The making of Donald Trump
In his new book, Gerald Seib asks whether the turn towards nationalism and populism in the US is permanent
This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
There has been no shortage of attempts from political analysts on the right and the left to understand the US presidential election of 2016 and the ongoing evolution of the Republican Party towards a purported populism and nationalism, to say nothing of its capture by the galactic personality of President Donald J. Trump.
All too frequently, the use of terms such as “populism” and “nationalism” are pejoratively invoked without sufficient consideration for the kind of populism and nationalism that might be on offer. Rarely considered is the fact that left-wing parties, including the Democrats, now openly call for open borders, renounce national sovereignty, and seem incapable of affirming the proud history of their countries.
And these analyses take different predictable forms: positive depictions of a Republican Party that now defends American industry, workers, and national interests; lamentations — mostly from neoconservatives — of a lost, cosmopolitan conservatism that upheld free trade, open immigration policies, and democracy evangelism at the barrel of a gun, if needed; and my personal favourite: progressive academics warning, sometimes subtly, sometimes boldly, of impending nazified nationalist sturm und drang.
The Iraq failures in the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency left Americans listless and demoralised
Far fewer are the publications that have attempted to wrestle honestly and objectively with the demographic, economic, cultural and geopolitical politics of an immense nation like America where confusion is an ontological category. Gerald Seib’s We Should Have Seen It Coming delivers such an account of how American conservatism and the Republican Party seemingly remade itself or has moved, as the book’s subtitle aptly puts it: From Reagan to Trump — A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution.
Seib has had an incredible reporting career for the Wall Street Journal. For close to 40 years as Washington bureau chief, Seib covered American politics, interviewing every president since Reagan. He shares choice anecdotes, events, policy battles, and speeches to reveal how, at least in hindsight, the populist change in the Republican Party emerged and cemented itself. His is a rollicking history — how could it be anything else — of the personalities in the GOP and how they shaped American politics, beginning in 1980 with President Ronald Reagan’s first term.
Except, as Seib makes clear, the political entrepreneurialism of 1970s conservative activists gave candidates access to money and greater policy heft. Think tanks that were real-time policy generators, direct mail advertising and money-raising, harnessing the grassroots power of evangelical Christians, utilising political action committees or PACs to spend on behalf of conservatives all tilted the Republican Party and country to the right.
But these seeds of growth, now matured and hardened, have also made governing difficult if not impossible at times for conservatives. These techniques are premised on populist agitation and eventually those voices demanded representation on their terms.
Seib pinpoints the exact moment of populist transition for the Republicans. It came at the 2016 Republican convention, where Trump was nominated to do battle with the cloven-hoofed Hillary Clinton, in the minds of most convention delegates. Trump had steadily eliminated his competition in the party primary contests until there was only Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whom he also dispatched to secure the nomination.
Cruz ran as the heir to movement conservatism. He conducted a substantive, aggressive, well-spoken and principled campaign, rooted in conservative ideas. Yet the party’s voters rejected him. In his convention speech, Cruz refused to mention much less endorse Trump. His refrain was “vote for candidates up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the Constitution”.
Was Trump such a person? Cruz seemed to be asking that and silently answering no. Reading the crowd, Trump visibly emerged to conventioneers on the floor, whom his surrogates had whipped to boo Cruz, which they did, loudly. The billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star flashed a thumbs up and the crowd erupted in Trumpian adulation. Cruz stood naked and alone.
As Seib relates, “At that moment, the conservative movement and the Republican Party, which together had been the most powerful force in American politics for the preceding forty years, essentially parted company. The party of Reagan became the party of Trump.” It’s hard to quibble with that judgment given Seib’s premises of measuring the American right by Ronald Reagan.
But is that the beginning of things, or as Seib inquires, “Still to be answered, though, is the core underlying question: Is this turn toward nationalism and populism permanent, or a passing fad?” Of course, the detailed observations made by the author incline to the conclusion that this is no passing fad and will become the course the Republicans pursue. Seib reflects, “None of us should have been surprised by the rise of Donald Trump.” But, your reviewer included, weren’t we surprised, in the manner of waking up with your face glued to the carpet surprised?
Seib treats us to the paths of Patrick Buchanan, journalist and speechwriter for Presidents Richard Nixon and Reagan, who twice gave the Republican establishment hell in his 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns featuring an appeal remarkably similar to Trump’s. The billionaire Ross Perot ran a populist and anti-establishment campaign in 1992 that President George H.W. Bush’s campaign officials insisted cost them the election to Bill Clinton.
Seib also throws the raucous rallies of Sarah Palin, John McCain’s 2008 vice-presidential running mate, into the harbingers of populism. Unlike McCain, Palin knew what Republican voters wanted. There were flashes in her campaigning in 2008 that many believed would make her the future darling of conservatism. However, she lacked discipline, policy depth, and a threshold of sophistication. She never cured those deficiencies.
