After sixteen months of campaigning, Donald Trump is suddenly being denounced by both political and media mainstreams as an aberration within America’s political process. This opinion was triggered largely by his refusal to promise, in the third debate against Hillary Clinton, to accept the upcoming election results. For Trump this was a last-ditch rallying cry to his hard core supporters, but it was also a godsend for the Republican Party, an excuse for “down-ballot” candidates to repudiate their support of someone likely to drag them down with him in November’s election. It also provided an escape-hatch that people could use to distance themselves from their previous support of Trump, by wrapping themselves in the “sanctity” of American democracy. But positioning Trump as a political outlier ignores reality. His candidacy is crashing on a late questioning of his “character”, but character is a bullfighter’s cape, distracting attention from more systemic issues. Trump is far from being an exception, even if you believe exceptions that prove rules. Only eight years ago, for example, John McCain chose Sarah “Going Rogue” Palin as his choice to stand a heartbeat away from the Presidency. The roots of Trump’s success can be traced to America’s post-war transition from the grey flannel 1950s to the 60s. Politically, Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of half a century’s decline in America’s relative balance. Yes, parts of Trump’s personal history and quirks of his performance are unusual for a candidate for the nation’s highest office. But his candidacy represents the ultimate convergence of two realignments in American politics which have taken fifty years to resolve. The Republican Party has been devolving, and the resolution of this process is Trump. The internal conflict among Republicans lay between what the American writer Carl Oglesby described as the “Yankees” and the “Cowboys”. Yankees represented old Eastern aristocracy and money, the Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers. They founded the party before the Civil War, partly through a noblesse oblige desire to end slavery. Their ranks were joined by nineteenth-century robber barons who gained respectability through wealth and the adoption of that noblesse oblige. They tended to be internationalists. Cowboys represented new money: independent Texas oilmen, aerospace and defence contractors, gigantic retailers, the rising power of the Far West. They offered little noblesse and no oblige, and advocated American exceptionalism which bordered on isolationism, unless America’s dominant interest dictated otherwise. They included groups such as the John Birch Society, funded by the Coors brewing fortune – right-wingers who considered Dwight Eisenhower a communist.
In 1964, their standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater of Arizona (“extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice”) won the Republican presidential nomination. He was trounced in the election by Lyndon Johnson, and the Yankee-backed Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford regained power within the Party. But by 1980, the Cowboys found a more presentable spokesman. Former television host Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter by running against the Washington establishment, with George H. W. Bush, the son of a Yankee investment banker turned Texas oilman Cowboy, as his vice-president. Since then, opposition to “government” has become the Republicans’ default position. Career politicians run against “Washington insiders”, in pantomime rebellion against the very interests who bankroll them into office and whose needs they service.
The second realignment came from a schism in the Democratic Party, which, at the time Johnson beat Goldwater, was an uneasy alliance of northern working class and “liberals” alongside the so-called Dixiecrats. Dixiecrats represented the “solid South” that for a century had refused to vote Republican, for the simple reason that Abraham Lincoln had won the Civil War and freed the slaves. They were conservatives committed to segregation in the guise of “states’ rights”; many were also born-again Christians.
It was also in 1964 that Johnson enacted the landmark Civil Rights Act. In 1965 he pushed the Voting Rights Act through Congress and as he signed that bill, he remarked presciently “there goes the South”. Four years later Richard Nixon introduced a “southern strategy” to the Republicans, and by 1980, when Reagan defeated Carter, the only southern state Carter captured was his own Georgia.
When the Right and Left were mixed between two parties, the art of compromise was the essence of politics. But now all the hard Right was in one party, and these radical, religious and overwhelmingly white Republicans shared a commitment to ideological purity, exerting extreme pressure on “moderates” to tack firmly to the right or face challenges, funded by unlimited money from backers like the Koch brothers, in the primaries. Co-operation with the Democratic Party became anathema.
Into this maelstrom, Trump’s advantage over his sixteen opponents in the primary was his very lack of a political “paper trail”; he replaced positions with personality. Polls before the first primaries showed that although he commanded less than 30 per cent support, none of the other candidates ran ahead of him one to one. A party united only in its opposition to government failed to offer an attractive leader from within, leaving a vacuum for a would-be demagogue to fill. Once he won the nomination, his campaign attacked blacks and Latinos, and a thrice-married and self-confessed Lothario somehow convinced religious leaders such as Pat Robertson to channel messages of support from God.
Trump benefitted from one other evolution of politics since the 1960s. In 1960 a televised debate helped propel John Kennedy to victory over Richard Nixon. In 1964, a commercial broadcast only once, showing a little girl picking flowers before being obliterated by an atom bomb, killed the Goldwater campaign. Fifty years later Trump realised shrewdly that modern American electioneering is exactly the kind of “reality” television he has been starring in for the past decade. In a system dependent on hundreds of millions of dollars to fund television adverts, Trump’s celebrity and outlandish behaviour guaranteed him a fortune’s worth of free exposure. As one network chief said, “he’s horrible for America, but he’s great for us”. This proved a boon until the focus narrowed into a head to head battle, and the spotlight began to show Nixonian sweat beneath the makeup.
Assuming a Trump loss, what happens next? To many commentators, Trump appears to be moving toward his own television news channel (a proposal he has denied), fuelled by his Manichaean view of “the establishment”. Roger Ailes, the former Republican kingmaker at Fox News, who resigned after Trump-like accusations of sexual harassment, could run it. Trump may be aiming at becoming an American Silvio Berlusconi, complete with bunga-bunga.
For a Republican Party facing another four years of fighting a rear-guard action in Washington, Trump TV’s appeal to their hardest core by questioning the very legitimacy of government could become a fatally divisive wedge. The Republican Party’s challenge lies in finding a leader who can hold that core together with its backers, while managing not to further alienate floating voters. That task might require another Ronald Reagan, and their only consolation is that Trump is nowhere near as skilled an actor as Reagan was.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.