Can’t Break Out of the Nihilistic Feedback Loop

Says, David Frum, “The GOP planned a dynastic restoration in 2016. Instead, it triggered an internal class war.” That’s from the dek of his large new piece in The Atlantic, and I have to give Frum credit. It’s a solid retelling of what’s happened to your father’s GOP.

At the heart of his analysis is a relatively simple thesis. In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 debacle, everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Sean Hannity to Charles Krauthammer concluded that nothing fundamental needed to change about the Republican Party or the Conservative Movement except their attitude toward Latino immigration. The RNC conducted an “autopsy” of the election and concluded much the same thing, although the RNC also emphasized a less hostile attitude towards gay rights and a little more sanity and tact on female contraception and reproductive rights.

But the base of the party was seeing things much differently, and if there was anything that they fervently wanted to see change it was precisely this proclivity to surrender on issues like immigration that seemed to no longer have any electoral advantage.

What followed was a failed effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill through Congress with an accompanying dive in approval of the job performance of the Republican leadership.

What we’re witnessing now, with Donald Trump, is proof that the base of the GOP will support almost any rhetoric as long as it is aimed at bashing Latinos, Muslims, or the Republicans in Washington DC who seem more interested in getting reelected than in keeping their promises.

Just listen to Phyllis Schafly:

Schlafly applauded the GOP front-runner’s fighting spirit.

“It sounds like Donald Trump is the only one who has any fight in him,” she said. “He will fight for the issues that we really care about and are very hot at the present time, such as the immigration issue. I don’t see anyone else who’s eager to fight.”

The Republican-controlled Congress just sold America down in river in the “worst kind of betrayal,” Schlafly told WND.

“It’s the worst kind of a betrayal because we thought we elected a bunch of good guys who would shape up the party,” she said. “We had a lot of fancy promises that the Republicans were going to shape up and change course. And they disappointed us. Betrayal is an appropriate word to describe it.”

WND asked Schlafly if she believes Donald Trump is the last hope for America.

“He does look like he’s the last hope [for America],” Schlafly said. “We don’t hear anybody saying what he’s saying. In fact, most of the people who ought to be lining up with him are attacking him. They’re probably jealous of the amount of press coverage he gets. But the reason he gets so much press coverage is the grassroots are fed up with people who are running things, and they do want a change. They do want people to stand up for America. It really resonates when he says he wants to ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Frum sees four ways forward for the Republican Establishment. They can double down on their pro-immigration stance without changing anything else. This would entail sticking it out with Jeb or maybe shifting support to Rubio.

They can flip on immigration, making the same kind of concession they made to social conservatives on abortion in the 1980’s, but basically change nothing else. For Frum, this could be basically accomplished with either Ted Cruz or Chris Christie.

They could make more of a true pivot to the middle and rediscover their inner-Eisenhower Republicanism, embracing policies that are actually aimed at bolstering the middle class and their concerns, even if this involves painful concessions from the financial elite.

Or, they can keep working to game the system with gerrymanders and vote suppression to protect their congressional majorities and hunker down for another long vacation from the White House. With their successes on the state and local level and control of least one chamber of Congress, they can be a very effective permanent minority.

Personally, I think we will see them flail around all four of these strategies, but lack of cohesion or obedience from the base will force them into option four. I believe they will default to what they can agree on, and that is opposition to the Democrats and their multicultural America. It might be different if one of the other options could deliver quick and sure success, but no one will be convinced of that. Doubling down on an accommodating attitude towards immigrants accompanied by support for free trade, cutting entitlements, and maintaining low taxes on the superrich is going to be a non-starter with the Trumpista base. On the other hand, continuing to alienate minorities and multiculturals with their intolerance cannot bring Electoral College victory. A true reform agenda might be possible, but the party base is too suspicious to support any kind of activist government and there simply isn’t any consensus on an alternative to the old trickle-down economics. So, that leaves the last option.

And it makes sense because the Republican Party has evolved since its last heyday in the 1920’s into an organization built for the permanent minority. This culture snapped into being and grew strength from the experience of spending a nearly uninterrupted sixty years (1933-1995) without being able to control the committees or the pursestrings in the House of Representatives. That’s a long time to spend without approving the federal budget or being able to shape legislation. It’s a very long time to go without having to take any responsibility for what Congress produced.

It’s no wonder that the Conservative Movement doesn’t know what to do with the car whenever it manages to catch it.

But it’s still basically nihilism. And I’ve never seen any group of human beings who could craft a positive agenda around nihilism.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.