Anne Applebaum’s exploration of Laura Ingraham begins at a January 1995 cocktail party at David Brock’s home where an A-List of still-familiar conservatives convened to celebrate the swearing in of Newt Gingrich’s new Republican majority in the House of Representatives. This gives Appelbaum the opportunity to explore two different career trajectories. On one side are people like the host Brock, Bill Kristol, David Frum, John Podhoretz, and herself who have since broken with the Republican Party over it’s increasing xenophobia, racism and radicalism. On the other side are folks like Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ingraham who have embraced and led these changes.
I don’t find Ingraham particularly interesting, but Applebaum is probably correct when she identifies a dread kind of pessimism about the future of the country as the primary explanation for her transformation from a happy Reaganite warrior into a Buchananite Know-Nothing. And that got me thinking a bit about how Republicans have responded to losing an increasing share of the minority vote.
This isn’t exactly a chicken and egg kind of question, because racism definitely came first in this instance. It was a complete anti-Mexican freakout by the California Republican Party in the early 1990s that turned California from the land of Nixon and Reagan into the land of Barbara Boxer and Kamala Harris. It was an increasing devotion to the Southern Strategy as a way to win control of Congress that created a black electorate that tends to vote 9-to-1 against the GOP in presidential elections.
Yet, a point was eventually reached where knowledgeable political observers realized that the Republicans had become reliant on the white vote to win elections, and that the country was diversifying so quickly that this meant that a time would soon come when they simply could not win anymore. Lou Dobbs turned his business show on CNN into an early apocalyptic platform for this view, as he railed against immigration night after night even as most of the country and the party were focused on other things, like terrorism and the war in Iraq.
Obviously, it was Pat Buchanan who was the earliest and boldest herald of these views. In some ways it reminds me of the way that antebellum American slave holders and Afrikaners in apartheid South Africa worried that they had so mistreated the black population that granting them rights would lead to payback. It no longer mattered what was right and wrong, the main thing was avoiding consequences. Advocating change and asking forgiveness required a faith in humanity they had always lacked so, more out of terror than conviction, they clung to the status quo like grim death.
Almost imperceptibly, the Republican Party began to drift into this kind of trap. Past sins made present sins more necessary. Having galvanized minorities into bloc opponents, they had to arouse similar tribal voting patterns in whites, which required them to cast all whites as under threat, rather than just the Republican variety. To forestall the future demographic political death, every tactic of voter suppression was embraced, from striking people off the voter rolls, to inventing an in-person voter fraud crisis that required state-issued photo IDs to combat. Even the conservative Supreme Court got into the game by gutting protections in the Voting Rights Act.
Of course, each act of racial polarization and every racist utterance and pronouncement only exacerbated the problem and thus served to justify the next round of outrages. Eventually, only Donald Trump could adequately encompass and express the kind of racial fear and hatred required to keep the GOP viable. By the time he came along, many of the original members of the Gingrich vanguard had already begun drifting away. For Applebaum, the breaking point had been Sarah Palin.
Where the chicken and egg thing comes into play is when we consider how for some, racism is a genuine and primary motivator and for others, it is merely something to be utilized. In the latter group, elections are practical challenges that require concrete tactics and strategies. If your party is losing 90 percent of the black vote and losing badly with Latinos and Asians, you can either do something to improve those numbers or you can try to arouse whites to support you in greater numbers. Knowing the general demographic drift of the country, it would seem preferable to focus on de-racializing our politics, and that’s precisely what the Republican leadership recommended after watching Mitt Romney lose in 2012.
By that time, however, it was too late. The remaining base of the party had been too primed on demographic doom and minority payback to tolerate moderation. All efforts at comprehensive immigration reform were jettisoned, and Donald Trump destroyed advocates of that path, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
And once the decision was made to resist at all costs, it put a lot of non-racist conservatives in a bind. An anti-choice activist who had been dreaming of a conservative Supreme Court for fifty years now had to contemplate giving up on that dream to oppose the xenophobic Trump movement. A pro-business, libertarian-minded activist had to consider voting for a Democrat presidential candidate who promised to introduce a lot of government regulations. The more unacceptable the Democratic alternative looked to them, the more tolerable Trump’s racism became. While many bit the bullet and walked away, many more began to twist and compromise in order to conform to the new political line.
All of this moral corruption is separate and distinct from the other consequence of Trumpism, which is the way it gave permission for true racists to come out of the closet and express their feelings and beliefs. It’s truly the worst of all worlds when Nazis suddenly feel free to be Nazis, and at the same time a lot of other people begin to accommodate themselves to beliefs they never before held or felt the need to tolerate.
It’s inevitable that this will happen once a group of people comes to the conclusion that the only way to win politically is to stay on board with a racist movement. They’re much more likely to deny they belong to a racist movement than to rationalize it. But some will begin to rationalize it, and others will go completely over to the dark side.
We see people act out this full spectrum of behaviors. They defend comments they never would have defended before. If they feel compelled to acknowledge that something is bad, they try to argue that the other side is just as bad. Or some, like Laura Ingraham, just embrace the move towards white nationalism and seek to become leaders within the movement.
Racism has been with America from the beginning, but there’s a real sense in which fear of demographic political doom has caused what we’re seeing today. Conservatives are by nature resistant to change, and their refusal to make any effort to appeal to minorities means that their only option is to push whites to think politically as a racial group. This, accompanied by targeted voter suppression, gerrymandering, and other tactics, will work until it stops working.
I think we’ll know we’ve reached that point if Trump loses Texas. Whatever happens in November, there is going to come a time when all this rearguard action suddenly fails, and then there will be no turning back. We may be seeing it play out now, with Confederate statues coming down and country music bands changing their names and professional sports teams dropping their nicknames.
I don’t know what will become of the Republican party once it becomes clear that white nationalism is non-viable, but it will never be the same.