I doubt that Trump’s personality or ability to guide the party according to his ego will remain after he departs
The meat of the transformation, though, are the two failed wars America fought to avenge 9/11, the 2008 financial bailouts, and the fratricidal conservative fighting over immigration policy in 2007 and 2012. The war effort in Afghanistan made sense. The 9/11 terror strike had been coordinated by Osama bin Laden and leading elements of the Taliban regime. They had to be crushed and were. But by 2016, we had stayed in-country for 15 years and no one could articulate a purpose other than whack-a-mole counter-terrorism.The Iraq failures in the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency, with the daily dripping of news of more Americans dead with no rational ending point, no victory defined or possible, left Americans listless and demoralised.
What would victory in Afghanistan or Iraq have been? In its absence, one view is that our elites sent young men and women to the Iraqi desert, to drive around in Humvees, and get blown up. These brave soldiers killed many Islamic terrorists, but the disappointments in Iraq left a gaping void between a bipartisan foreign policy elite and much of the country, not to mention conservative and blue-collar voters.
Obama realised it much sooner than his Republican counterparts and campaigned as more of a restrainer in foreign policy. Mitt Romney should have publicly distanced himself in the 2012 presidential campaign from Bush’s foreign policy failures. He didn’t. The Republican elite could not recognise the disappointment and increasingly the disdain their voters held for them on this subject.
The 2008 Financial Crisis resulted in a series of bailouts under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Many perceived that the banks were getting a pass despite having engaged in reckless lending habits that had produced the worst economic catastrophe America had experienced since the Great Depression. And then the carmakers got a bailout and the autoworkers’ union. Seib treats us to “the rant” of journalist and trader Rick Santelli on CNBC in 2009 where he viscerally upheld American capitalism and decried government bailouts.
The Tea Party was born, and the Republican Party changed, but the scope of that change was not understood immediately. Whatever it accomplished, the Tea Party stopped much of Obama’s ambitious domestic policy agenda. After healthcare reform, Obama achieved little. With Tea Party muscle, the Republicans reclaimed the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014. Obama’s second term found him reduced to saying he had “a pen and a phone” and would act unilaterally to make policy. The Obama policy legacy has not been a robust one.
Immigration became the hill the Republican elite chose to die on. In 2007, immigration reform that would have beefed up border security and enabled employers to confirm the legal status of new employees, while giving some form of legal recognition to many illegal immigrants and their children, was rebuffed by many conservatives, and also coyly by a freshman senator from Illinois named Barack Obama who wanted to campaign on the issue in 2008.
In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s defeat by Obama in 2012, the Republican Party’s “autopsy report” stated flatly that Republicans either land on the right side of immigration by accepting Hispanic immigrants and giving them legal status or it would continue to lose elections. Once more into the breach went leading Republicans with an immigration reform proposal. They were defeated soundly by elected members in their own party. And the issue would haunt establishmentarian candidates in 2016 among grassroots voters. Just ask Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.
Along came Trump in 2015. Seib observes that the field of presidential candidates produced by Republicans for the 2016 contest was strong. Trump was initially mocked. His polling lead and string of early state primary victories came as a shock to party leaders. The rest is history, you might say. But is Trump the true revolutionary?
The intellectual infrastructure of the Republican Party lost sight of the people they were trying to protect
Returning to Seib’s premise of a remade conservatism and Republican Party, let me expand the analysis historically to underscore that in many ways the party under Trump and presumably for the foreseeable future has returned to its nineteenth-century roots. In a wise essay “The Republican Trump” in the Claremont Review of Books, Charles Kesler reminds us that the Republicans were a party of tariffs and manufacturing, assimilation of immigrants, if not “Americanisation” of them, and for a restrained foreign policy that served the nation’s concrete interests. This defined the party from its beginning in 1856 until roughly the beginning of World War II.
The end of that war and the new peril of global communism launched different policies to combat an extraordinary situation. The old conservatism was no longer serviceable and was forgotten. The postwar conservative movement built itself on an array of brilliant thinkers, many of them hyper-aware of the threats posed by communism, modernity, and mass society to freedom and virtue. However right they were, they may have been detached from basic American political realities. That meant the intellectual infrastructure of the Republican Party lost sight of the people they ostensibly were trying to protect.
That detachment became clearer in the aftermath of Cold War victory. Rather than a rethink of the policies that were needed to defeat the Soviet Union, much of official conservatism turned towards global democracy, global trade and global movement of peoples, which became the high-minded objectives of the global war on terror. It was all so theoretically perfect from the standpoint of individual autonomy and equality and so irritatingly at odds with the cultural and patriotic expectations of conservative and blue-collar Americans.
Yes, Trump has remade the Republican Party and jolted conservatism into a giant argument and reorganisation. I doubt that his personality or ability to guide the party according to his ego will remain after he departs from the scene. What seems to have happened is a return to the Republican principles that guided the party when it dominated the federal government from 1868 to 1932. The Democratic Party it squared off against during those decades was obsessed with race and progressive “science” of government administration: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe