AMERICAN CARNAGE: ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE REPUBLICAN CIVIL WAR AND THE RISE OF PRESIDENT TRUMP
By Tim Alberta
Over the past few years I’ve probably read a couple of dozen books trying to explain the election of Donald Trump. Tim Alberta’s doesn’t come at the subject in the usual way, by looking at the election itself and asking the question “What happened?” Instead he focuses solely on what he describes as the civil war inside the Republican Party, which ended in Trump’s hostile takeover of that institution. How did that happen?
In part because Republican voters turned against their party. In particular they embraced what Alberta reveals as Trump’s core political ideology: a rejection of globalization. Trump was angry, and voters wanted angry.
What Trump also rode was a wave of celebrity and show-business values. Though manifestly stupid and incompetent, he was also outrageous and entertaining. This helped in the age of social media and an attention economy. Meanwhile, the donor class were only paying for a tax cut, which is exactly what they got. They couldn’t have cared less about the clown show.
The donors (and foreign powers) provided the financing, but what drove Trumpism was the Republican base. Alberta speaks to a host of eminent figures in the Republican establishment who openly despise Trump, but time and again the base would have his back. Trump himself would be surprised by this blind loyalty. “This is the end of my presidency,” he declared on the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his complicity with Russia in the 2016 election. “I’m fucked.” And well he should have been. But the base held.
Bobby Jindal would complain in 2013 that “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party!” but that train had already left the station and the course was set. With Trump things were only going to get worse:
More enduring than Trump’s appointment of judges, or his signing of a tax law, or his deregulating of the energy industry, would be his endorsement of America’s worst instincts. The levees were leaky long before he descended the gilded escalator, and certainly other bad actors contributed to the breakage. Yet it was Trump who used his office to flood the national consciousness with fear and contempt, with suspicion and resentment, with ad hominem insults and zero-sum arguments. In so doing, he not only enslaved one half of the country to his callousness, but successfully bade escalation from the other half, plunging all of American and its posterity deeper toward perdition.
“Rarely,” Alberta concludes, “has a president so thoroughly altered the identity of his party. Never has a president so ruthlessly exploited the insecurity of his people.”
Who was the Trump voter? Hillary Clinton was pilloried for referring to them as a basket of deplorables, but as time has gone by that has come to seem a fair and accurate assessment. Trump’s base was fashioned by Fox News: made stupid with lies and disinformation, nihilistic with regard to all claims of truth or morality, and whipped into a hate-filled frenzy with wild conspiracy theories. The most radical Republicans would come from seats made safe by this electorate. As with the president, their base would immunize them from all responsibility. As with the president, they were free to say or do anything. This was clear as early as Trump’s peddling of the “birther” claims about President Obama. “Trump’s true beliefs, his intentions, his motivations – none of it really mattered. The fact of it was, he could say whatever he felt like, whenever he felt like it, and suffer no consequences.”
That blank cheque would be tested many times during Trump’s presidency. As Alberta’s chronicle concludes he describes the testimony of Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee.
Republicans on the panel did not challenge [the] accusations about the president’s conduct. In fact, they asked hardly any questions about Trump at all. Instead, they took turns attacking Cohen’s credibility, portraying him as a jilted, star-seeking grifter who was headed to jail for lying to Congress already.
They had every reason to do so: The witness was an admitted perjurer, someone whose testimony under normal circumstances wouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet these were not normal circumstances. And for all the reasons to remain skeptical of Cohen, here were powerful members of the legislative branch, presented by a witness with damning claims of misconduct by the head of the executive branch, showing not the slightest interest in examining them.
It was a chilling dereliction of duty. And it was rooted in the same motivation that Cohen says kept him shackled to Trump, doing his dirty work, for the previous decade: a fear of disloyalty.
As with any book on the Trump administration, recent events have quickly outstripped this historical record. The chilling dereliction of duty by House Republicans would be continued in the impeachment inquiry a year later (and after Alberta’s book had gone to press), where there would again be no interest at all shown in Trump’s alleged misconduct but only a desperate attempt to smear the whistleblower, the witnesses, and pretty much anyone else.
The fear of disloyalty, however, takes us back to Trump’s base. That is the force that really scares the Republicans, and which has led to their moral and intellectual collapse. Alberta mentions the whispers that Mike Pence must have been blackmailed by Trump to have turned so quickly into such a bootlicker, but the same suspicions of blackmail material, or kompromat, have been whispered about other figures (Lindsey Graham being the most prominent), up to and including Trump himself. This may be mistaken. What really seems to have happened is that the Republican Party was blackmailed by its base. They granted immunity to the radical right only so long as their representatives would continue to perform a scorched earth mission on the U.S. government. In the words of Karl Rove, “We went from wanting people who were experienced and qualified to wanting people who would throw bombs and blow things up. The ultimate expression of that was Donald Trump.” Or Eric Cantor: “Conservatism was always about trying to effect some progress toward limiting the reach of government. It wasn’t being a revolutionary to light it on fire and burn it down to rebuild it. But somehow, that’s what the definition of ‘conservative’ became.” Or Trent Franks: “I’m convinced he [Trump] came along at a time when the country needed someone to punch government in the face.” Trump’s followers are often described as constituting a cult, but one doesn’t sense a great deal of personal loyalty to him among his base. Rather, his very ignorance is taken as a kind of weaponized buffoonery, a force designed to take down the government by way of sheer incompetence.
Alberta makes clear that in all of this Trump was only a symptom of a wider malady. “It’s imperative,” Alberta writes, “to assess Trump not as the cause of a revolutionary political climate, but as its consequence.” From everything that he has done it seems clear now that Trump’s only goals in becoming president were to make money and use the legal protections that come with the office to stay out of jail. His election was only a case of riding a growing wave of anger. “Decades of a widening chasm in incomes, a diminishment of factory work, a shredded national identity, a dissipating sense of societal cohesiveness, a vanished sense of postwar unity – it was all blurring together in an abstract expression of outrage.”
The final shape that outrage will take isn’t known yet. Trump has, however, done his worst to prepare the canvas.
Review first published online December 9, 2019.