The prospect of a Donald Trump presidency is terrifying for most of the Western world. Populist, narcissistic and entirely consumed by his own self importance and pursuit of power. He is the prototypical 20th century dictator, exploiting 21st century media…
How did we get here?
How did the Orange Bill Cosby, a New York billionare by inheritance and crass reality TV star become the Republican nominee for President? The thrice-married serial philanderer has ironically become the champion of Conservative America, and defied demographic mathmetics to berate, insult and outrage minorities as an electoral strategy. This man’s populist appeal is an existential threat to Western democracy, yet he still has a 15-20% chance of becoming President of the United States.
I cannot overstate how terrified I am at the prospect of a Trump presidency; this is a man so lacking in self control that his staff have had to take control of his Twitter account away from him. If the wheels fall off tomorrow and he somehow manages to sweep the battleground states and reach 270 Electoral College votes, then 20 January 2017 becomes the day in which a man judged too irresponsible for his Twitter password recieves the launch codes for the world’s largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal.
It keeps me awake at night, because democracies don’t recover from leaders like Trump. Much like Pandora’s box, the destructive forces of populism are difficult to restrain or moderate once they have been unleashed. Yet if Trump wins, he will have been carried by a tsunami of populism which is deliberately ignorant of the fact that he is the least qualified, both at a poitical and personal level, Presidential candidate in American political history. No US President has entered the oval office without civil or military leadership experience.
We can only hope that, unlike Brexit, the polling is right and Trump’s race is over. You might not like Hillary Clinton, you may not necessarily trust her, but it is apparent that she is the only candidate in this election genuinely qualified to be President.
This article is a post-mortem of what is wrong with the contemporary Republican Party, and why they continue to struggle in Presidential elections. Donald Trump is not the problem in the Republican, he is just the mostly clearly obvious symptom of a much deeper and systemic disease which has crippled the party.
The Republican Party has a demographic problem
It is 2016, and you can’t be President by appealing to poorly educated white males. You want the proof? If Hillary wins, then the Republicans will have won only one popular vote in a presidential election since 1988. By the time Hillary Clinton is up for re-election in 2020, George W. Bush’s win in 2004 will be the only time since the fall of the Soviet Union that a Republican candidate has won the most votes in a Presidential election.
The top-brass of the Republican party know this, and they have known it for a while. The ‘Southern White Male’ approach to winning the White House, championed by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, gave its last breath when Mitt Romney was obliterated by Barrack Obama in 2012. The ‘big tent’ that the GOP traditionally championed had become a circus, and you weren’t welcome if you were anything other than a white male.
The post-mortem of 2012 concluded exactly this – that the Republican Party needed to appeal to more diverse demographics than this bizarre coalition of small government billionaires and poor, uneducated white men. A lot of rhetoric was expended on it. Change was going to happen; and then everybody went nuclear and nominated a populist demagogue and prototypical dictator that would have Abraham Lincoln rolling in his grave.
America has changed, yet Republican Party is double or nothing on white.
The problem for the Republican’s is that the issues undermining the party are more than superficial; a ‘hey look, we have one Latino at a rally’ picture and free ‘Republican Women’ t-shirts will not fix it. It is a party dominated by conservative white males, and this anchor is becoming rapidly less important as the demographics of the United States evolves. Why would a Hispanic, Black or female voter be attracted to the Republlican Party? It is an ideological problem. Quite simply, the ideology of the Party turns away far more people than it attracts.
Think about it – what are the ideals which the Republican Party actually espouses day to day?
The GOP, at the beckoning of the National Rifle Association, supports a characterisation of the 2nd Amendment which disproportionately protects an individual’s right to carry a military-grade assault rifle without a background check over other citizens’ rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Who suffer the most by the proliferation of weapons in private homes?
Access to a gun increases the risk of a woman being killed by an intimate partner by 5 times. In 2011, 53% of women murdered with a gun was killed by her partner or family member. I don’t think this is what the Framers had in mind when they called for a well-regulated militia. More importantly, however, is what incentive does this obsession laisez faire gun control provide women to vote for the GOP?
The whole principle of small government is one grounded in dubious theory and evocative appeal that an individual’s lower tax burden will axiomatically make them richer. Grover Norquist encapsulated its populist appeal when he said, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”.
Even if you ignore the fact that trickledown economics has been an abject failure (mostly on account of the fact that wealth doesn’t trickle down but, rather, accumulates at the top), the small government dogma has become an ironic burden for the Republican Party. It appeals to billionaires. It appeals to middle class white families in the suburbs who don’t want the Federal Government telling them their schools have to teach Evolution. Perversely, they have even convinced poor white people that small government is necessary because tax increases will take what little they have.
The problem is small government appeals to people who were already going to vote Republican, and that is not enough to win the election. If you are African-American or Hispanic and living in an inner city ghetto, however, what incentive do you have to vote for a system of wealth concentration that keeps your community poor and under resourced? Schools are overcrowded and crumbling, crime is rampant and the only apparent of abundance of government funding is for privately owned prisons where a disproportionate percentage of your demographic have been locked away. Small government reads status quo, and the status quo is dehumanising for far too many Americans of colour.
Tough on crime?
Like small government, a favourite campaign line of the Republicans is ‘tough on crime’ approaches to law and order. It makes sense – no one likes to have their private property or liberty affected by the criminal behaviour of others. Exaggerated by a media landscape which has increasingly convoluted ‘news’ with ‘entertainment’, people are convinced of two things.
- Crime has reached epidemic proportions;
- Harsher sentencing is the most effective deterrent in preventing crime.
The problem is that America’s mass-incarceration policies have disproportionately impacted African-American and Hispanic communities. African-American’s are 13% of the US population, yet they make up 35% of prison inmates. Drug sentencing is where this disparity becomes most evident – African Americans make up 12% of drug users yet account for 38% of all drug arrests and 59% of those in state prisons for drug offences.
Not convinced? Crack and cocaine are chemically the same drug. Prior to the 2010 amendments, the amount of cocaine one would have to be caught with to receive a mandatory minimum sentence for drug trafficking was 100 times that of crack. Even after the amendments, it is still an 18:1 ratio. Who uses cocaine? White people. Who uses crack? Black people.
‘Tough on crime’ might attract middle class and poorer white people terrified by the apparent social dissolution they are fed by cable news every night. Like small government, however, it not only fails to attract new voters to the party, it actively pushes them away from the party. Tough on crime has decimated non-white communities, it looks racist in application and it is statistically racist in effect.
The crowning jewel in this conservative quadrumvirate is abortion. Corporations shouldn’t be burdened with even basic environmental regulations. A man should be able to buy an assault weapon at a trade show without a background check. Yet freedom of choice and the right to privacy does not extend as far as allowing women to decide whether or not they wish to carry a pregnancy to term.
The Republicans have never managed to understand how damaging their moralistic obsession with the unborn foetus is. From a party which has spent thirty hears slashing school budgets and waging war on social security and minimum wages, it wreaks of hypocrisy and stands as testament to their callous disregard for the right of women to exist as anything more than brood mares for the state.
George Carlin skewered this position better than I ever could – “If you’re prenatal, you’re fine. If you’re preschool, you’re fucked.”
I’m not here to argue the ethics of abortion. What I will say, however, is that there is something disgustingly feudal about a group of middle-aged, rich, conservative, white men telling women that abortion should be illegal. Coalesced with the fact that abortions occur whether they are illegal or not renders the anti-abortion position as nothing more than the satisfaction of one’s private morality at the expense of women’s health.
Why would a progressive woman vote for such a party? I’m sure that individuals will be able to reconcile their concerns – and that is absolutely fine. You can’t, however, patronising deprive an entire gender of their bodily autonomy and then expect them to vote for you.
Trump is the symptom, not the cause.
The above are the underlying ideological problems which undermine the Republican Party’s capacity to develop a broad and diverse base of electoral support. Donald Trump is not a reflection of this, he is a consequence of a broken party which has been incapable of reforming. He is a product of the structural deficiencies which have prevented the GOP from reforming itself.
Donald Trump is the Republican nominee for President because he appealed to the narrow base of the party; a base which, with changing demographics and ideology in America, has increasing become disconnected from the America you need to win over to become President. Mitt Romney should have beaten Obama in 2012 – he was a moderate Governor of progressive state. As a Republican, he championed the introduction of a healthcare system in Massachusetts; the very system Obamacare was based on. There was significant discontent with Obama in the centre. Thirty years ago he might have cleared the board coast to coast in the fashion of Reagan in 1984. Yet he lost, and lost big.
Why? Presidential elections are about winning the 20% of voters in the centre. Republicans will vote Republican and Democrats will vote Democrat – the election is won and lost in one quintile of the electorate. Romney as a candidate was perfectly positioned to take the centre.
Until he ran for nomination.
To become the Republican nominee, Romney first had to convince the people hardcore enough to be registered Republican voters; a group of people the rest of the country has left behind. The moderate governor of Massachusetts had to tear apart his own healthcare system. He had to take hard lines on abortion, drug and tax reform whilst going Wild West on gun control. In the process he completely alienated himself from the people he had to win over to ‘win the General’.
But how is this still a problem in 2016?
Why is the Republican Party, and it’s nomination process, so orientated around such conservatively archaic principles? Quite simply, because any effort is fundamentally crippled by the practical consequences of its efforts to create safer Republican congressional districts to maintain control of the House of Representatives, otherwise known a gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering – not just Gerry taking a walk
[Quick civics lesson – gerrymandering is the practice by which you manipulate electoral boundaries to increase the number of seats your party can win. If you can gain control of the apparatuses which decide the electoral map, you can concentrate an opponent’s support to one electorate and dilute them in others, therefore winning more seats for your party.]
The United States has a massive gerrymandering problem, and it is dominated by Republicans. Unlike Australia, there is no independent statutory body which determines electoral boundaries for Congressional Districts. Over the past two decades, there has been a systematic and combined effort of Republicans at all levels of government in the United States to manipulate the boundaries of Congressional Districts; the areas from which members of the House of Representatives are elected.
Boundaries have been redrawn to strongly concentrate likely Democrat voters in single Districts, whilst simultaneously diluting the remaining Democrats into safer Republican Districts. The practical consequences of that were very evident from the results of the 2012 House of Representatives Election. The Democrats won 1.5 million more votes nationally than the Republicans yet won 33 less seats in the House!
What is the relevance of this to the Republican’s problems?
Simple – gerrymandering may have given the Republicans an almost insurmountable majority in the lower house of Congress, but it has completely untethered the Party from the political centre. Gerrymandering, in effect, reduces the number of seats which are genuine contests between the parties. It attempts to create safe seats for both parties with the practical benefit of being structured entirely towards capturing and entrenching a majority.
Contests, though, are important. A seat which is contested by both parties will force the candidates to fight for the centre – to show concern for and understand constituents outside of their traditional supporters. That is the nature of humanity, power and representative government. Ronald Reagan didn’t win 525 0f the 538 Electoral College votes in his 1984 re-election by appealing to his own supporters; he won by dominating the political centre and starving his opponent, Walter Mondale, of electoral oxygen.
Gerrymandering jettisons this partisan contest. Yet it does not, however, remove the ambition of political aspirants. What creates a safe seat in the short term ultimately creates a race to the extremities of a party’s ideals as new politicians try to supplant party incumbents by being ‘more Republican’. Refer back to the ‘Republican ideology’ I discussed above; suddenly an incentive towards dogmatism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A whole generation of Republican politicians have emerged in this vortex. They are in safe districts so it helps their electability. Their biggest threat comes not from Democrat rivals, but aspirants from within their own party. They are shackled to the most extreme values of their party. Yet Presidential elections are won and lost by how well a party captures the centre; a centre the GOP is no longer ideologically or demographically positioned to appeal to.
Donald Trump is the epitome of this structural problem. He was a whirlwind of destruction in the Republican nomination process. In a crowded field, his bombastic personality and the simplistic crassness of his message literally starved the rest of the field of oxygen. The people voting in the primaries, however, were not the people he needed to convince.
He might have been populist to an extent previously unseen in US politics. He might fill stadiums for his rallies, but Trump is just another (more extreme) manifestation of the Republican Party’s inability to connect with a mainstream America which has left it behind.