On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War
and the Rise of President Trump
Author Tim Alberta
All Hail the PoT (Party of Trump)
“ The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favour of his image, because the image will be so much more powerful than he could ever be.” Marshall McLuhan (interview, 1972)
Through the long journey across the primaries and into the US presidential election in 2016 it seemed unlikely, no impossible, that come January 2017 Donald J. Trump Jr. would find himself sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. The consummate salesman, his skills honed through reality TV, it felt like a massive charade with we, the audience, waiting for the man to break into a grin, to offer a wink, before announcing: “just kidding folks”. I guess Donald was not in on the joke.
Over the last three years an extensive number of books have been published detailing the rise of Donald Trump and the first years of his presidential term. Some writers—Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. Inside the Trump Whitehouse is an example—have gone for the low bar; its hotwire into the Whitehouse, Steve Bannon (or ‘Sloppy Steve’ as the Trump now calls him) ensuring that the book was not threatened by scholarly intent; other publications—such as Bob Woodward’s Fear. Trump in the Whitehouse—have brought a reasoned and articulate analysis to the subject. In other cases, Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President is a personal favourite, writers have used gallows humour to detail the bewildering situation.
Tim Alberta’s American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump is a different beast—and at 680-odd pages it has more than the hint of Godzilla about it—for at its centre lies not the president but the Republican Party; a party, Alberta argues, that Trump has captured and reshape into his own image.
“Rarely has a president so thoroughly altered the identity of his party. Never has a president so ruthlessly exploited the insecurity of his people.”
This is a party known as much by its acronym—GOP (the Grand Old Party)—as by its Republican title; a political collective that begat us Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and ‘ahem’ Richard Nixon; and which, over the course of 150 years, has championed a conservative agenda of lower taxes / less government, free trade, the global world order (remember the Neocons) and strong families, all underpinned by a healthy dose of individual ‘can-do-ism’.
Now, in the space of eleven years—a period that predates Donald Trump—the party has become a proponent of state intervention, an isolationist foreign policy agenda, the subverter of tax laws and personal freedoms, all underpinned by an alarming strain of nativism.
So how did this dramatic turn come about? It is a question that Alberta seeks to answer across the pages of his weighty, but seldom boring, tome.
The case: At the centre of Alberta’s argument is the idea, foretold in the sub-title of his book, that the GoP has been at war with itself and its founding ideals – a conflict of ideas and beliefs that have transformed the party, leaving in its wake fertile ground for the likes of Steve Bannon and Donald Trump to grow and flourish.
So where were the seeds of this civil war first sown?
Ironically, given his bête noire status in the Trump universe, Alberta points the finger at the decision by the Republican Party and its presidential candidate John McCain, in 2008, to appoint Sarah Palin as his vice-president nominee (wholly under-qualified as a candidate, Pailin was nonetheless reputed to be a deft-hand at moose skinning). It was, Alberta reasons, a fatefully decision that saw the GoP embrace the populist wing of blue collar, male America—a group increasingly marginalized on the fraying edges of the American dream—for the first time. Writes the author:
“Practically overnight, Sarah Palin came to embody the most disruptive “ism’ of them all, one that would reshape the GoP for a decade to come: populism.”
[To be fair to McCain he wished to select Joe Lieberman as his running mate, but Lieberman’s pro-choice stance on abortion made him untenable to the GoP base]
This is, of course, just a starting point. What followed was a grass-roots Republican ‘revolution’ that saw the rise of the rightwing Tea Party; the emergence of the ‘birther’ movement (supported by Donald Trump); and onward, the rise of Trump and his bulldozed path through the primaries, then his presidency and the three years of disruption, chaos and mixed achievements that have followed (as Alberta points out, beside a certain wall, Trump has been surprisingly successful in accomplishing his campaign pledges).
