For many years, the Republican establishment has been able to keep its base of culture warriors in line. Going back to Ronald Reagan, party elites have long provided lip service to social conservative causes, and it has helped them win many elections with the support of the white working class. At the same time, these elites have done everything in their power to serve the interests of corporate America while undermining the material interests of the majority of their base. There have been certain figures here and there who have attempted to challenge this hold that the establishment has, such as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, but it has held on steady for decades.
Today, however, the GOP establishment faces a challenge that no one could have predicted just six months ago. Donald Trump has triggered a revolt of sorts against the establishment, and he has done it in a very ugly way. The real estate mogul has exploited just about every fear and anxiety that exists among many lower class whites, from Sharia Law to Mexican rapists. For six months, Trump has used his platform as a kind of megaphone for white-supremacist hate speech (which explains why neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups have endorsed him), and for as many months, he has been the frontrunner of the Republican primary.
It seems the more abhorrent he becomes, the more exited and dedicated his base is. His unwillingness to apologize or back down from blatantly false assertions or hateful rhetoric has made him a hero among many Americans who see “political correctness” as a scourge on politics and culture. Just last month, he retweeted to his five million followers on Twitter bogus and racially fueled crime statistics (that originated from a neo-Nazi sympathizer) claiming that 81 percent of white homicides were committed by black people, while the real FBI statistic is 15 percent (it also claimed that blacks were 97 percent responsible for black homicides, while the real number is 90 percent). When Bill O’Reilly confronted Trump about the fake statistics that he propagated to millions of people, his response was that is was just a retweet. “Hey, Bill, Bill, am I gonna check every statistic?” replied Trump. Needless to say, when you are running for the highest office in the United States of America, there is a certain responsibility that comes with this, and advertising false and racist statistics to millions of people who trust you is dangerous (these numbers will surely increase racism towards blacks, as intended).
Trump has mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, advocated a national database for Muslims, threatened to close down Mosques, claimed he saw thousands of New Jersey Muslims cheering when the World Trade Center fell (which there is no evidence for), promised to deport 11 million people, and so on. A few months ago, I wrote a piece on Trump’s rhetoric and its parallels with fascism, and today, certain conservatives have started using the label to describe the billionaire. “If Obama proposed the same religion registry as Trump every conservative in the country would call it what it is -- creeping fascism,” tweeted the conservative radio host, Steve Deace.
Trump has made a campaign out of jumping the shark, or as an unnamed New Hampshire Republican strategist said to The Guardian:
“Just one of these flips flops, gaffes or lies, would have killed a capable, competent campaign. [But] if your campaign is based on jumping the shark, there’s no jumping the shark moment.”
So what is happening here? How has an offensive and bigoted buffoon like Trump become a major threat to the GOP establishment. Its not too complicated. The lip service that the GOP elites have long provided to angry underclass whites seems to finally be wearing thin, as is the lip service that the Democratic establishment has long provided to progressives and the middle class, as is revealed by the success of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) in the Democratic primary. Trump has baffled pundits for many months by holding on to a firm plurality in the Republican primaries, and his support base is simply too angry to care whether Trump’s rhetoric is false or hateful or even honest -- finally there is someone who can stand up and fight for them. But could Trump actually win the nomination? According to a new Reuters poll, Trump has fallen by 12 points since embracing his inner-fascist self over the past couple of weeks, although his average polling number, as tracked by the Huffington Post, remains 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor.
Still, once other candidates start dropping out of the crowded field, it could spell trouble for Trump. As Nate Silver writes in Five Thirty Eight:
“Right now, [Trump] has 25 to 30 percent of the vote in polls among the roughly 25 percent of Americans who identify as Republican. (That’s something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.) As the rest of the field consolidates around him, Trump will need to gain additional support to win the nomination. That might not be easy, since some Trump actions that appeal to a faction of the Republican electorate may alienate the rest of it. Trump’s favorability ratings are middling among Republicans (and awful among the broader electorate).”
Trump may not win the nomination, but he could still do a great deal of damage to the Republican party (and America, for that matter). Even though his supporters make up the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were fake, they are, very much like conspiracy theorists, a dedicated bunch who will certainly play a role in American politics for the years to come. Plus, the anger that Trump has fueled with his dangerous and bitter rhetoric could be like a forest fire that the Republican establishment may be unable to put out. As Chris Hedges writes in his recent column, “The Age of the Demagogues”:
“What the Republican elites have done, as they now realize to their horror, is empower a huge swath of the public—largely white—that is gripped by magical thinking and fetishizes violence. It was only a matter of time before a demagogue whom these elites could not control would ride the wave of alienation and rage. If Trump fails in his bid to become the GOP presidential nominee, another demagogue will emerge to take his place. Trump is not making a political revolution. He is responding to one.”
This campaign season is one of anger and desperation. Some of it is well founded. The political and corporate elites have done insurmountable damage to the middle and working classes of America over the past fifty years. Americans of all races, genders and sexualities have suffered at the hands of revolving door technocrats and corrupted politicians who serve their corporate masters first and foremost. But Trump is directing this anger at non-whites and foreigners with a kind of white identity politics, dividing rather than uniting the people. To actually challenge the corporate state and the political establishments, the people must be united. We must move beyond identity politics and back to a form of class politics — the kind that Sanders has promoted — if neoliberalism is to be defeated. If not, Trump is only the beginning of what could become America’s very own fascist movement.