Almost exactly seven years ago, just after the 2008 election when Barack Obama surprised the nation and the word by becoming president, I wrote a series of posts that looked at the possible future of the Republican party. I felt that the party was at a watershed moment with a loss hastened by the selection of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate. I said then that there were four groups vying for control of the Republican party.
The struggle for the future of the Republican party has four groups vying for dominance.
One group consists of the old-style conservatives, people who want smaller government and fiscal restraint, balanced budgets, rule of law, respect for personal liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
The second group is the rank-and-file social values base for whom guns, gays, abortion, stem-cell research, flag, the Bible, and immigration are the main concerns. Many of these people belong to the lower and middle economic classes.
The third group is the Christianist leadership, people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and John Hagee, who claim to speak for the social values base but, as I argued in the previous post in this series, whose overriding allegiance is to a low-tax ideology (especially for the rich) and who vehemently oppose any government programs that provide assistance to the poor.
The fourth group is the neoconservatives. The neoconservatives are the wild card in American politics, wreaking havoc wherever they go. Their interests lie less in domestic policies and more in creating a muscular foreign policy. They dream of America exercising hegemony over the world, using its might to destroy its enemies. They are firmly convinced that America is a force for good in the world and should not be shy about using its military, political, and economic muscle to dominate it.
What actually happened is something that I had not anticipated. The dominant force that has emerged in the Republican party is a new bloc that has sliced through the first three groups and brought together segments from each of them, united by the sense that they have been exploited and used by the leaders of the party and of the three groups. This new coalition is looking for someone untainted by association with the old guard. Donald Trump fits the bill.
This realignment has left the neoconservatives largely out in the cold. The high point for the neoconservatives were the eight years of Bush-Cheney administration because their people were placed in key positions and they pursued the neoconservative agenda with gusto, leaving a trail of chaos in the Middle East. They initially welcomed Palin (arch-neoconservative Bill Kristol was one of her biggest boosters) thinking that she was largely a novice with populist appeal whom they could manipulate to their liking.
What they did not realize that she tapped into a new and more dangerous vein of populism and unleashed an uprising among the rank-and-file party base consisting of a subset of the white population who had diverse agendas but were unified in the belief that the ‘system’ was rigged against them, were angry about it, and determined to take ‘their’ country back from those they perceived as undeserving, the so-called moochers and looters. and assorted enemies both domestic and foreign. One can draw a straight line from Palin then to Trump now.
The neoconservatives clearly feel that they have lost control. It has been interesting to see their aghast reaction to recent developments and try to explain what happened. David Frum is the latest to do so in a long article in the Atlantic titled The Great Republican Revolt where he says that a class war has broken out within the Republican party between the big money donors and the rank and file. Frum was a speechwriter for George W. Bush and he and his wife Danielle Crittenden are pillars of the neoconservative establishment.
Here is what Frum has to say about the mood of the voters who are roiling the Republican primary waters.
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America aren’t the hipster protesters who flitted in and out of Occupy Wall Street. They aren’t the hashtavists of #BlackLivesMatter. They aren’t the remnants of the American labor movement or the savvy young dreamers who confront politicians with their American accents and un-American legal status.
The angriest and most pessimistic people in America are the people we used to call Middle Americans. Middle-class and middle-aged; not rich and not poor; people who are irked when asked to press 1 for English, and who wonder how white male became an accusation rather than a description.
White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for—the Republican Party of Romney, Ryan, and McConnell, which they despise as a sad crew of weaklings and sellouts. They are pissed off. And when Donald Trump came along, they were the people who told the pollsters, “That’s my guy.”
They aren’t necessarily superconservative. They often don’t think in ideological terms at all. But they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them—and they want that older country back.
While Frum points to various ways in which the Republican party can try to regain control of the situation, he sounds half-hearted, as if he realizes that the situation is too far gone, the train has well and truly left the station with other people at the controls, and the Republican party and its leaders can only hang on and hope for the best.
What Frum and other neoconservatives choose to ignore is that they helped create this situation. Trump would not be the factor he is if they had not steered the party even further away from traditional conservative pragmatism into reckless quests for world hegemony that ended up impoverishing the country and causing the pervasive sense of weakness and decline that enabled Trump to claim that the country is dying and needs a messianic figure to save it. And of course, he is just the man for the job.