No matter what happens in November, we will be debating the rise of Donald Trump for a long time to come.
Already a consensus account has emerged on the left and among some on the center-right. Trump, in this telling, is the Republican Party's Frankenstein monster. A creation of the right-wing media machine — talk radio, Fox News — as well as the unhinged obstructionism and brinksmanship of congressional Republicans, Trump has slipped the bonds of his makers and turned on them, directing his demagogic fury against the establishments of both parties.
The implication of the analysis is clear: Republicans unhappy about Trump's hostile takeover of the party need to look in the mirror. They have only themselves to blame.
Not that everyone agrees. The Frankenstein thesis has received thoughtful push-back from some writers, with Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View providing the strongest critique and dismissal. McArdle's primary claim is that pundits, media personalities, and politicians "don't put ideas in people's heads; they just grow there." Her strongest example is immigration — a policy on which the GOP establishment clearly favored liberalization (including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants), while the voters went in the opposite direction, ultimately embracing Trump in large part because they liked his plans for mass deportations and a wall along the southern border. Certainly on this issue, the institutional party at first fought and now has reluctantly agreed to follow the voters, not the other way around.
McArdle likewise claims that the "media follows its audience, rather than leading it." As evidence, she cites a study from 2006 (based on data from 1996 to 2000) showing a minimal rightward shift in the voting preferences of Fox News viewers. The shift was so small that it's hard not to conclude that conservative viewers mainly flock to Fox rather than Fox transforming otherwise moderately conservative, independent, or liberals viewers into rabid right-wingers.
McArdle definitely has a point. It's far too simple to try and pin all of the blame for Trump's stunning electoral success on the GOP. But that doesn't mean it makes sense to deny any Republican responsibility for Trump's takeover of the party. If Republicans hope to learn from the shocking outcome of the 2016 primaries, they need to resist the urge to exonerate themselves and recognize the very real ways in which their party and its media cheerleaders did, in fact, help to prepare the way for the rise of an authoritarian-populist candidate like Trump.
The place to look for evidence of such preparation is not policy. Trump's attachment to policies favored by the party and conservative-movement intellectuals — really, his attachment to any particular policies at all — is partial at best. Ideologically speaking, Trump is a free agent, roaming seemingly at random through the recent platforms of both parties and adding distinctive ethno-nationalist proposals of his own, picking and choosing and flip-flopping among positions from moment to moment and day to day as it suits him.
In this selective but important sense, the Frankenstein thesis is clearly wrong.
Yet on another dimension — the dimension of political style — the thesis gets something quite right.
Trump may be the purest populist to receive a major-party presidential nomination in the nation's history — and certainly since the turn of the 20th century. Populism doesn't have a fixed agenda or aim toward any particular policy goal, like liberalism, progressivism, conservatism, libertarianism, or socialism. It's a style — one that favors paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing, exaggeration of problems, demonization of political opponents (politicians but also private citizens), and most of all extravagant flattery of "the people" (which the populist equates with his own supporters, excluding everyone else).
The so-called Reagan revolution had a populist element to it, since it aimed to overthrow the moderate establishment of the Republican Party and replace it with a new elite committed to the ideology forged in the pages of National Review and other organs of the nascent conservative movement. But Reagan's populism was limited and partial. He praised the American people but only rarely descended into flattery of its prejudices, and he worked to include as many people as possible. Listening to his public statements, one gets the feeling that Reagan was trying to speak to and for everyone in the nation — and to elevate and recall it to its highest principles and ideals.
All of that placed him poles apart from populism.
But that didn't keep Reagan's party from discerning the potential electoral benefits of adopting a more strictly populist style. As early as 1985, founding neoconservative Irving Kristol reflected on this tendency and judged it to be a positive development. (The key essay, originally published in The Wall Street Journal, is titled "The New Populism: Not to Worry.") Since the first-generation neocons had written magisterial essays in their youth about the perennial dangers that populism poses to liberal democratic norms, the shift was surprising. These writers once understood that the more you flatter the common man, the more common he becomes, requiring successive rounds of baser flattery, repeated endlessly. But now they decided that it made sense for the Republican Party to use populism to inspire and motivate the masses. Doing so would help the party to hold (and when necessary, to retake) political power, and to advance a conservative policy agenda.
From Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America through the spread of talk radio and Fox News to the rise of Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and Donald Trump, the story of the Republican Party since the early 1990s is an abject lesson in the dangers of stoking populist anger and resentment — and the difficulty in controlling it once it is unleashed.
There are literally thousands of examples to choose from. Here are three.
1. For years Republican politicians have not simply opposed specific policies to address climate change (which is perfectly legitimate) but have encouraged voters who prefer to think of climate science as a vast Big Government conspiracy. The same holds for evolutionary biology. Instead of defending the universal scientific consensus in favor of Darwinian evolution, many Republicans prefer to flatter the ill-informed prejudices of voters who affirm "scientific" creationism. It is a small step from responding to voters uncritically on these issues to Donald Trump's refusal to criticize or condemn the blatant racists and anti-Semites who enthusiastically support his campaign.
2. Last summer, Slate's William Saletan set out to write a column about congressional hearings on the Iran nuclear deal at which Secretary of State John Kerry and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz delivered testimony. He came away shocked and disgusted at what amounted to a "spectacle of dishonesty" and "incomprehension."
In challenging Kerry and Moniz, Republican senators and representatives offered no serious alternative. They misrepresented testimony, dismissed contrary evidence, and substituted vitriol for analysis. They seemed baffled by the idea of having to work and negotiate with other countries. I came away from the hearings dismayed by what the GOP has become in the Obama era. It seems utterly unprepared to govern. [Slate]
I should add that Saletan's detailed critique (please read it for yourself) is not primarily focused on policy but on style. Senators and congressmen charged with overseeing America's relations with the world seemed more interested in cheap point-scoring and demagogic grandstanding than with intelligently wrestling with the complicated issues at hand. Which means they were acting more like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity than statesmen.
3. It is this transformation of Republican politicians into radio talk-show-host wannabes that is the most dramatic change over the past seven years. Hannity compares Barack Obama to a communist. Limbaugh asserts the president "hates this country." Glenn Beck draws conspiratorial diagrams all over his white board to explain the sources of Obama's supposed left-wing radicalism. The next thing you know, Marco Rubio, ostensibly the most electable and "serious" candidate in the 2016 presidential race, is accusing the president (over and over again) of deliberately trying to damage the nation with his policies. In the words of my colleague Paul Waldman, "It’s one thing to say that your political opponents are wrong, that their plans will fail, that they are unconcerned about problems that you believe demand immediate action, or even that their values are misguided. But it’s quite another to think that they are intentionally seeking the destruction of the country."
This is a distinction that Ronald Reagan intuitively understood. It's the difference between ordinary politics and populist politics.
To the objection that forms the basis of McArdle's column — that the party is merely following the Republican electorate, not influencing it — the proper response is to note that there is (in moral and political terms) a world of difference between attempting (and perhaps failing) to elevate the basest preferences of voters and actively encouraging them and even making them worse.
The GOP has done an awful lot of the latter in recent years. Donald Trump is the result.