Death of the Republican Brand

Trump in Brussels. European Commission, February 2016.

It is bad form for commenters on politics to devote column inches to the dissection of the work of other commenters on politics. This is particularly true when one has already done so fairly recently. But the falling away of the last of the Republican challengers to Donald Trump has occasioned such paroxysms of despair among the right-wing commentariat that one simply cannot resist the opportunity to troll.

David Brooks, who (along with Ross Douthat) is the furthest rightward figure in the stable of commentators at the New York Times, has of late been singing in mournful tones about the death of their Republican Party. At a time like this I think it only right and just to join them for a few choruses.

In his writings for the Times, and his appearances on television, Brooks affects a demeanor of stern, objective, seriousness, which unfortunately has the effect of making him come off with all the avuncular gravitas of a junior high science instructor. But he can be counted on to give voice to a certain moderate version of Reaganite conservatism. His column of 29 April (“If Not Trump, What?”) provides, if somewhat uncomprehendingly and accidentally, quite a decent summary of exactly why the Republican Party is currently in the process of choking on its own vomit.

Ever-committed to the apposite statistic, Brooks notes the results of a Pew Research Poll that found that “75 percent of Trump voters say that life has gotten worse for people like them over the last half century.” Given that Trump’s voter base skews heavily white, male, and over 40 (and their demographically similar marriage partners), it’s not at all surprising that this should be the case. In fact, this is objectively true in a number of senses.

At a very basic level, the disintegration of the manufacturing economy in this country, accelerated and intensified by a commitment to neoliberalism shared, to one degree or another, by both parties, has hit the white, male, breadwinner where it hurts. Unlike their forebears who came of age during the postwar boom, white males no longer have access to stable, long term employment, no matter what sort of obsequious gestures they are willing to make to their social betters. Both the Democrats and the Republicans have for decades offered up unrestrained free trade as a nostrum, one that would compensate for a lost job here or there with economic prosperity for all. This, along with a large helping of racist and nationalist dog whistles, has been the strategy par excellence of the Republican Party. To a great extent it is the bankruptcy of this policy that is currently coming home to roost.

Skepticism abroad. Turin, 2012.
Skepticism abroad. Turin, 2012.

It might also be mentioned here that another factor in the current white male angst now gripping the Republican electorate is the broad social consequences of the rise of movements for racial and gender liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. Non-whites and women are now in a much better position to claim the competitive benefits guaranteed to them in the constitution, and if it must be conceded that we still have a long way to go to achieve an actually just society, it is nonetheless the case that a great deal of progress has been made. In large measure this progress has been made at the expense of the white male hegemony that was the coin of the realm (so to speak) in the United States from the time of its founding. From the perspective of white males this process, which is really only a move toward balancing the scales, must seem (and in many respects is) a diminution of their traditional social power. And so we are confronted with the unappetizing spectacle of Trump voters, raised on the power to victimize now bleating about being victims.

Brooks goes to claim (probably correctly) that “social trust is at historic lows” and then cites the work of the former Creighton theology professor and current First Things magazine editor R. R. Reno to argue that we are experiencing “a crisis of solidarity.” This is also probably true, depending on exactly what sort of solidarity is being discussed. What Reno and Brooks mean to indicate is the loss of a common commitment to society running throughout social class, one that presumably existed at some point in the past. Putting aside the latter issue, it is fair to say that they are right. But the real question is: what (or who) is at fault?

In thinking about the answer to this question one might profitably think back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous speech at the 1987 Tory party conference in which she claimed that, “there is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women, and there are families.” This is the philosophy of post-Hayekian conservatism in a nutshell. It proposes an ideal of individualism, personal choice, and responsibility. No social order organized along those lines ever existed. And, moreover, one finds the atomized individuals to beloved of neoliberals soon find themselves bereft of precisely the sort of interpersonal social solidarity for which Brooks and Robb have such heartfelt longing.

The reconfiguration of human beings as a kind of capital stock to be developed and subjected to the vicissitudes of the free market is one important source of the widespread sentiment that things have gotten worse over the last half century, and not just for white males, although that doesn’t stop them adopting the the discourse of victimhood at practically every turn these days. The ideology of neoliberalism (in every extant version) holds that market outcomes are fundamentally just. On the ground this looks rather different, society becomes a Hobbesian battlefield in which even the structures of the family (the other element comprised in Thatcher’s social order) is pulled apart at the seams.

The crux of Brooks’s diagnosis requires quotation at length in order to properly render its discreet ideological charm:

“Many people, as the writers David and Amber Lapp note, feel pervasively betrayed: by for-profit job-training outfits that left them awash in debt, by spouses and stepparents, by people who collect federal benefits but don’t work. They’ve stopped even expecting loyalty from their employers. The big flashing lights say: NO TRUST. That leads to an everyone-out-for-himself mentality and Trump’s politics of suspicion. We’ll need a communitarianism. Maybe the task is to build a ladder of hope. People across America have been falling through the cracks. Their children are adrift. Trump, to his credit, made them visible. We can start at the personal level just by hearing them talk.”

Freedom rock. Brussels shouk, May 2016.

After a slightly bizarre mishmash of possible targets of blame, Brooks gets a what is both for him and for us (if for rather different reasons) a startling realization: people have stopped expecting loyalty from their employers. This is true, so far as it goes. But, as any reader of Sean Wilentz’ classic Chants Democratic will know, this is something that really got going in the 1830s. Since then, employers have seldom spared any pains to let their workers know that they are employed at sufferance (unless of course they have a union to back them up). Brooks’s utter failure to understand the realities of class conflict goes a long way to explaining his parallel inability to understand strength of the appeal of Trump’s right wing populism.

And if we hear them talk, what then? Brooks cites approvingly the recent article by the liberal journalist James Fallows in The Atlantic in which the latter claimed to find green shoots of regeneration at the grassroots of American society. But it is extremely difficult (arguably impossible) to imagine how this might be accomplished given the paucity of positive ideas in the Republican idea space. They were already at a serious loss for ideas in the years when the best they could come up with was trying to impeach Bill Clinton. The last eight years has seen them beneath even this level. Now they have only three policies: against whatever Obama is for, policing women’s bodies, and simple, unapologetic racism. The American political mind is prone to a wide variety of more or less bizarre preoccupations, but those just mentioned have already proven to be losers.

Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit