It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (14 page)

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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Compare that with the overwhelming majority of Republican voters, who are white, Christian, and middle class or more affluent. The NRA has made it impossible for a Republican to oppose their group—not because of their funding, but because of their base of supporters who can be mobilized in Republican primaries. It is near functionally impossible for a Republican to win a presidential nomination in the Republican Party and actively oppose the NRA. That places the NRA as gatekeepers to the power center of the Republican Party. The only like group in the Democratic Party would be the coalition of groups who support pro-choice candidates. They are matched in the Republican Party by opponents to abortion, with the result that unlike twenty or more years ago, when there were pro-choice Republican senators and a sprinkling of anti-abortion Democratic senators, the two parties on the federal level now represent opposing views on abortion.

On economic issues, one man, Grover Norquist, has spent the last thirty years pressuring Republican candidates to commit to a pledge not to raise taxes. His group, Americans for Tax Reform, and his antitax cause have become so ubiquitous that Republican politicians and operatives refer to “the pledge,” as in “have you signed the pledge?” No other explanation is needed. Norquist has acquired disproportionate power because, if there is one single unifying conviction among Republicans, it is the assumption that all good in government flows from cutting taxes.

There is no like unanimity among the coalition of the Democratic Party. In 2008, Barack Obama raised more money from the financial industry—that’s shorthand for really rich, mostly white people—than any candidate in American history. (In 2012, Mitt Romney raised more.) But Obama also received a record number of African American votes. (Actually, he received more votes in 2008 than any presidential candidate in American history.) Ask a hedge-fund Obama donor his or her view on taxes, and you’ll likely get a different answer from that of a sixty-five-year-old teacher who donated to Obama. Ask a Republican hedge-fund donor his or her view on taxes, and it is likely to be very similar to the response of a sixty-five-year-old Republican teacher.

The truth is that most Republican politicians I’ve known—and I’ve known a lot—greatly resent the power of Grover Norquist and resent the childlike indignity of signing a pledge, as if running for office were like joining some secret college society with rules. Most Republican politicians are not stupid and are aware on some level that committing to not raising taxes for the entirety of their careers greatly limits their and their party’s basic ability to govern and deal with a chaotic and unpredictable world. Some indeed refuse to sign the pledge. But few if any Republican politicians will even broach the possibility of a tax increase. The result of this weakness will be generations forced to pay off the debt and interest resulting from the simpleminded conspiracy of silence that is a central tenet of Republican politics. It is as if nineteenth-century doctors were aware that leeches will not save their patients but would rather let them die than break the code of orthodoxy. There is a direct line between the rising of the national debt and the increased influence of Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform. The Republican Party is the frog carrying the scorpion of Grover Norquist across the river.

America is a big, diverse, loud, contradictory country and getting more so every hour. Today more than forty-four million Americans were born in another country, the highest percentage since 1910. As much as Donald Trump might desire, precious few of those are coming from Scandinavia, and even fewer are models from eastern Europe, his favorite hunting grounds for spouses and girlfriends. The largest group is Mexicans, and the second largest is from India. Non-Mexican South Americans are the third-largest group. Donald Trump—and that means the Republican Party—has attacked Mexicans as “rapists,” and he rants every few weeks about an invasion from South America, as if the Chilean military had just landed in San Diego and were broadcasting live from SeaWorld. Trump hasn’t gone out of his way to attack immigrants from India, at least not as of this writing, but they get the joke. In the 2016 presidential election, 62 percent of Indian American voters had an unfavorable view of Trump versus 65 percent favorable for the Democratic Party. President Barack Obama had an 83 percent favorable.

The power a small group of right-wing zealots has over the Republican Party will continue until one of two events occurs: either a critical mass of Republican politicians stands together and stands up to their power, or the party changes such that it is not a white party but a party that looks more like America. As a point of reference, at some point in the future the sun will collapse as a red star and consume the earth. I’d call it a toss-up as to which of these three events is likely to happen first.


It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.

—Unnamed Major, United States Army, February 7, 1968, press briefing

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump consistently benefited from the inability to imagine him winning. That belief shaped the Republican primary. The driving dynamic for the primary was the competition between the non-Trump candidates to narrow the race to one on one with Trump. It seemed obvious that the Republican Party would not nominate someone who was a bankrupt casino owner who lost the Reform Party nomination for president to Pat Buchanan in 2000, was a maxed-out donor to Anthony Weiner, had attacked Republicans for being against abortion, had bragged that his building was now the tallest after the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11, and who talked longingly in public about dating his daughter.
The notion was absurd. So the real race was to beat every candidate whose last name wasn’t Trump, and then the last stage, just beating Trump, would be an easy layup.

Likewise in the general election, the “inevitability” of Hillary Clinton might very well have sealed her fate. James Comey, FBI director at the time of the election, has said that the assumption of a Clinton victory prompted his release of his infamous letter revealing that the FBI was investigating a newly acquired batch of Clinton-related emails. In his book,
A Higher Loyalty,
Comey wrote, “Assuming, as nearly everyone did, that Hillary Clinton would be elected president of the United States in less than two weeks, what would happen to the FBI, the Justice Department, or her own presidency if it later was revealed, after the fact, that she was still a subject of an FBI investigation?”
For most of the 2016 general election, Trump was losing college-educated voters (which is very close to saying “college-educated white Republican voters”). No Republican nominee had lost this group in modern history. Even
won college-educated Republicans in 1964. Until the release of the Comey letter, Trump was losing that group. There is no hard data that proves
percent of the electorate cast their vote as a protest vote not expecting the candidate to win—the methodology of such polling would be inherently flawed—but it’s my view that a certain, not small, share of the electorate voted for Trump not really believing he would win. It’s always best to be skeptical of such non-data-backed conclusions, but it does seem clear that the media coverage of Trump was more as a phenomenon or, in the beginning, a joke than as a potential presidential candidate. In a primary debate, Hugh Hewitt asked Trump, “What’s your priority among our nuclear triad?”

Trump managed an answer that began with his standard lie that he was against the Iraq war and ended with a bizarre assertion that World War II had been fought “hand to hand.”

Hewitt looked on, puzzled, and asked a more specific question: “Of the three legs of the triad, though, do you have a priority?”

This time, Trump responded, “I think—I think, for me, nuclear is just the power, the devastation is very important to me,” which made it painfully apparent that the guy who was running for the job to hold the nuclear codes didn’t have a clue about the most fundamental basics of the deterrent strategy at the core of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
It’s difficult to think of a more disqualifying answer for a potential president. In the most charitable construct, let’s imagine that Donald Trump just hadn’t really considered himself a serious candidate in those early primary debates and surely, once he was the nominee, he would do whatever was necessary to become knowledgeable about the most serious obligation of a president. But nope, debating Hillary Clinton in September, he was still completely clueless about nuclear weapons, managing to say that America should never use nuclear weapons as a first strike and “we shouldn’t take anything off the table” in the same answer. As Josh Rogin wrote in
The Washington Post,
“Trump’s lack of basic understanding about nuclear weapons policy is concerning enough. But even more troubling is Trump’s lack of progress over the past few months on national security issues overall. He simply refuses to make the effort to prepare himself for the job of commander in chief.”

That a national party once largely defined by its seriousness of intent in international affairs would be led by a man who not only was ignorant of the basics of national security but was willfully and unflinchingly proud of his ignorance is just one more milepost marking the journey of Republicans on their way to the junkyard of history. A strong stench of denial hovers around Donald Trump. I know; I was in deep denial that he could win the nomination of a party I’d worked for and the presidency of a country I love. For many who didn’t particularly like Trump but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, there was the denial that Trump would be, as president, the same man he had been his entire life. At least I didn’t fall for that one. It seemed obvious that Trump as president would continue to be the same badly damaged, semiliterate, incurious, and maladjusted oddball he had always been. If you know a woman who is marrying a man who is over seventy and she says there are a lot of things she doesn’t like about him but she thinks he will change, what would you tell that woman? But many Republicans I know were convinced there was something mystical about Trump walking into the Oval Office that would elevate him. Normal people tend to believe that anyone acting abnormally will eventually revert to normalcy. Trump realizes this and has manipulated that mistaken belief of the normal—the marks and cons and suckers he has cheated and lied to his entire life—to great advantage.

In the spring of 2016 when it became apparent that Donald Trump was going to be the Republican nominee, I approached a number of individuals encouraging them to run as a “favorite son” candidate in their home states. The idea was simple: if a third-party candidate with an appeal to the center right ran and took votes from Trump, it would block his path to victory. I spoke to each person under strict confidentiality and so will not reveal names or states, but they were high-profile conservatives who believed that Trump was a disaster for the party and it would be better to lose one election than lose the moral mandate of a conservative movement. Each person was very sympathetic, but each argued that Trump was going to lose anyway and it was better for him to lose because he had terrible ideas and was morally bankrupt than because of the political mechanism of a third party draining votes. I argued there was still a danger he could win, but I probably wasn’t very good at it, because I didn’t really think he would win. We were all in denial.

The same sense of denial is at work whenever the “post-Trump” conservative movement is discussed. There is this desperate need to believe that having, as Ted Cruz called him, a “pathological liar” leading the center-right party of America will simply be selectively remembered. Like so much in our politics and popular culture—and it is difficult to separate the two—the race to extremes makes it difficult to discuss calmly and rationally the threat Donald Trump and the collapse of any moral center in the Republican Party present to our democratic process.
There is the standard warning that it is impossible to compare any contemporary moment to the events that led to World War II, but to deny those lessons and warnings of history is a grave mistake. At the end of Trump’s first year in office, I found myself darkly joking that it was crazy to compare 2018 to 1932 when it was so obviously 1934. But Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt write in
How Democracies Die,

During the Cold War, coups d’état accounted for nearly three out of every four democratic breakdowns. Democracies in Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Thailand, Turkey, and Uruguay all died this way. More recently, military coups toppled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in 2013 and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014. In all these cases, democracy dissolved in spectacular fashion, through military power and coercion.

But there is another way to break a democracy. It is less dramatic but equally destructive. Democracies may die at the hands not of generals but of elected leaders—presidents or prime ministers who subvert the very process that brought them to power. Some of these leaders dismantle democracy quickly, as Hitler did in the wake of the 1933 Reichstag fire in Germany. More often, though, democracies erode slowly, in barely visible steps.

Republicans want what they perceive as the benefits of Donald Trump without the responsibility of supporting Trump. In this way, as in many, the ghost of Franz von Papen haunts today’s GOP. If I could make every Republican elected official read one book, it would be the memoirs of Papen, the aristocratic chancellor of Germany who dissolved the German parliament and enabled Adolf Hitler to rise to power. Published in 1952, the
Memoirs of Franz von Papen
is a study in self-deception by an intelligent man who knows he made terrible mistakes with horrific consequences but is still trying to explain that his choices were the best of bad ones available. In an effort to justify abolishing the ban on Nazi storm troopers, he blamed left-wing radicals:

It may well be asked why it was found necessary in a civilized state for political parties to organize these “protection forces.” The answer is simple. In Britain or the United States the police forces protect the activities of every political party. In the Weimar Republic things were different. Right wing meetings were continually broken up and interrupted by left wing radicals. The police, most of whom came under Socialist Ministers of the Interior in the States, did not or would not do anything about it.

The parties of the left pretended then, and continue to do so now, that the lifting of the ban on the Brownshirts was the first step in my hoisting the Nazis into the saddle. I have no doubt they find it convenient to look for a scapegoat. All that had happened was that equal rights for all parties, including both the Nazis and the Communists, had been restored. At any rate, this lasted only for a month.

This is not an analogy of Trump to Adolf Hitler or the chanting of “Lock her up!” by the Trump faithful to the Brownshirts, but it is a cautionary warning on the collapse of norms in a society. Legitimizing hate is like a war: it is easier to begin than to stop. If there is any one single truth that binds together the varying concepts of conservatism, it must be about the nature of
that which is essential to a civil society. This one simplistic, unifying thread seems all the more critical because, as George Nash wrote in
The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945,
“I offer here no compact definition of conservatism. In fact, American conservatives themselves have had no such agreed-upon definition. Instead, the very quest for self-definition has been one of the most notable motifs of their thought since World War II.”
But popular perception is not unimportant, and the idea of “conserving” unites William Buckley’s famous definition, using Papen’s words, “by a stroke of the pen…the Chancellor possesses powers accorded not even to the German Kaisers” with Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Both assume that a society is threatening to spin out of control or, at the very least, speeding toward an unknown and dangerous destination that compels true patriots, that is, conservatives, to act.

For Franz von Papen to facilitate the anti-Semitic fascists of Germany in the 1930s, he needed to assert—belief is a different issue—that there were no other options and the greater good was being facilitated. In 1932, when Papen seized control of the German state of Prussia—
as the action is called in German—he insisted then and in his memoirs that he had no choice. Gregory Neilson writes in
Analysing Franz von Papen’s Memoirs and His Role in the Nazi Rise to Power,

Papen justified this action in his memoirs by claiming that the state was in imminent danger of being seized by the communists, “Schleicher told me of a report he had received from a senior official in the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. It seemed that negotiations had been going on between Abbegg, the Social Democrat State Secretary, and Casper, a Communist member of the Prussian State Parliament. An alliance between the two Marxist parties was by no means so unlikely, and if it came about, would present a most menacing situation…we decided that this must be prevented….”

In reality this “threat” was Papen’s pretext to seize control of the Prussian state and police and thus to consolidate the power of the central government, thus paving the way for a more authoritarian system in Germany.

On September 5, 2016, an article appeared in the conservative
Claremont Review of Books
titled “The Flight 93 Election” under the pen name of Publius Decius Mus. The essay was a plea for conservatives who were reluctant to back Donald Trump to put their concerns aside because the alternative was so dangerous it posed an existential threat to the nation:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain. To compound the metaphor: a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances.

The construct and presentation of the piece, from appearing in a scholarly journal to the use of the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus, the name of a Roman consul who sacrificed himself to win victory in the Battle of Vesuvius in 340 
, gave it an air of weighty seriousness and was treated as such by those eagerly looking for excuses to admit in public they supported Trump. For all its intellectual window dressing, the basic argument presented was a grad school version of the racism later celebrated in the neo-Nazis’ march in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. America was under attack from nonwhite heathens, the Barbarians at the Gate, who threaten the values of white America:

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
7.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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