The backlash to Trump has begun – and Republicans should not be surprised

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

15 September 2018

9:00 AM

 Washington, DC

Republicans observing a rising wave of liberal and progressive candidates, policies and election results in the United States may wish to blame Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or billionaire donors like George Soros or Tom Steyer. They’re missing the mark. The real cause of political disaster coming at the GOP like a Cat 5 hurricane is none other than President Donald J. Trump.

Everywhere American Republicans turn, they see progressives and liberals more energised than in any election cycle in recent memory and for one reason: Trump. Like so much of what Trump does, the effect he promised to have on American politics is the opposite of what he has delivered. His followers expected that a wave of robust nationalist populism would sweep like-minded Trump-style candidates into office on the crest of waves of popular legislation, executive action and a new, permanent political realignment. They believed that Washington’s infamous swamp would be drained, and that a new era had arrived.

Instead, despite an apparently thriving economy, the country is moving left, ideologically, electorally, emotionally. Washington’s corruption and dysfunction are more obvious than at any time since the Teapot Dome scandal of 1921. The Republican cry that Democrats are socialists is increasingly met largely with a shrug from the broader public.

Bereft of successes outside of a tax bill that benefits multi-billion dollar American corporations, a handful of judicial appointments and a few executive orders, Republicans are reeling. The Grand Old Party is now a mere extension of Donald Trump, a personal political fiefdom with no ideological lodestar other than obsequious fealty to the President. Republicans bear the political (and moral) burdens of every one of Trump’s detriments, mistakes, errors and daily displays of instability.

A grim electoral landscape looms for the GOP in the short and long term. In the House of Representatives, the mood of Republicans is funereal as the 5 November midterm elections approach. Democrats are playing in the Republicans’ backfield: dozens of seats are at risk. The Democrats could well run up the score in the coming weeks. In the Senate, GOP-promised pick-ups in West Virginia, Missouri and Montana are looking more remote by the day, and the hoped-for Rick Scott victory in Florida is by no means a certainty. Even deep red Texas is in play as Republican Senator Ted Cruz faces Beto O’Rourke, a young, charismatic, harder-working opponent who is filling halls across the Lone Star State.

For Republicans, a great day in November now means holding the Senate by a single vote. They’ve mostly written off the House, and winnable governors’ races are suddenly toss-ups. Republicans have no one to blame but themselves. Trump gave the American left what decades of incremental Republican ideological warfare couldn’t — a lurid, ludicrous, opera buffa villain. Trump may be bad at being President, but he’s outstanding at ensuring that voters, both today and tomorrow, stay away from the Republican party in droves.

For many in the GOP and the conservative movement, a core appeal of Donald Trump was that he was transgressive. They wanted a candidate well outside the normal political boundaries and borders, and they got one. Their deal with the Devil was simple: they knew Trump was an aggressively terrible leader, but he was their aggressively terrible leader. He would be the cruel, divisive, hideous avatar for their most deeply held resentments and hatreds. He would be an impervious weapon in the culture war, clad in celebrity and armed with a corrosive talent for personal destruction honed on a hundred reality television show episodes. He was their all-or-nothing bet to win the cultural and political war in America. He would, in the juvenile parlance of the Trump-right, ‘own the libs’.

On the way to this imagined liberal Götterdämmerung, however, something went badly wrong. It turned out that Americans who love Trump truly love Trump. Party loyalty like this doesn’t happen often. Though Trump cites his 80 per cent approval with the base regularly, it’s from a diminishing cohort of voters willing to call themselves Republicans. What the GOP missed was that Trump’s opponents — a majority of Americans — don’t merely disagree with him, but loathe him with the fire of a million suns, and with an intensity rarely seen in modern politics. Not only that, they’ve demonstrated that they’ll crawl over broken glass to vote against Trump, his allies, and his sycophants. This behaviour has played out in every special election outside a deep red GOP seat since 2017.

Trump has catalysed progressives, helping to produce a wave of candidates far to the left of not only the American political mainstream but even the Democratic party’s middle lane. Some, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have soared to instant national prominence, while the fortunes of liberal stalwarts like Nancy Pelosi have also risen. Some aren’t ready for prime-time quite yet, but many are pushing the proverbial Overton Window — the range of politically acceptable opinion — firmly to the left. What should concern Republicans more is that centrist Democrats are winning in purple states like Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Republicans have long been accustomed to a high level of media and liberal activist opprobrium in every national election for the past few decades. Mitt Romney faced mockery as an out-of-touch billionaire elitist over his gaffe about ‘binders full of women’ and transporting a dog on the roof of his car. Coverage of John McCain characterised him as too cranky, too curmudgeonly, too old, too sharp-tongued. George W. Bush was referred to as ‘Bushitler’ by more than a few American leftists. Ronald Reagan was history’s greatest monster in many a Democratic fever dream. As Republicans and conservatives, we were familiar with the usual false accusations that we wanted women back in the kitchen, granny thrown from the cliff, and for minorities to stay in their place.

Donald Trump, however, lives up to every single dumb and politically clichéd stereo-type that even the hottest, most vitriolic progressives can dish out. His foolish jingo-ism, his 18th-century trade policies, his overtly cruel immigration policy of child separation, his constant racial dog-whistling on everything from the alt-right to the NFL have activated minority voters, particularly African Americans, like nothing before. For Republicans planning for a political future beyond this election season, the ‘Trump effect’ with women, educated voters, millennials, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and first-generation American citizens is a demographic catastrophe in the making. In the case of Hispanics, they’re the fastest-growing ethnic group in the US, and the much-derided millennials are about to overtake the baby boomers in the number of registered voters in their demographic group.

For once, the progressive wing of the Democratic party and the liberal sector of the media don’t have to overreach. They didn’t need to gild the lily (fortunately, since Trump’s various residences have consumed much of the world’s gold leaf) by exaggerating Trump’s terrible character, beliefs, policies, and behaviours. That Trump was so objectively horrible from the very beginning ensured a political backlash; its scope and intensity shouldn’t surprise anyone. Republican elected officials should have seen it coming. They have had two and a half years of watching Donald Trump turn repellent behaviour and rhetoric into the Republican brand and message. They have no excuse for being surprised.

As the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh grinds to its close, Republicans have been capering over gaining two seats on the court in the Trump era. They should enjoy this last flush of summer, because a political winter is coming, and it’s going to be long, bitter, and the sole fault of Donald Trump.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments