More than once when I was analyzing events for my city’s newspapers, I pointed out that the essential paradox of Los Angeles’ politics was that its leaders are elected by one city to govern another.
The city that elects office-holders—older, whiter and far more affluent than LA as a whole—has interests; that city that’s governed—younger, poorer, more Latino, African American and Asian—has needs. The friction between those needs and interests, I’ve always argued, is what gives LA’s civic life the wary, edge-of-the-razor quality that has erupted in violence twice in my lifetime.
Now, I’ve begun to wonder whether Donald Trump’s bizarre insurgent campaign for president might leave the United States in a similarly unhealthy tension.
The failed Casino operator’s nearly unprecedented series of undisciplined, boorish, bullying self-inflicted rhetorical wounds over the past few weeks appear to have sent his poll numbers into a downward spiral—particularly in the key swing states where he has to win. States that have been solidly Republican in recent years—Utah, which hasn’t gone Democratic since 1964, and Arizona to name just two—suddenly appear to be up for grabs.
Senior GOP officials have begun to tell reporters that many of them think that the Trump campaign is hopeless and that the party’s focus from here on out ought to be on retaining control of the House and Senate. A report in the New York Times claims that, in private, the con-man/developer is sullen, resentful and exhausted, frustrated that his shoot-from-the-lip primary style no longer seems to be working, but resistant to advice.
Let’s face it: when a candidate’s principle public defenders are the blustering Sean Hannity, the performance artist known as Anne Coulter and Rudy Giuliani, who clearly has had an artery or two harden, you’re in trouble.
All this would seem to point toward a well-deserved Republican debacle in the fall. Nothing about this campaign, however, has been predictable—or even rational—so it would be worse than dangerous to complacently assume his defeat. That’s particularly true since Hillary Clinton has more skeletons in her closet than a medieval ossuary, and heaven knows what ghastly specter may yet emerge from those murky precincts.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that there is a God and Trump loses in November, perhaps in the sort of landslide that gives the Democrats back control of the Senate and seriously erodes the GOP majority in the House. The question is: What sort of Republican Party will his scorched earth campaign leave in its wake.
The faux conservatives—Paul Ryan et al—and the neocon internationalists—Bill Crystal et al—who are mainstays of the GOP establishment certainly are hoping to pick up the pieces, but it’s not at all clear they’ll have a freehand to do so. For decades now, the Republican regulars have been playing cute with some of the country’s most dubious, even sinister, tendencies. They’ve made the Party of Lincoln into the national white people’s party, the party of the old confederacy and of goof ball religious extremists. They’ve allowed themselves to become the party of fear and resentment, of angry intolerance, of gun nuts and conspiracy theorists.
The party establishment’s conceit has been that they can keep all these impulses—they’re not really ideas—in check and use them to serve their serious constituencies: Wall Street, the Chamber of Commerce, Big Oil and Big Pharma, the Koch Brothers and Greenwich hedge fund managers, the country’s “serious people.”
The problem now is that Trump’s vulgar, bigoted lack of restraint has empowered the GOP lumpen and given it permission to express every ounce of that fearful bitterness that is the background noise of their lives.
From the beginning of this election cycle, polls consistent have shown that a significant number of self-described conservatives feel “betrayed” by the Republican establishment. Trump, for his part, is busily constructing a stab-in-the-back myth—sound familiar?—in which his most fanatic followers can take refuge if he loses. The election is rigged; the polls are rigged; the political press is the lowest form of life on earth and has consistently dishonestly stacked the coverage against him.
Friday in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state where he has fallen further behind in the polls, Trump told a rally that if he does not carry the state, it will only be because the election was stolen from him. He has, in other words, worked to delegitimize any November result, but his own victory.
If he loses, he can slink off to one of his garish buildings or over-priced golf resorts, find new suckers to victimize with dodgy investments or phony schools, maybe do a few guest shots on Duck Dynasty. His supporters won’t be left with anything but their deepened embitterment and the conviction, however ill-founded, that the vague remedy Trump seemed to promise them has been stolen by a rigged system. We’ve had a glimpse of just how angry many of these people are in the way they’ve physically confronted members of the press after Trump egged them on during this past week’s rallies. Worse, there’s an increasingly assertive and public expression of racial and ethnic resentment by the pseudo-intellectuals who like to fulminate darkly about the demographic threat to “the historic American nation” by which they mean a country whose people were overwhelmingly Caucasian Protestant Christians. (That country hasn’t existed since Ronald Reagan was president.)
These angry people, further embittered by their leader’s assertion that the election was stolen from them and that Trump was undermined by an establishment fifth column within their own party may not be in a mood to let the faux-conservatives and neo-cons retake control. What happens at that point? Well, perhaps the GOP splits, but that’s hard to see. What seems more likely is that the Republican Party goes from being one whose base is defined by an unacknowledged demographic fact to one directed by an overt ideology of white nationalism.
It’s hard to foresee just how divisive that might be.