Note: A previous version of this article contained a typo made by the editor incorrectly citing Richard Nixon’s share of the 1968 popular vote as 34.1%, not 43% percent.
Fifty-two years ago, the future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell circulated a memo in Republican circles, candidly noting that the party, despite its momentary ascendancy thanks to the defection of Southern states from the Democrats in the wake of the civil rights movement and the Nixon presidency, was a permanent political minority. If it was to hold national power, it needed a strategy for winning and holding it.
Richard Nixon, himself a minority president with only 43% of the popular vote in his first term, was thinking much the same thing without speaking it aloud. Nixon realized that Congress belonged, at least for the foreseeable future, to the Democratic Party, which had controlled it in all but two years of his adult lifetime. But six people, between them, could actually run the country: the president himself and a five-member Supreme Court majority. The powers of the presidency had grown steadily — in fact, all but continually — since Washington’s time, and the position was at this point the functional sovereign of the country. Only twice in its history had Congressional opposition truly foiled a president: when Andrew Jackson’s proposal for a national bank had been defeated, and, 80 years later, when Woodrow Wilson’s creation, the League of Nations, was rejected in Congress. Nixon himself, of course, would be forced to resign in his second term, but only because of a scandal he precipitated. After a brief attempt to reassert Congressional authority, the so-called imperial presidency was revived under Ronald Reagan, and has proceeded apace since.
While in power, Nixon reshaped Earl Warren’s liberal Supreme Court, returning it to its traditional conservative, not to say reactionary, role as the protector of vested interests and white supremacy. The Court’s role as the arbiter of the law, usurped in the early Republic, enabled it to overturn state and Congressional acts, thus effectively nullifying the legislative powers of representative bodies past and present. This has created a structure in which a Court complicit with a Republican president could roll back long-established laws, including its own prior decisions. That has been precisely the case in this century. But by the 1990s Congress too had come increasingly under Republican control, abetted by gerrymandering and voting restrictions, and the Supreme Court’s evisceration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By the 2010s, Democratic candidates for Congress often required 60% of the vote to achieve a majority. The minority strategy had prevailed.
Enter Donald Trump, who would become the candidate of a minority of Republicans themselves in 2016 — in effect creating a party within a party, the so-called “Base.” Trump’s candidacy was dismissed by establishment Republicans, and he campaigned on what was effectively an anti-Republican platform of tax hikes for the rich and opportunity for the displaced middle class. Although the Base was at first relatively small, Trump cultivated it assiduously and, with sixteen other Republican candidates in the race, he won the Republican nomination by pluralities in the primaries. The Republican Party did not disavow him even when, in blatant violation of the law, he appealed for political support from Russia. Nor did Barack Obama’s Justice Department intervene, thereby setting a precedent for its inaction under Joe Biden even after the insurrection of January 6. Trump, who had built his personal empire by circumventing, if not defying, the law, now found that he could break it with impunity. Republicans, who had gamed it themselves for decades, now learned their final lesson: they could now simply join Trump when he broke it directly. And Democrats themselves had paved the way.
Trump thereby grew the Base as well. Identifying with his disregard for the laws, they felt symbolically empowered in him. For his part, Trump continued to cultivate them from the White House with demagogic rallies that pointedly excluded the public at large, a caballero rather than an elected leader.
It is not a unique story. It is, with variance of detail, how Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany seized power, each leading a fanatically devoted group of followers in a time of civil unrest. The Base is, put simply, the germ of a one-party state.
Hillary Clinton, in her failed campaign for the presidency, was the first to give the Base a descriptive name. She called it the Deplorables. The Deplorables embraced not a cause, not a program, but a man. To be sure, Trump made them promises, none of which he kept in office — not even one as simple as building a wall. And now, when he has nothing to offer them in the moment, he presents himself as the martyr cheated by a stolen election; the man who, like them, has had taken what was rightfully his. He himself is their cause.
This makes not for a political party or faction, but a cult. And that is precisely what gives the Base its power. As the past three elections have shown, the Republican Party is still in the national minority. It must still govern by suppressing the vote. As such, it cannot afford to alienate its most unified component, the Base.
The besetting problem of the Republican Party is thus that it cannot win a national election without Trump, although he himself has never won a majority of the popular vote of the country, even in an opinion poll. If the Deplorables were to defect from them, they could not keep national power. Trump’s identifiable supporters are thus a minority of Republicans, but that minority determines the fate of the whole, and thus the current course of American politics.
The Powell strategy has thus come back to haunt the Republicans themselves. However much the Republican establishment may despise Trump, he is their creation. He seized a moment largely made by them, with a downsized, deindustrialized middle class — no more than two-thirds of what it was fifty years ago — long frustrated and embittered, faced by the looming job extinctions of artificial intelligence, and now primed, as the citizens of postwar Italy and Depression-era Germany were, for a demagogue. The numbers of that disenfranchised class grow daily as the nation’s wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, will continue to grow when Trump is gone, and will be ready fodder for whomever succeeds him.
When disaffected voters cling to a savior, despotism begins. This is aggravated by a loss of the shared reality on which democratic process and the rule of law ultimately depend. This is complicated in a digital society where truth, measured in “likes,” is the triumph of propaganda, and democracy thereby made a mockery of itself. Trump does not so much abuse truth as satirize it, so that it is one thing today and its opposite tomorrow, until it is simply whatever falls from his lips at any moment. And this is how truth ceases to exist, when what is believed is the sayer and not the thing said. Under such circumstances, democracy itself gradually becomes impossible. Trump’s supporters may not be deplorable, but the condition they have been led to is.
In 1933, Germany was the most educated nation on earth, and, measured by its achievements in the arts and sciences, the most accomplished. Within months, it was publicly burning books. We know the end of that story. Donald Trump tells us how close we are to embarking on it. It is important to take him out of electoral politics, and it is the failure of the Biden administration to do so that is its greatest — and potentially most fatal — mistake. Even more important, though, is the struggle to set America back on the long road to a just society. Only with that will the Base itself recede.