In one sense, I fear that Jeet Heer is correct. Once you open up Pandora’s Box, it’s not so easy to put its contents back in the container. This is a theme I’ve hit on repeatedly over the years, but it’s usually been in the context of breaking norms against torture and indefinite detention, or about lowering the standards for what credentials ought to be required in a would-be president or vice-president.
Some taboos should not be broken, and the Republicans have been breaking taboos left and right ever since they decided to impeach the president over a petty infidelity, or at least since hanging chads tripped up the 2000 recount in Florida.
There have been big things and small. It used to be that judges were vetted by the American Bar Association and a degree from Regent University wasn’t seen as a ticket to a high-level position of responsibility in our nation’s bureaucracy. It used to be that we didn’t start wars of choice that involved invading and occupying foreign countries based a tissue box full of lies. It used to be that White House press credentials weren’t given out to fake reporters writing under an alias who moonlight as male prostitutes.
The list is getting pretty long at this point. You don’t threaten the credit of the United States. You don’t shut down the government. You don’t filibuster every procedural move in the Senate. You don’t refuse to meet with a Supreme Court nominee.
And, yes, you don’t nominate someone like Sarah Palin or Donald Trump and then try to tell us that they’re well-qualified for the position. You don’t defend the crackpot things that they say, whether it’s about torturing people, nuking people, beating the shit out of people, or deporting them by the millions.
Once you break these kind of taboos, the standards fall away and we’re no longer a credible defender of human rights and nuclear non-proliferation, or a beacon of freedom and sanctuary from strife. The standards we had for what constitutes a qualified judge or elected official fall by the wayside. Even our norms against open professions of racism wither on the vine.
Still, I’m not sure that Heer is fully justified in his pessimism here:
We can expect future Republican presidential candidates, running in a party that has not only lastingly alienated Americans of color but threatened them with open hatred and violence—even expulsion—to borrow from Trump’s strategy of racial polarization. Trump might fail, in other words, but Trumpism will live on. And given the fact America has a two-party system and voters will inevitably want change, we have to face the prospect that even if Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders wins the White House for Democrats in November, the historical odds say the United States will eventually elect a Trumpian president.
Yet Trump’s enduring impact won’t merely be political. “This is a movement,” Trump exulted last August during a campaign speech in Nashville, Tennessee. “I don’t want it to be about me.” He was right about that: Trump may be the icon of the movement he’s ignited, but it’s gone far beyond his actions or control. And while organized white nationalists are the animating core of the movement, beyond them are the far more numerous Americans who harbor racist attitudes and economic resentments but have no links to the likes of David Duke.
For decades, this cohort has had to grapple with the fact that public expressions of racism were becoming taboo. When politicians tried to win over these voters, they had to use code words and dog whistles. Trump has changed all that: The dog whistle has given way to the air horn. And now when white people want to harass Hispanic basketball players or Muslim students, they have a rallying cry: “Trump, Trump, Trump!”
This is a real concern, but it’s not inevitable.
Maybe because we have a two-party system, this future can be averted.
If Trump loses, and loses badly, I’m not sure that future Republican presidential candidates will want to emulate him. There might still be a window where a candidate can hope to win by racially polarizing the electorate and getting enough of just the white voters to win. But that window is closing if it is not already closed. If Trump can’t do it in 2016, it will take even more polarization to pull off in 2020. And it’s frankly pretty hard to see how you could be more racially polarizing than Trump and still retain the white voters who are turned off by this kind of politics. It’s not just that the country is getting browner by the year. The young voters are getting less race-conscious every year, too.
To see a full repeat of Trumpism, people need to see some margin in it. That means for Trumpism to have much of a future, it needs to succeed now.
Otherwise, the Republican Party will have to reckon with what Michael Gerson is talking about:
But the durability of Trump’s appeal creates a conundrum for many Republicans. For decades, some of us have argued that the liberal stereotype of Republicans as extreme, dim and intolerant is inaccurate and unfair. But here is a candidate for president who fully embodies the liberal stereotype of Republicans — who thinks this is the way a conservative should sound — and has found support from a committed plurality of the party.
If the worst enemies of conservatism were to construct a Frankenstein figure that represents the worst elements of right-wing politics, Donald Trump would be it. But it is Republicans who are giving him life. And the damage is already deep.
If this is the logical endpoint of the Conservative Movement, well, it seems like we’re reaching the end.
That’s my hope, anyway.