In a well-known exchange in their first debate, Donald Trump castigated Hillary Clinton for retreating from the campaign trail in anticipation of the debate. Clinton responded that she had been busy preparing for the debate. And she added that she had as well been preparing for the presidency, a remark that elicited one of the illicit applauses from the audience.
The implication was that Donald Trump, whose style of campaigning seemed to combine free association and shooting from the hip, had himself not prepared for the presidency.
But that was not the case.
Donald Trump had prepared himself in a serious manner for his run for the presidency.
His method was to immerse himself in right-wing media. This practice included listening to talk radio—the likes of Limbaugh, Michael Savage & Sean Hannity—monitoring Tea Party websites and discussions; and following right-wing news sites like the Drudge Report and Breitbart news.
What Trump found there was a collection of themes and online memes that constituted a universe of taken for granted understandings among the populist right base of the Republican Party. Trump stored these up like a reservoir of riffs that would be available to him, that he could pull out when he felt the moment right—this was the stuff of his free association style of campaigning.
And while these themes and memes resonated profoundly with the crowds at his rallies, to the outside world—liberals and democrats and establishment conservatives & Republicans—what he was saying was outrageous, beyond the pale, embarrassing, offensive. Things like presidential elections were rigged; that Hillary Clinton would surely wind up under indictment; that Clinton and Obama created ISIS; that 2nd Amendment types might have solutions when all else fails. And so much else.
The liberals and the establishments called for apologies. Trump’s audience said, time & again, “He’s saying what’s on our minds. The establishment types that don’t like it—that’s just political correctness.”
What was the state of opinion Trump encountered in the far right media?
First, the Democrats. The long-standing resentment against the “liberal elite,” the stuff of right-wing populist campaigns going back to Pat Buchanan was not only alive and thriving, it had taken on new dimensions since the Obama presidency.
Race became the subtext of projections like Glen Beck’s famous accusation that Obama hates white people. Birtherism created open season for Othering Obama: He was a foreigner (therefore an illegitimate president.) He was a Muslim—as late as September 2015, 43 percent of Republicans nationally believed Obama was a secret Muslim according to a CNN/ORC survey. And Muslims were the new enemy of the U.S., the successor to struggles against Nazism and then Communism. Muslims were fighting the U.S. not only abroad but also at home through terrorism and creeping Sharia law. And Obama was on their side. He, and the democrats, were betraying America.
The feeling was that they, the “real Americans” were living under occupation. In summer 2015, the Jade Helm exercises of the U.S. military in the Southwest were widely seen as an attempt to impose martial law in red states like Texas.
But it was opinion on the populist right about the Republican Party establishment that was Trump’s most significant discovery.
There too, resentment had long been simmering. In 2008 and 2012 the candidacies of Huckabee, Perry, Bachmann, Cain, Santorum and others had been defeated, the populists thought, by the might of the Republican establishment. The winning Establishment candidates were RINOs (Republicans in Name only) and they doomed the Party to defeat. Only a real conservative, the populists believed, someone like them, could lead the party to victory. Instead, as the head of the Tea Party Nation put it, the Republican establishment forced McCain and Romney down the populists’ throats “like the Central committee of the Communist Party.”
And yet, it was Tea Party activism, they thought—with much justification—that kept the Republican Party alive and kicking during the Obama years. Tea Party candidates were winning in State legislatures and governorships. Tea Party candidates turned the House of Representatives Republican in 2010; and later the Senate. They expected results. They expected Obamacare to be taken down. All they got were dozens of futile resolutions. Shots were fired over the bow. The number two in the Republican House, Eric Cantor of Virginia, was taken down in his primary. The House leader John Boehner, was hounded from office.
And still, the Republican establishment was lining up behind Jeb Bush. The feeling among the populist base was changing. Resentment of the establishment was being superseded. The worm had turned. Resentment had given way to a feeling of betrayal. A Fox News poll in September 2015 found that 62 percent of Republicans felt “betrayed” by their own party’s officeholders.
And Trump made another discovery in his immersion on the far right: A line had been drawn in the sand. There was an issue on which neither side, the Republican establishment and the populist base, was willing to give an inch. That issue was immigration.
