The success of Donald Trump in capturing the Republican Party nomination for POTUS seemed to take a lot of people by surprise.
It should not have been a surprise.
The conditions that led to a self-proclaimed “non-politician” and insurgent steamrollering his way to the GOP nomination are not new. The GOP has been vulnerable to, and taking account of, insurgencies for over a decade.
Back in 2010, for example, Sharron Angle, a surprise winner of the GOP Senate primary in Utah, made a statement in a radio interview that was, in tone and substance, almost identical to Donald
Trump’s recent expression of hope that Second Amendment sympathizers would help the USA. This is Angle’s statement from 2010:
Angle: I feel that the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms for our citizenry. This not for someone who’s in the military. This not for law enforcement. This is for us. And in fact when you read that Constitution and the founding fathers, they intended this to stop tyranny. This is for us when our government becomes tyrannical…
Manders: If we needed it at any time in history, it might be right now.
Angle: Well it’s to defend ourselves. And you know, I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.
This looks remarkably similar to Trump’s recent statement.
Those of us who have been following the “birther” movement since 2007 know that many of the supporters and cheerleaders of that movement are also fans of “second Amendment remedies”. There is a lot of overlap between “birthers” and Sovereign Citizens, many of whom regard the Federal government as illegal and illegitimate, and who are, based on their numerous online pronouncements, simply waiting for the day when they can pull out their weapons and go Vanquish Evil. They are all geared up to fight the Second American Revolution, they just need a good excuse.
The takeover of many State-level Republican parties by the Tea Party since 2008 is a classic example of practical insurgency. The purpose of the Tea Party was to remake the GOP into what they considered to be a “true Conservative” party. One of the favorite tactics of Tea Party activists has been to paint opponents as “insufficiently Conservative”, “RINOs” etc. Effectively, they subjected incumbents to an ideological purity test, and if they were deemed to have failed, the Tea Party members would run their own candidates in an attempt (often successful) to install representatives more to their liking. Sometimes, as in the recent unseating of Renee Ellmers, the Tea Party not only installed their preferred candidate, but also deposed that candidate if they did not (in their view) adopt a radical enough approach once in office.
Sen. John McCain’s nomination of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential running mate in 2008 was a hint of what was going to occur in 2016. Palin fitted the insurgent mold. She was from a state (Alaska) not noted for producing national political figures; she was a woman from a seemingly hardscrabble background who had risen to be the Governor of Alaska; she was married to an authentic-looking outdoorsman; she had a family tragedy (Down’s Syndrome) that she used as a publicity prop; and she was good-looking, albeit in a clumsy and goofy way. She also had the ability to talk in disconnected, semi-nonsensical streams of consciousness, very similar to the speech patterns of Donald Trump. Her themes were a pervasive shout-out to God, Guns and Real America, with implied or actual sneering at “elites” and other groups who were clearly not Real Americans. (The desire to label anybody with a non-matching worldview as “not Real Americans” is now a well-developed obsession for practitioners of resentment politics in the modern USA).
The nomination of Palin proved to be a mini-disaster for the GOP. Palin lacked gravitas, and her dismissal of established norms (such as winking to the camera in the VP debate) made her look unserious. She became the butt of a thousand jokes, and further reduced her credibility by quitting as Governor of Alaska halfway into her term. However, for a long while, she was a heroine to the GOP, who saw in her a reflection of True American Values.
However awkward Sarah Palin was for the GOP, she at least was only the VP nominee. John McCain was there to provide the Gravitas and remind people that here was a serious person running for the office of POTUS.
The GOP today has no such get-out-of-jail card with Donald Trump. By definition, his position as the Presidential nominee puts him at the top of the pecking order, and his insurgent status allows him to ignore established norms in favour of anything that he thinks will work to get his message out. As a result, we are now being treated to a bizarre roller-coaster of speeches, tweets, and interviews where Trump zig-zags all over the map in terms of ideas, policy positions and claims, often contradicting himself multiple times a week. He appears to have no idea what he said yesterday, but hell, it doesn’t matter, here is what I am saying today. Most of what he says is provably nonsensical or untrue, but when challenged on it he either changes the subject or repeats the falsehoods.
However ludicrous and unserious Donald Trump appears to people who expect elected representatives to be sensible, thoughtful and careful, there is a serious underlying issue that his rise is signalling. While Trump’s behavior is the standard behavior of many demagogues throughout history, his attacks on “the establishment”, and his fire-hose offering of grandiose, simplistic solutions, are appealing compellingly to an audience, who, based on numerous studies, appears to comprise a significant number of Americans who believe that America is not meeting their needs, desires and expectations. The fact that Sharron Angle, promulgating a similar (although less scatter-shot) set of messages, could come within 4% of defeating Sen. Harry Reid in 2010 showed that a lot of electors were voting in favor of messages that asserted that the American Dream was not working for them.
One of the more important books of this year is J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”. It is a revealing portrait of the economically depressed and deprived areas of Appalachia and the Rustbelt, where recent changes in the structure of the US economy away from manufacturing and labor-intensive heavy industry have resulted in massive multi-generational unemployment, as formerly productive blue-collar workers were laid off and reduced to scrabbling to survive. Trump’s eager audience is disproportionately comprised of such people, who believe that neither of the major political parties gives a damn about them. Well, except for Donald Trump. He gets them!
Personally, I believe that Trump is playing the majority of his audience like a cheap violin, like the narcissistic huckster that he really is. I also believe that the GOP has been playing that audience for decades, using all manner of resentment dog-whistles. (I have never seen a Democratic party leader talking about “coastal elites”, but I read that kind of doublespeak all the time from GOP partisans). The fact that Donald Trump has found an audience of this size sends a powerful message that there are a lot of people who consider themselves to be losers in the modern American lottery. The hollowing out of many communities has been occurring for decades (and this is not confined to the USA), and the resentment that has been largely hidden (poor people generally don’t run websites, write memoirs or vote in large numbers) has taken a while to truly hit the national stage. We can see a similar pattern in the UK, where the voters who voted to leave the EU were either older, with ingrained suspicions against Europe, or from deprived areas of the UK, where they saw no upside to being in Europe, and in fact saw a downside as “foreigners” came in and took low-wage jobs that they thought were theirs.
The more interesting and dangerous issue is what will happen if Donald Trump (as seems likely based on current opinion polls) loses his bid for the Presidency. He and his supporters are already pre-messaging their unwillingness to accept a defeat by claiming that the system is rigged against them. This is, in my opinion, dangerously close to sedition. If they have evidence that the system is rigged against them (other than the fact that, you know, they have to have a majority of the votes to win), then they need to produce the evidence, or the rest of the political actors in the USA have to tell them to shut up. We may yet see rioting after the fact if the result does not go the way of some of the insurgent supporters. Dealing with riots by poor people in Appalachia will be difficult. They will not be black, or foreign, so they will not be dismissable on those grounds.