Andy Schmookler: Look away from Trump to bigger thing he shows
It is understandable that, since Donald Trump locked up the Republican nomination for president, we can talk of little else. After all, we’ve seen nothing like him at center stage of our politics.
And it’s understandable that our attention is focused also upon the rifts in the Republican Party caused by Trump’s triumph. After all, it has been nearly a half century since a major American party has been in such upheaval.
But both of these foci of our attention distract us from the bigger story of what Trump’s rise signifies about what is most extraordinary about American politics in our times.
Take Trump. The only reason we’ve been talking about him is that a big enough portion of the Republican base has supported him to make him the party’s nominee for president. The remarkable event of the nomination of a man like Trump, therefore, reveals that something equally remarkable has developed within the Republican base.
That raises the question: how did so many people in the Republican base become primed to support a candidate so far from the American norm as Donald Trump?
And that brings us to the Republican Party, which has molded how its followers think and feel. After all, that is the role of leadership.
So if the base of the party responds enthusiastically to a figure who would have been considered unthinkable as a potential president decades ago, we can assume that the followers have been transformed – by the leaders, over the years – into something that, likewise, would have been unthinkable in that earlier era.
That’s why the tensions between Trump and the GOP establishment, like the focus on Trump as an individual, is a valid but superficial story. The deeper story is that this same GOP establishment sowed in the Republican base what Trump is now harvesting.
We hear a lot from some Republicans these days about how Trump does not represent the “conservative principles” of the GOP. But, leaving aside the dubious notion that today’s Republican Party has been “principled” in any meaningful way, it has been widely noted that Trump’s appeal has been about neither principles nor policies. It has been, rather, about an attitude.
It is this attitude that the GOP – along with its right-wing media allies, like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News – has been cultivating for years in its followers.
So if the question is, “How did the Republican base get readied to follow a man who displays such a remarkably unpresidential set of attitudes, the answer is not hard to find.
Why should we be surprised that the GOP base would line up behind a bully, when Republican leaders have persuaded their followers to support them in bullying their political opponents, and to join them in defending practices long defined by the United States as torture?
Is it remarkable that this base would be undisturbed by a candidate throwing insults at everyone who stands in his way, when they’ve already been following leaders treating the president of the United States with a contempt not seen in living memory?
Is there any wonder that the base is unconcerned with a candidate who shows an utter disregard for factual truth when for years they’ve been taught by leaders who have sold them falsehoods on almost every issue that arises, and who have scorned the findings of scientists and experts of all stripes?
Is it not just the next step that the Republican base would fall in line behind a leader who violates so many norms of personal behavior and manners when that base has been trained to accept without question a party that, for years has been violating American norms about political conduct? (E.g. in threatening to default on the national debt, obstructing everything the elected president proposes just to make him a failure, or refusing to do its job to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.)
Shakespeare wrote long ago about “a universal wolf” that grows out of an appetite for power, and that “Must make perforce a universal prey, and at last eat up himself.”
And so now the GOP devours itself.
The Republican establishment may be alarmed that the base has now made visible what the party has been covertly cultivating in the hearts of their followers. But if Trump differs from them it is less about principle than about his not bothering to wear the sheep’s clothing to cover up the wolf-like pursuit of power without regard for other values.
Andrew Bard Schmookler — the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 — is the author of “What We’re Up Against: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World–and How We Can Defeat It.”