did they actually help? These voters used to vote Democrat and used to be rewarded for it with union support, infrastructure spending, Social Security and Medicare (and, for a while, tacit acceptance and even outright support for violent segregation). Then came their bitter divorce with Democrats over civil rights. These voters were forced to migrate to the Republican side out of a combination of bigotry and the lack of any other option. The Republicans gleefully took their votes and did nothing for their economic interests, preferring to get them to the polls with dog-whistle shenanigans and a culture war. It was their children that fought Bush’s wars. It was their livelihoods that the amoral, merciless laissez-faire market values picked apart. Republicans did nothing as these people died (yes they really have died, in awful ways), not in the streets in Romantic fashion, but in broken homes with bleak futures.
Enter Trump. The man who owed the Establishment nothing and saw through what they had long ignored, denied, or simply not recognized. The party elite was totally cut off from its supporters. It did not feel anyone’s pain. Imagine their shock at hearing someone point out that 9/11 happened on a Republican’s watch. Imagine their shock at hearing that military families didn’t think the Iraq War was a success. Imagine their shock at hearing that people were mad that trade deals had robbed them of steady, decent-paying jobs. Imagine their shock at hearing their constituents were concerned about Mexicans and other immigrants entering the country at a time when they couldn’t find good work or afford to send their kids to college or trust that the values parents were raised on could be passed to their kids. Imagine their shock at hearing that tax cuts for incredibly rich people weren’t important to people struggling to pay their bills each month. Imagine their shock learning that programs like Social Security and Medicare were actually liked and relied upon by poor and middle-class people. Who would’ve thought?
Trump is a perfect storm – one of the most media-savvy people in the world, wealthy enough to eschew the courting of donors typically required to win a primary, bold enough to say explicitly what so many had implied and nudged forward for so long, someone who owed favors to no one and had little to fear from anyone, someone who recognized that a lot of people many preferred to ignore actually existed and were eligible to vote. He simply rode down the escalator and knocked over decades, a century-and-a-half, of tradition and orthodoxy with his pinky finger. The strongest-looking pillar in the world doesn’t mean much if it’s hollowed out and abandoned.