After the uprising, rebuilding the Trump coalition without Trump
America today lives uncertainly on the cutting edge of politics. The 2020 elections, including the January 5 runoff in Georgia, have shown not only near parity relative power between the two major parties, but also a gap between them in their respective views about the nature of America and the shape of its future. The country has not experienced a definitive crisis of this intensity and magnitude since the decade before the civil war.
What happened at the Capitol on Tuesday reflects the terrible breadth of that divide and the unfathomable depth of anger, vitriol, and anti-Americanism seeping from elements of Donald Trump’s constituency. Yes, Trump kindled the flames and instigated the terrible attack, and for that he will be tarred forever with the opprobrium brush of history. His identity as President will begin and end with this travesty. And yet the urgent question remains, how could he mobilize such people on the basis of a demonstrable lie? Whatever the answer, it remains inexplicably anchored in the hearts of those who have committed civic savagery.
The immediate question for the country, however, is whether, after this recent outrage and other civil violations that have resulted in it, American politics can somehow restore a climate of courtesy in which issues and controversies can be resolved in the traditional way. This question lies above all with the new President Joe Biden and his party. But the new GOP minority also has a great responsibility. Here’s a look at the challenges both parties face in relation to the need to return America to a solid foundation of political give and take.
The Democrats, of course, now have an edge in the political arena based on their control over the White House and both houses of Congress. But this edge is extremely thin and fragile. In the 2020 elections, the Democrats had a 35-seat lead in the House of Representatives. After that, their margin was down to 11, which means that losing just six seats in two years will put the house under GOP control. This is not a margin that leaves much room for initiatives that increase the current division of the nation.
Now, after the runoff elections in Georgia, the Democrats control the Senate as well – but even closer to parity, only with the vote of the new Vice President Kamala Harris as Senate President to tip the ball in the event of a tie. That is a margin of control as thin as a butterfly’s wing and barely enough to declare a courageous mandate from President Biden.
Given the rift between the two parties on political views and national visions, the pressure within the Democratic Party for courageous action will be immense, particularly from the party’s left, but also from moderate elements. After Trump’s exile, the party will want to eradicate Trumpism.
But that impulse to destroy the despicable Trump legacy, if implemented (as likely), will undermine the democratic position on the fringes. And in today’s politics everything rests on the sidelines.
Biden is in a bind. If, like Barack Obama, he wants to rule strictly with democratic votes in his first two years as president, he risks losing a dispersion of his own moderate party members in Congress – who marginally have to consider voter sentiment back home. On the flip side, he risks the wrath of his party’s left wing, including the fiery Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her squad, if he is to rule with a broader coalition that includes some Republicans sucked off by a more moderate approach.
The president’s success in our democratic politics requires a two-step approach. First, the party and its candidate must take control of the presidency and as much of Congress as possible. Then the president must exercise power in such a way that a ruling coalition can come together and move the country in a direction that inspires popular trust and approval.
Some examples illustrate this reality. Richard Nixon, a Republican, was elected in 1968 with just 43 percent of the population, with solid Democratic opposition in Congress and no prospect of soon gaining a GOP Congress majority in either house. He carefully and successfully invested political capital in small issues with bipartisan perspectives, built his political leverage through increasingly courageous initiatives, and eventually won re-election in a landslide. Democrat Bill Clinton, also 43 percent president in 1992, lost control of Congress two years later due to political incompetence, but then instituted a carefully crafted form of government from the center-left, achieved a number of notable victories, and won the 1996 Re-election.
At first glance, Biden appears to be in a better position than these two previous presidents, as he won the elections by a majority of 51.3 percent and has both houses of Congress under his belt, if only barely. However, this does not take into account the country’s definition crisis and the gap between the two parties in terms of bridging. This ongoing crisis is creating increasing political frustrations and tensions, and these in turn will increase the challenge for Biden to find a path to coherent governance.
Republicans face a very different challenge. You need to nurture and preserve important elements of Trumpism while breaking free from Trump himself. The outgoing president is now so toxic that it can never be used as a means of achieving a majority coalition in America. But the man will not make it easy for Republicans to meet this difficult challenge, and neither will legions of his most ardent followers.
In the above-mentioned two-tier call for political success, Trump largely achieved the goal of step one in 2016 by pushing certain issues and policy regulations that were shunned by the political establishment on the nation’s political agenda, despite being among millions of Americans Met with approval. Trump devastated the nation’s elites by turning that political sentiment into a tight knot of political support from people who felt marginalized and abused by the system.
But when Trump accepted the challenge of the second step – forming a government coalition and supporting the majority – he failed miserably. Having established a base of political loyalty so solid that not all of America’s elite institutions could penetrate it, he proved unable to build on that base. That would have required him to operate on the sidelines and use persuasive and reassuring language to speak to people who could be persuaded and bring them with him. Even at the beginning of his tenure, it was not difficult to see that he lacked this ability to build a coalition. That is reflected in a piece that walked in The American Conservative Magazine in January / February 2018 with the title: “Trump’s leadership gap: He stutters in his efforts to build a government coalition.” (Full disclosure: I wrote it.)
Then Trump, unable to win re-election due to his own political restrictions, single-handedly destroyed his party’s dominance in the U.S. Senate by driving a wedge through the GOP by insisting that evil forces stole his re-election triumph had. The Georgia runoff result was a direct result of that political misconduct, but it pales in comparison to the insidious attack on the Capitol.
Trump’s legacy rests solely on the issues and political thinking he brought up during the 2016 campaign. These include the following:
- that the policy of the country’s porous borders over the past few decades, encompassing both legal and illegal entry, has brought us to a point where the challenges of assimilation are most important in the immigration debate today;
- that America’s commitment to free trade has made the country a sucker for abusive business practices by our trading partners, especially China;
- that the erosion of the country’s industrial base was a travesty of harmful political decisions that must be reversed if possible;
- that America’s post-Cold War foreign policy, based on neoconservative combat readiness and promiscuous military interventionism advocated by Wilsonian liberals, has undermined America’s standing in the world and our ability to use our diminishing power to influence global events;
- that endless US wars in the Middle East and the intensity of our confrontation with Russia have affected our ability to meet our greatest geopolitical challenge, the resurgence of China in Asia;
- that the ongoing attack by liberal globalists on American nationalism and the ongoing attack on Western heritage are troubling the country by driving wedges across the country.
The Democratic Party coming to power now despises almost everything and will seek to smash it in the months and years to come in favor of initiatives that strengthen the power of the federal government and the influence of the country’s elite institutions in the name of humanitarianism should. The question for Republicans is whether they can effectively resist this attack without distancing themselves from the man who through his own toxicity brought them into their current situation.
The answer is no. To stay in the game, they have to do what Trump couldn’t – namely develop a political dialectic and language that keeps the Trump coalition intact while marginalizing the Trumpians and attracting the more centrist people who feel uncomfortable feel with the current democratic direction but were repelled by Trump. Developing such a dialectic will not be easy for a party in chaos, as the GOP is likely to be in the midst of its current desperation. And luring these centrist people will not be possible while the spirit of Trump hovers over the party.
Robert W. Merry, veteran journalist and publishing director in Washington, is the author of five books on American history, including Where they stand: The American presidents in the eyes of voters and historians (Simon & Schuster).
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