Don’t get me wrong. Donald Trump is the most irresponsible candidate ever to run for high office. It is beyond bizarre to imagine him heading a so-called major party ticket for the presidency. If he won, chaos would ensue from day one, if we even got that far. Worldwide markets would crash. Nuclear powers less than friendly to us would be on alert. The country would go on an immediate impeachment watch, and we’d all be praying that Vice President Mike Pence, the hack Governor of Indiana, would take the oath of office as quickly as possible without the need for the Pentagon to intervene.
So, what on earth do I mean by owing something to The Donald? Let us count his blessings.
Trump has done more than anyone else, even George W. Bush, to destroy the Republican Party — the gang that gives the idea of republican government a bad name. If the GOP started off as the antislavery party, or at least the one that took credit for the idea, it had evolved within a few decades into a front for Wall Street. Teddy Roosevelt was the last of its members to question whether savage capitalism was what the Founding Fathers had in mind in, as they say, forging a nation. That was over a hundred years ago, and T. R. was banished from the feast.
With the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the Republicans lost control of government for more than a third of a century, with the exception of the Eisenhower presidency. Ike, like Trump, was a Republican only by courtesy; the Democrats would gladly have run him on their own. What was called in those years “bipartisanship” was only the crumbs the Democrats left on the table to preserve the illusion of a two-party system. So-called liberal or moderate Republicans were allowed to participate on the condition that they embraced New Deal reforms and the new age of cooperation between capital and labor. But the sunny uplands of mid-century prosperity were based on the biggest bubble of all: America’s brief postwar dominance of the postwar world economy. When that waned, the gloves came off and the great squeeze-down of the middle class — mostly a misnomered working class briefly pampered with a living wage — began. Wall Street needed a party again, and the GOP happily reenlisted.
The Republicans got another huge break with the civil rights movement, which belatedly embraced by John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, cost the Democrats their racist constituency in the South. Republicans now represented both Wall Street and what was politely called “nativism”. In the heady days of Ronald Reagan, the Republicans came close to squaring the political circle, passing themselves off as the representatives of capital and labor at the same time. This was what Mussolini and Hitler had done earlier in Europe, with the addition of the clerical element.
George W. Bush nearly wrecked the show, sleepwalking through 9/11, flailing out at Afghanistan and Iraq, and allowing Alan Greenspan to blow his bubbles at the Federal Reserve Board on the ruins of the Clinton-repealed Glass-Steagall Act. By 2008, Republican leaders were gloomily predicting a long season in the political wilderness such as they’d experienced under Franklin Roosevelt, if not worse. Intellectually and politically, their party felt bankrupt — and it was.
Then came the rescue. Barack Obama gifted Congress back to the Republican Party, allowing them control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. But further signs of distress arrived with the Tea Party, a populist revolt on the right that made clear that a critical segment of the Party’s electoral base was alienated from it. Only forty-strong in the House, and still nominally within the Republican caucus, the Tea Party soon became the tail that wagged the party elephant, giving grief to corporate boardrooms used to the legislative discipline of the Bush years. The warning they represented went unheeded, however, and the party turned to the perfect establishment candidate, Mitt Romney, in 2012.
Enter the party of one, Donald Trump. Having made a lifelong study of suckers, Trump was able to see the body of Republican voters that was ripe for the plucking. This was the Rust Belt working class that, seduced by the dumb hope that the people with all the money were going to make new jobs to replace the ones they’d shipped abroad, had been voting Republican since the ’80s. What this group had failed to notice was that the plutocrats who were now to be their “saviors” had immiserated them to begin with — when not by off-shoring them by plundering still-viable companies of their assets to make a killing. Remember Romney, the self-proclaimed “job creator”? The racket he ran through the Bain Capital investment firm was precisely intended to cannibalize firms and then discard them.
The Tea Party showed that working-class Republicans were finally beginning to recognize the scam they’d fallen for. Trump presented himself to them as not only someone who was empathetic to them, who massaged their resentments, expressed their anger and validated their prejudices, but as one who could be trusted to deliver on his promises. Romney was a job-destroyer, but Trump could point to jobs he had actually created (at least in between serial bankruptcies) — you can’t run a boardwalk casino or build a hotel without actual, on-site American labor.
The result, and I think it will be a lasting one, was to peel off the Republican working class. It belongs to Trump now, and it will probably stick with him for a while if he is defeated, or until he flops on his face if elected. Trump has also made substantial inroads among the Evangelicals that Ted Cruz thought he owned (forgetting that people who worship on Sunday still need to work on weekdays), and they may not be brought back into the fold so easily either. In short, Trump has shattered the fragile electoral coalition that has returned Republicans to office starting with Nixon. Even his overt appeals to racism have been strokes of genius, politically speaking, because by openly exploiting prejudices Republicans courted in code, he has forced other GOP leaders to disavow their own most effective strategy for winning votes among the dispossessed. Trump is running against Hillary Clinton since July because she is the last obstacle on his path to the White House. His real campaign has been against the Republican Party, and he may have shattered it.
For this, we all owe him — temporarily at least — a heartfelt thanks. The Republican Party has simply been running interference for Wall Street for the past century, and has gotten the Democrats to follow suit. They are at present the sole clients of the American political system. If you want a conservative political party in America, go ahead and make one. Ditto if you want a liberal party. Right now, neither one exists, as Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful run proved for the Democrats.
Trump has also laid waste to a number of other sacred cows, mostly related to our imperial posture in the world and its ruinous costs. He wondered out loud about the need for NATO and the new Cold War it has ginned up with Russia. He questioned the hypocritical monopoly of the nuclear arms club (nukes for me, but not for thee). Above all, he has lambasted the trade agreements that have destroyed America’s manufacturing base, wiped out millions of jobs, lives, and futures, and left us with a financialized economy that has no creed, just greed. All of this is heresy to both political parties.
For this, too, Trump deserves our thanks.
Unfortunately, though, the Donald’s only interest and concern is his own ego. He cares about nothing except himself. To be sure, such patent rascality has proved perversely entertaining in our funhouse political world. No one has been able to take their eyes off Trump for the past year. The problem, however, is that governing a country isn’t a vaudeville act.
So our train wreck of an election heads for its Hoboken Station, ready to slam into the platform, scatter the passengers, and pull down the pillars. And the only thing as improbable as turning over the Republic to Donald Trump, is turning to Hillary Rodham Clinton to save it.