The Republican Party decades ago attempted to form a new majority by creating a Frankenstein's monster. Now, it is clear that this monster is eating its maker alive. What's more, Bernie Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, wants a piece of the wreckage. It's safe to say that this is unchartered territory for American politics.
“Look, many of [Donald] Trump's supporters are working-class people,” Sanders said on "Face the Nation" recently. “And they are angry. And they're angry because they are working longer hours for lower wages...And I think what Trump has done successfully, I would say, is take that anger, take that anxiety about terrorism and say to a lot of people in this country, look, the reason for our problems is because of Mexicans. And he says, they're all criminals and rapists. We have got to hate Mexicans. Or he says about the Muslims, they are all terrorists, and we got to keep them out of this country.”
Sanders' gauntlet toss grabbed media attention in part because it was interesting and in part, as Sanders is aware, because the media is mostly interested in covering Donald Trump.
But is Bernie right? A look at the past half century of American politics suggests that he might be. The Republican coalition has long been fractious, pieced together significantly though not entirely from the New Deal Coalition's carcass: disaffected Southern racists, private property-minded, anti-busing homeowners in the Sun Belt suburbs, Christian chauvinists, patriots disillusioned by hippie culture and a left-wing movement against a futile war in Vietnam (created by Democratic presidents), and, finally, the long invisible would-be Trump backers: working-class whites whom deindustrialization and the decimation of labor unions deprived of economic security.
Many Trump supporters are downwardly mobile, with seemingly little interest in the Bible, and in possession of an antipathy for the economic status quo that is surpassed only by a hatred for immigrants and Muslims.
“I’ll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places,” Trump promised when he kicked off his campaign in June. “I’ll bring back our jobs, and I’ll bring back our money.”
A Wall Street-representing and stage-managed Democrat like Hillary Clinton and Republican establishment figures like Marco Rubio or Jeb offer these people nothing.
It's important to emphasize that what's new about Trump is not that he's a high-profile Republican expressing extremist language. That happens all the time.
Take Pat Robertson — a televangelist fond of predicting the apocalypse, who emphatically proclaimed that only pious Jews and Christians should govern, that AIDS was God punishing gays for their sins, and that women should be subjected to their husbands' authority. His 1988 insurgent primary bid was even inspired, in part, by his belief that his prayers helped divert a hurricane from the Virginia coast.
“I felt, interestingly enough, that if I couldn't move a hurricane, I could hardly move a nation."
So unhinged hate diatribes aren't new.
But religious right figures like Robertson, Pat Buchanan and Phyllis Schlafly (who in 1992 boasted of having pressured "wimpy politicians" to incorporate a strong anti-abortion platform) never posed an existential threat, because the establishment has long been able to placate and incorporate Christian chauvinists (over strenuous moderate objections) by promising sympathetic Supreme Court justices and running establishment figures with Born Again credentials like George W. Bush.
However, the Tea Party wave that swept into Congress in 2010 proved to be a challenge of another order. The libertarian-minded group, strong in the relatively affluent exurban fringe, took the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's message about small government more seriously than they were supposed to. The Chamber, which has in the past praised the Tea Party, is now raising a huge amount of money to destroy it.
Still, the Tea Party, for all their tricorn hats and menacing Gadsden flags, is a familiar echo of the sort of Republican politics pioneered by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, which led to moderates like George Romney being displaced by small-government disciples. The Tea Party is just a comic book version of post-Vietnam War era Republican politics. Donald Trump is something else entirely.
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The Republican coalition is fracturing at nearly every point. But the most potent challenge to the party-as-we-know-it's survival is being posed by Trump, a pathological narcissistic who laces his xenophobic bigotry with economic populism. It's not just what Trump supporters believe that matters, but who they seemingly are: Reagan and Wallace Democrats who were pushed out of one party and pulled into the other. At this point in history, their opposition to the establishment may be impossible to placate.
As Eugene Robinson put it,
“Can you picture the Trump legions meekly falling in line behind Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.)? I can’t either.”
The Republican Party pulled these voters in by opposing school and neighborhood integration, demagoguing against black crime and urban uprisings, and celebrating the white worker as the noble antithesis of the flag-burning, draft-dodging student radical. The Republican seduction was abetted by the Democratic Party's neoliberal turn— all at a time when the economy was beginning to stagnate for workers. By the 1970s, it entered free fall. The post-Vietnam War Democratic Party, turning on the New Deal, allowed steel towns to collapse and factories to relocate, and united with establishment Republicans at the alter of Free Trade.
The Democrats' embrace of the aspirations of women and people of color (albeit only in the thinnest sense) solidified the support of those constituencies. But absent broad-based programs to lift up working class and poor people as a whole, support for programs to aid the poor reinforced popular white bigotries that undeserving black welfare recipients were making a living off the backs of hardworking whites.
