When to Invite the Far Right to the Party

I think it’s fair to call Jacobin a Trotskyist Marxist publication, since its publisher freely self-identifies that way. For you, maybe that means that you’re not interested in anything they say. For me, it means that I don’t share their agenda. Yet, we do sometimes come to similar conclusions and make like points. I recognized a lot of my own analysis in Marshall Steinbaum’s latest piece which bears the subtitle: Blame Elites for the Far Right’s Rise.

Steinbaum seeks to draw parallels between the mainstream right’s reaction to the election of Barack Obama and the mainstream right in Germany’s Weimar Republic’s decision to invite the far right into their political coalition. Put less diplomatically, Steinbaum is arguing that German rightwing economic elites and industrialists grew frustrated with their inability to form governing coalitions during Weimar and decided to use the numbers and enthusiasm provided by the Nazis to put them over the top. Obviously, they soon thereafter discovered that the tail was wagging the dog.

The obvious problem here is that it fulfills Godwin’s Law at the outset, with the accompanying risk that people won’t take his argument seriously.

DONNIE: They were Nazis, Walter?
WALTER: They were threatening castration, Donnie. Do you want to split hairs here?

But this line of argument is justified because it’s based on a presumption that human nature is consistent and stable, and that rightwing financial elites faced with a persistent difficulty in crafting sufficiently large political coalitions will succumb to the same temptations in the 2010s that lured them in during the 1920s.

On the most basic level, there are always more workers than bosses and more ordinary people than rich people. Therefore, it’s a natural challenge for rightwing economic barons to form majorities or even pluralities that can gain enough power to govern. They traditionally have the advantage of buying ink by the barrel, and in recent times they’ve formed think tanks and professorships, allowing them to manufacture “research” that supports anything from the safety of tobacco to the myth of climate change. They also utilize nationalism, chauvinism, white ethno-religious supremacy, and huge helpings of fear to shift Average Joe’s focus from his financial self-interest to resentment of “an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

That rightwing political parties, sponsored by hoarding rightwing economic elites, will feel the need to fund fake research and news and to make these crass appeals is baked in the cake. Without it, they’d struggle to get 2% of the vote.

But getting over the political hump can be easy or it can be hard. The far right can be taken for granted or even actively shunned in good times. What the 2008 and 2012 election results showed, however, is that these are no longer good times for a party that seeks to represent elite rightwing business interests on the backs of modestly conservative white middle class and working class folks. In the wake of the 2012 election, Sean Trende tried to reassure conservatives that all was not lost. He wrote a very influential piece, The Missing White Voters, that had (as it turned out) an unfortunate thesis. Trende argued that “a large portion of the demographic change we saw in the 2012 electorate was not due to increased turnout, but rather a drop in white participation.”

I don’t intend to litigate the research he utilized then or subsequently. The only point I care about in this context is that Trende introduced the idea that conservatives could win if they figured out a way to get most of the whites who didn’t show up for Romney to show up for their 2016 nominee.

Of course, the Republican National Committee produced a different finding when they did their post-mortem on the election, concluding that the Republicans needed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, stop resisting the advancement of gay rights, and send an inclusive message to racial and ethnic minorities.

The authors of the RNC autopsy report don’t seem to have contemplated the possibility of winning by taking a harder line on immigration and more aggressive appeals to white identity and grievance. Initially, the Senate Republicans followed their script, passing a comprehensive immigration reform bill as instructed. But the more populist House simply refused to legislate or negotiate on the issue.

The House, of course, had by then been infected by the Palinization and Tea Partification of the GOP that occurred in 2008 and 2009 and led to an influx of far right representatives after the 2010 midterm shellacking.

As Steinbaum points out, the white mobilization project was out of Pandora’s Box well before the 2012 election and 2013 RNC autopsy report.

The Tea Party phenomenon — half the grassroots protest of aggrieved white people, half something conceived, funded, and exalted by right-wing billionaires — is the clearest example of the use of mass mobilization to undermine politics as usual.

The failure to pass immigration reform through the House can be laid squarely on these exact feet.

I examined one way of looking at this yesterday when I wrote about the Republican base being the minority that thinks it’s a majority and how the size of their minority is big enough to give them the impression that they should not need to compromise. I also wrote about the fact that the far right has some legitimate grievances, especially with the leadership of the Republican Party.

But, insofar as the far right (or alt-right) is animated by delusions of majority status, white ethno/religious supremacy, xenophobia, fear and an anaphylactic allergy to compromise, they cannot be channeled, harnessed or negotiated with.

The key here, though, is that riling these folks up was an electoral strategy for a coalition that discovered that they could not win without them. No one riled them up better than Donald Trump so it’s natural and fitting that he’s emerged as the right’s champion in this election. Sean Trende would disavow it, but Trumpism is an effort to implement his strategy of mobilizing the missing white voters of 2012.

Now, some of you get sick of me tooting my own horn, but I really did foresee where this was going. Back on July 2nd, 2013, I wrote a piece called The GOP is Moving in the Wrong Direction. It was in response to an article Benjy Sarlin had written for MSNBC in which he detailed the transformation that occurred in Republican circles as they moved from following the autopsy report’s analysis to following the analysis of Sean Trende.

What Mr. Sarlin doesn’t broach is the subject of how conservatives might be able to grab a higher percentage of whites and how they might go about driving up white turnout. The most obvious way is to pursue an us vs. them approach that alternatively praises whites as the true, patriotic Americans, and that demonizes non-whites as a drain on the nation’s resources. This is basically the exact strategy pursued by McCain and especially Romney. It’s what Palin was all about, and it’s what that 47% speech was all about.

An added element was introduced by Barack Obama, whose controversial pastor and Kenyan ancestry opened up avenues for both veiled and nakedly racist appeals to the white voter. A white Democratic nominee would be less of an easy target for talk about secret Islamic sympathies and fraudulent birth certificates, but that would only make other racially polarizing arguments more necessary.

The problem is that these attacks have already been made, and they failed in even near-optimal circumstances. Accusing the Democrats of socialism, which is a race-neutral way of accusing the party of being beholden to the racial underclasses, has been proven insufficient. The only hope for a racial-polarization strategy is to get the races to segregate their votes much more thoroughly, and that requires that more and more whites come to conclude that the Democratic Party is the party for blacks, Asians, and Latinos.

That is, indeed, how the party is perceived in the Deep South, but it would be criminal to expand those racial attitudes to the country at large.

The Republicans are coalescing around a strategy that will, by necessity, be more overtly racist than anything we’ve seen since segregation was outlawed.

Does anyone doubt that I was right?

Even though I have contempt for Dialectal Materialism as an analytic tool, there is a certain determinism in how and when far right movements come to the fore, and there’s a lot of truth to the idea that they come to the fore when they’re invited to the party out of desperation.

Between the nomination of Sarah Palin and the rightwing elite’s financing and encouragement of the Tea Party, the invitation was sent out and we all got more than an RSVP.

We’ll find out in November if the Missing White Votes theory had merit. But, win or lose, the Republicans invited the far right in and lost control of them. Contrary to a lot of people’s perceptions, Trumpism doesn’t need Trump and it’ll be with us for some time now.

Martin Longman

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