Irreversibly and irreparably, President Trump and his nominal party have spawned a maelstrom of dysfunction that will gut his presidency and fracture the GOP.
In its relentless efforts to delegitimize Barack Obama, the GOP further divided the country and eroded its own capacity to govern. It declared war on fact and disdained reason. It lowered the standards of civil discourse. It substituted anger for coherent policies. It became a fever swamp of conspiracy theories and false narratives. It inflamed its base by blaming America’s very real problems on government, minorities, and an effete liberal elite.
Inevitably, this nihilism bred the fiasco of the party’s fake crusade against Obamacare — seven years of propaganda bereft of program. Beyond that, it concealed that the GOP has become a melange of competing factions divorced from the economic realities of its blue-collar base and, indeed, reality itself.
Increasingly, Republicans developed their own truths. The party’s evangelicals deny basic science, from Darwin to climate change, overlapping with frustrated whites who, as their security slips away, increasingly despise the educated classes of blue America. Remarkably, polling shows, a majority of Republicans now hold a negative view of higher education — a stunning reversal of sentiment. Stuck geographically and sociologically, blue-collar Republicans came to loath economically mobile Americans.
Ironically, those despised elites include the forces that have always driven the GOP’s economic policy: the party’s donors and business community, devotees of free-trade, deregulation, and tax cuts for themselves. Their electoral calculation was cynical and condescending: By serving up scapegoats while pandering to sentiments they did not themselves hold — from fundamentalism to Second Amendment extremism — they could gull the party’s base into supporting their agenda.
Then, like Frankenstein, Trump escaped the party’s electoral lab, running amok among its restive rank and file.
He found an intellectual vacuum. In pursuit of power, the GOP trashed the media, the government, the institutions of science, and the very idea of objective fact. In this void, a celebrity who impersonated a business tycoon on television presented himself as a human Powerball ticket, the one-man solution to every problem besetting white America. In Trump’s cartoon country, all problems were simple, awaiting only the decisiveness of Superman himself.
Reinventing himself as a populist, Trump salted his compound of racism and resentment with a few key perceptions. Struggling Americans felt threatened by deindustrialization and globalization. They rejected nonwhite immigrants, whether legal or illegal. They feared losing their Social Security and Medicare. They applauded infrastructure programs which might generate new jobs. They or their kids had served and sometimes died in dubious foreign wars. And so Trump became their avatar.
The GOP establishment hated this. But they wanted power more. Deep down, the smartest of them harbored a guilty suspicion — only Trump could beat Hillary Clinton. For the right-wing economic agenda so dear to House Speaker Paul Ryan was, if made explicit, deeply unpopular with the very people they needed to seize the White House.
So their erstwhile leaders ignored the glaring evidence that Trump was unfit. If Frankenstein somehow got elected, they assured themselves, the GOP establishment could school him in governance and decorum, guiding his hand as he signed their favorite bills. The populist stuff was all an act — Trump could become their front man for the gullible unwashed.
Fatally, they were only half right.
Trump was, indeed, vacant of any principles but love of self. In terms of policy, their new president became the malleable tool GOP conservatives hoped for. They seeded his cabinet with ideologues and his administration with lobbyists. He nominated their right-wing judges. He threw out regulations and declared war on the EPA. He was willing to swallow any dog’s breakfast of a bill Ryan and majority leader Mitch McConnell served up.
His own promises became vapor — the wall; infrastructure; protecting entitlements; better, cheaper health care. His nativist Svengali, Steve Bannon, went the way of anyone but family who stands too close to Trump. Donald the populist was a fraud.
But, to their horror, his would-be Republican tutors also got the real man — an emotionally damaged, pathetically needy, perpetually angry, and abysmally ignorant parody of leadership. His White House is a snake pit. His administration is too understaffed to govern. His foreign policy is dangerous and destabilizing. His appeal to racism exposes the GOP’s garden party bigotry.
Even more terrible — from the standpoint of his party — his staggering ineptitude illuminates the GOP’s own vacancy. There is no political battle so difficult that Trump cannot make it harder, no policy so simple that he can comprehend it. Equally damaging, Trump deepens party fratricide by blaming congressional Republicans for every embarrassing legislative failure, with more train wrecks looming — bungled tax “reform;” a corrosive intra-party fight over the debt ceiling. As bad as the Republicans are, Trump makes them worse. For the party establishment had underrated his incompetence, and overrated their ability to control his ineradicable pathology.
But his hard-core supporters — the party’s base — still love him. The GOP’s cynics had stoked their alienation far too well.
And so, for the most part, Republican legislators cower in silence. Instead of popularizing their policies, Trump has tainted them with his contempt for the norms of governance and simple decency. The crucible of Charlottesville exposed the rot which now pervades the GOP — as a few Republican leaders murmured their misgivings Trump, caring for nothing, summoned racism and bigotry to the center of American life.
Among conservative thinkers, this political degeneracy has not gone uncontested. Principled conservatives like Max Boot, Brett Stephens, David Brooks, and David French have denounced Trumpism and its works. Republican senators — John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Ben Sasse — have entered their objections. More comprehensively, Jeff Flake has catalogued the intellectual and spiritual dereliction which paved Trump’s way. But still missing among Republican office holders is a coherent set of ideas about what the party should stand for.
No surprise. Beneath the whirlwind of Trump, the party is a roiling mess of contradictions, riven between its donors and ideologues and working-class voters beset with primal insecurities. Every faction wants what it wants. The evangelicals demand a retrograde social agenda. The Tea Party prefers shutting down the government to compromising their sense of purity. The business interests want legislative successes that serve their own desires. The blue-collar base wants a government that protects them.
These differences are irreconcilable. Trump papered them over just long enough to deliver the victory that he and the GOP now squander in such a squalid way. And so as Trump celebrates those “beautiful” statues depicting the defenders of slavery, his presidency sinks like an anchor, his bankrupt party chained to him, arms flailing, as it struggles vainly to escape its well-earned fate.
Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.