Bill Clinton's presidency was premised on a response to the white working class' rightward shift. Ironically, it was utterly Trumpian: he appealed to fears and hatreds, ratifying the stereotype of the undeserving poor by “ending welfare as we know it” and the figure of black criminality by commanding a war on crime that helped usher in mass incarceration.
Clinton's strategy was repugnant. It also ultimately failed to win over white working class voters because Democrats' soft-spoken bigotry always seemed like weak tea compared to Republican vitriol.
Meanwhile, the New Democrats' NAFTA-focused corporate agenda decimated labor unions, the party's institutional base and the basis for working-class economic security.
Neither party offered a real vision for broad-based economic uplift. And Democrats couldn't hope to out-scream their competitors on the right.
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In the fall of 2014, I visited Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, which like much of the rest of the once-solidly Democratic Southwestern corner of the state has lurched rightward in recent decades. Bill Clinton carried the county decisively in 1992 but, after implementing NAFTA, barely won in 1996. Al Gore and Jim Kerry then lost Westmoreland. In 2008 and 2012, Obama didn't even come close.
The political shift was driven by economic dislocation: steel mills and industry closed. In 1983, union members still made up 27.5 percent of the Pennsylvania labor force, according to the The Union Membership and Coverage Database. By 2014, the unionized share had slipped to just 12.7 percent.
Elsewhere in Southwestern Pennsylvania, people blame environmental regulation for shuttering coal mines. The idea that liberals are waging a “war on coal” is all the more seductive because the Democratic establishment offers no economic program that can match the wrenching dislocation underway.
This justifiable if misplaced anger has played well for Republicans.
But plenty of people have given up on voting. I spoke to one young woman, named Kiera, shopping with her brother at the Dollar General in one-time steel giant Monessen.
Kiera told me that her generation is rife with heroin addiction and doesn't vote because they feel like it doesn't change anything. She told me that she and her brother both undertook a long daily commute to work for a non-union subcontractor cleaning a UPS warehouse.
"We both work $8.50-an-hour jobs, and we still have a hard time making ends meet," she told me.
Politicians, she said, don't do anything to help people like her. The bottom has fallen out from the economy, and from the community as well.
"What would actually catch the attention is the action of it being done,” she said.
These are the sorts of voters for whom Trump's giant middle finger likely holds much appeal.
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Now that the Republican base has decisively turned on the party establishment, the question is whether the left can play their collapse to its advantage.
The Democratic Party is also in crisis, albeit a less severe one, driven by antipathy for the super-rich and (somewhat faded and disoriented) anti-war sentiment. In part that's because college-educated liberals and non-whites find the party's social progressivism easily superior to a Republican Party whose outbursts are today prompting comparisons not only to the Red Scare but also, ominously if exaggeratedly, to inter-war Germany.
It's unclear whether left-wing dissidents can topple Clinton. What is certain is that Hillary Clinton, for all her Scranton bona fides, cannot win this schismatic segment over. The conventional political wisdom gleaned from the 2008 primary was that Clinton excelled amongst those she infamously described as “working, hard-working Americans, white Americans,” and that Obama, a black man whose middle name is Hussein, was anathema. This is not entirely wrong: The Trump-like demographic that preferred Clinton to Obama is no doubt often motivated by racism. But the 2008 primary did not pose the same fundamental economic question as Sanders challenge to Clinton does this time around.
States like Wisconsin and Ohio are a case in point of how class politics can succeed for the left: In 2012, white voters without a college education in both states were far more likely to support Obama if they lived in a union household. Romney crushed Obama amongst white non-college educated, nonunion households everywhere. And nationally, union membership offered Obama little help. So what happened in the Midwest?
The difference in Wisconsin and Ohio is that workers had been mobilized along class lines against Republican Governors Scott Walker and John Kasich's efforts to crush the labor movement. Sanders, unlike Hillary Clinton, is preaching the sort of class conflict that is necessary to shake Trump voters loose.
Sanders will have a hard time winning the most bigoted Trump voters over. This is especially true in the South, where Trump has a strong base of support and a regionally distinct post-Civil Rights era political realignment continues to play out.
Trump's campaign, like that of George Wallace, is powered by a national shift of American white working class politics toward the Southern model. Sanders will likely be unable to make significant inroads in the Old Confederacy. But in parts of the rest of the country where some union strength remains and where labor heritage is strong, a progressive campaign based on economic populism is the Democrats' only chance to wrest white working class voters from a billionaire's hate-filled dystopian rage.
The Frankenstein's monster, baited with bigoted polemics, long did its master's bidding: anti-abortion and culture war diatribes were a sound investment that reaped deregulation and tax cuts. Now, Trump is dismantling a party alliance that since Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan has been the basis of its power.
Sanders won't win many Trump voters over. But his brand of multiracial economic populism is the left's best and only shot.