As we enter the third week of January–just two short weeks away from the Iowa caucuses–it is beginning to dawn even on the most stolid political media figures that Donald Trump is the likeliest bet to win the Republican presidential nomination. It is also becoming apparent even to those most in denial that in the event of Trump’s failure Ted Cruz, the most hated man in Washington and 2nd most unelectable of the GOP candidates in November, will almost certainly become the nominee.
Most of the political and journalistic class see the prospect of a Trump/Cruz nomination as so unthinkable that they have spent months denying its very possibility in the face of overwhelming evidence. That’s understandable for two reasons. First, the history of recent Republican elections strongly suggests that Republican voters flirt with anti-establishment candidates before choosing the traditionally sober candidate. Those who believe that this election represents a realigning paradigm shift–even if, as with the those who predicted the housing bubble calamity, they are ultimately right–are presumed wrong and unserious by default. Second, the mere notion that a majority of the GOP electorate would walk into a voting booth in cold blood and choose Trump or Cruz as their nominee would upend the accepted journalistic narrative in which both parties are presumed equally extreme, and destructive partisan rancor is blamed not on the will of the voters but on the political culture of Washington.
The prospect of either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump actually taking the oath of office is understandably terrifying to many people on both sides of the aisle. Their exclusionary, divisive and even totalitarian-inspired politics show an extreme lack of judgment and poor temperament for the office that should give any reasonable voter pause regardless of their views on the issues of the day. And even though both Trump and Cruz are the least electable of the leading GOP candidates in a general election, the vagaries of campaign gaffes, scandals, and unforeseen events could easily throw the race to a Republican underdog. The danger is therefore quite clear.
Even so, the Trump/Cruz ascendancy on the right is nonetheless a good thing for American politics. There are two principal reasons why:
1) It disempowers the conservative economic and media tycoons who created the malaise that fuels the anger of the GOP base. The American middle class has suffered greatly at the hands of the same corporate leaders who have propped up establishment conservative politics for the last several decades. Years of policies designed to enrich Wall Street, cripple unions, transfer power from wage earners to asset owners and shift risk from the supply side of the economy to the demand side have taken their toll on the incomes and psyches of most Americans. Older, conservative-leaning whites who were already uncomfortable with the empowerment of traditionally underprivileged classes become deeply angry as their own fortunes declined. Fox News and talk radio hosts gave voice to this anger, but also intensified and radicalized it for their own benefit as entertainment mavens. The end result is that a rogue’s gallery of conservative tycoons from Koch to Walton to Adelson has been buttressed by the likes of ruthless media figures like Roger Ailes and conscience-free consultants like Karl Rove, and feeds an increasingly dangerous and poisonous electoral monster that cripples the possibility of progressive change, particularly via low-turnout midterm elections.
Now that monster has turned on its creators. No longer can the Republican party of the Bushes and Romneys count on an attack dog to do their dirty work for them on election day so they can implement policy that benefits only economic elites while keeping a sunny, smiling Reaganesque face. The monster has broken free of its chains and it is demanding at long last to be fed.
No matter how dangerous the outside possibility of Trump or Cruz winning a general election may be, we should all celebrate the panic and desperation of clueless economic elites like this:
The strategist recalled a recent conversation with a “hedge-fund billionaire” he consults for. No matter how hard he tried, Wilson said, he couldn’t convince his client, a Bush supporter, that Trump was a genuine threat to win the nomination.
“The Bush guys have a cultural disconnect with Trump and his supporters. They think he’s a vulgar animal,” Wilson said. He then adopted the voice of a prim and proper Downton Abbey aristocrat. “Oh, I can’t believe anyone would speak this way!”
“There’s a bit of prissiness there,” Wilson concluded.
If you’re a Republican, the disempowerment of the generation of leaders who left the Republican Party a legacy of failure in economics and foreign policy should be welcome even at the expense of temporary embarrassment. If you’re a Democrat you should fear the dangerous beast that is the Trump-Cruz ascendancy, but watching it gorge on the flesh of the malevolent wizards who created it is not only a source of pleasant schadenfreude, but ultimately good for the country.
2) The Trump-Cruz electorate is shrinking, but the power of concentrated wealth is growing. It’s no secret that even as Republican electoral fortunes depend increasingly on aged whites who constitute a smaller percentage of the total population every year, so too do Cruz and Trump rely particularly heavily on these voters within the GOP coalition. Barring the nightmare scenario of a Trump victory followed by a totalitarian consolidation of authority, the likelihood of a Trump-Cruz power coalition surviving more than a four-year cycle is quite low. Just as it would take an electoral fluke to send Cruz to the Oval Office over either Clinton or Sanders, so too would it take another fluke to re-elect him. Much damage would be done in the interim, of course, but the coalition that sent him there would not be a lasting one.
Much more dangerous and problematic, on the other hand, is the power of concentrated wealth as inequality continues to rise. President Obama neatly outlined in his most recent State of the Union address how despite strong traditional economic indicators, the middle class is beset by a combination of longer-term factors like globalization and technology that together with with conservative economic policy have put the American Dream largely out of reach. Xenophobic authoritarianism is always a danger in a time of economic insecurity, but potentially more insidious is a business-friendly status quo that continues to grind away at economic security with a calm, pleasant face. This is the option presented by Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, and by “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush before him. It was the image that Mitt Romney tried to convey before he was unmasked by his derogatory comments about the “47 percent.”
If you believe, as most progressives and even many conservative activists do, that the combination of big business interests and crony-capitalist Washington Consensus lobbyists are the biggest challenges facing the country, then a future led by Rubio/Bush is far more to be feared than one led by Trump/Cruz. A similar dynamic exists on the left in the Democratic nomination fight between Clinton and Sanders. A very large number of Americans feel that the system is so broken that it needs an outsider’s wake-up call from any direction–and there is copious evidence to suggest that they are right.
Is the Trump-Cruz ascendancy in the GOP scary? Of course it is. But we should celebrate and encourage it nonetheless. The country is likely to be better for it in the end.