From the establishment side the issue was straightforward. The American population was changing rapidly and the Republican Party was living under a demographic Sword of Damocles. Following the 2012 election, the Republican National committee commissioned an analysis of why they had lost the election, a document commonly called the “autopsy report.” Without developing support among the new immigrant groups in the US, the party seemed doomed in national elections. Candidate Lindsey Graham in 2015:
But if we don’t pass immigration reform, if we don’t get it off the table and in a reasonable, practical way, it doesn’t matter who you run in 2016. We’re in a demographic death spiral as a party. And the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is to pass comprehensive immigration reform. If you don’t do that, it really doesn’t matter who we run in my view.
What this amounts to from the establishment point of view is an existential threat: if we don’t expand the party, it will cease to exist.
But the counter to this, the populist counter, was itself an existential threat—the loss, not of the party, but of the country, of America: that was what was at stake if immigration were not ended and turned around. One could parse the issues and the dynamics of populism that made any give on the immigration question impossible. For brevity’s sake instead, we might cite Ann Coulter, a very early Trump supporter:
This is not an election about who can check off the most boxes on a conservative policy list, or even about who is the best or nicest person. This is an election about saving the concept of America, an existential election like no other has ever been. Anyone who doesn’t grasp this is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
What Trump perceived, and sallied forth into, was a situation where the Republican establishment and the party’s populist base had become irreconcilable. Each saw its position as an existential crisis and could give no quarter.
Arguably, the mother text of American right-wing studies is Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics.” For Hofstadter, the condition of irreconcilability is crucial. He writes:
Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise.
And herein lies what I call the Great Irony of the 2016 election. We all know where Trump came down on the contrasting existential views. He didn’t merely meet the populists, he raised them like a gaudy bettor at a poker table. First, he promised to build a wall and condemned Mexican immigrants as bringers of criminal and exploitative behaviors. He called, in short, for nothing less than ethnic cleansing. Then he doubled down on Muslims, promising to ban them from entering the country.
And he won. Both the nomination and the general election.
Why The Great Irony? Because the calculation of the Republican establishment was that without expanding the party’s base there could be no national victory; and that the only place left to expand the base was an opening to immigrants.
Trump did the opposite. Alienated immigrants as much as he possibly could.
And yet he expanded the base.
There were two major areas of expansion.
One was the star of the whole electoral cycle: the white working class male. This group consisted of both voters who were migrating from the Democratic side and from workers who had become indifferent to elections but were now electrified by the Trump campaign.
Trump had managed to conflate both the Republican and Democratic establishments into a single corrupt entity and present himself as the opposition to a single corrupt political establishment.
This had exceptional appeal not only to a working class that had been disappointed in the continuing diminishment of its life chances, but it spoke as well to the second base brought into the Trump coalition. This was the most fringe element of the American electorate, the white supremacist, white-identity, sometimes neo-Nazi, sometimes KKK voters who had not played a direct role in American elections in decades and which now had developed an internet-based identity as the alt-right.
It is no stretch of the imagination to think of how Trump’s campaign, his no-hold-barred attacks on people of color, galvanized this fringe. Sure, there had been the occasional run by KKKer David Duke for office in Louisiana. But now—here was someone talking their language at the level of presidential politics.
Trump not only mobilized the alt-right, he institutionalized it. By August, he brought in Stephen Bannon as the strategic head of his campaign. The head of Breitbart news, Bannon had established himself as the hinge to move news and conspiracy thinking and what he called “populist nationalism”—though one could certainly call it white nationalism—out from the fringe publications of the alt-right, through the likes of Drudge, and Fox news and finally into the mainstream media.
As Trump did to the anti-immigrant feeling among the Republican right, the connection to the alt-right radicalized and vulgarized the Trumpian message.
Finally, it introduced the tropes of hoary conspiracy theories into the American mix. “We’ve seen this firsthand in the WikiLeaks documents,” he told rallies in late October, “in which Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers, her special interest friends and her donors.”
The Republican party coming into office resembles the far-right parties that have been at the edges of power in Europe in recent years, and often have roots in the fascist parties of the interwar years of the twentieth century. This contrasts to the free-market, free-trade, anti-welfare state conservatism of the Republican party since 1980. Right now, it is something of an open question, which of these entities is going to govern in the next four years.