Personally I am not convinced by Alberta’s claim that the Republican ‘turn’ is necessarily recent in origin. Rather I think that there is a strong case to be made that it started earlier, in 1968, with the failed effort by the liberal Republican candidate, Nelson Rockefeller, to capture the GoP nomination (it was won by Richard Nixon). In this dramatic year the party’s liberal wing found itself orphaned when Rockefeller imploded on the nomination trail, his demise heralding an uninterrupted era in which the party has failed, ever since, to nominate a moderate for president or vice-president. In short, the arrival of Nixon embedded a new ideological stance in the GoP, creating a conservative party in which moderates and their ideas remain marginalized fifty-one years on.
In classic ‘civil war’ style American Carnage recalls the tragedies and victims of the conflict: Paul Ryan, speaker of the house, forced to compromise his beliefs in order to steer laws through Congress; Michael Cohen, Trump’s disgraced ‘fixer’, whose past financial improprieties were laid bare by the Mueller Inquiry; James Comey (Former FBI head), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), and even ‘Sloppy Steve’ Bannon, whose love of the spotlight was intolerable to a president who craves the centre of the stage. The fate of these individuals and others who fell foul of Donald Trump indicate the degree to which the GoP has become subverted to his will – a president demanding undying loyal with the power to disrupt and upend careers, families, stock markets, allies and enemies with a single tweet.
But Alberta shows that not everyone has gone quietly into the night. An example is Mitt Romney, a man who openly questioned Trump’s nomination, earning him the now infamous tweeter storm, but who stood by his beliefs and returned to Congress as a junior senator in 2018. He is a man clearly out of step within the new Party of Trump (PoT), a Shakespearean Lear wailing against the excesses of his party’s president.
American Carnage does carry some noteworthy gaps. Arguably the most important is an understanding of the cultural and socio-economic factors that provided the fuel for the rightward turn of the GoP. In fairness the scrutiny of these origins would require another book, with others have done a fair job of setting out the societal changes that have nurtured ‘Trumpism’. Personally I suggest George Packer’s The Unwinding, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story, and for those prepared to go back a decade, Joe Bageant’s underrated Deer Hunting with Jesus.
But even these writers cannot answer certain questions that, before reading American Carnage, I could not answer. Foremost here is the question of the support Donald Trump enjoys from fundamental Christians – backing that seems immune from his less-than Christian indiscretions (Stormy Daniels and Access Hollywood anyone). Alberta lays the answer out clearly in three words: Supreme Court judges.
To wit: by supporting the nomination of arch-conservative, pro-life judges Trump—a man who has personally expressed pro-choice values—has steered the American Supreme Court towards the holy grail of the staunch Christian right – the overturning of Roe vs. Wade (the landmark ruling protecting the constitutional right to abortion). With two conservative judges already appointed during his term and new appointment possibilities in the wind, a challenge to the ruling appears imminent.
Again, on the matter of campaign pledges, Trump can be said to have delivered. Yet in the background the words of Alexander Dubček, the de facto leader of the Prague Spring (Czechoslovakia) come to mind:
“To disregard moral principles in the realm of politics would be a return to the law of the jungle.”
And selling your soul comes at a price; a point made clear by the the 2018 mid-term elections when a retreat of affluent suburbanites from the Republican Party helped the Democrats recaptured the House of Representatives. This trend, alongside an ethic shift in American society, wherein the sum of minorities will soon out number the previous white majority, forewarn of telling times for the GoP. The risk for the party, Alberta reasons, is that Trump’s ethnic baiting could turn sufficient voters away from the GoP that years in the electoral wilderness will follow. It is an important argument that raises the question of what a post-Trump Republican Party may need to become in order to survive.
And what of the future for the other party – the Democrats – who have been energerised by the arrival of younger, social media suave blood into its ranks. Here Alberta’s makes it simple: Trump will seek to demonise the party’s left-leaning progressives by labelling them ‘socialists’, and then use this declaration to tarnish the entire Democrat party, and then watch as his ideologically unsophisticated base balk at a perceived ‘red’ threat to America (author’s note: American Carnage was published before the recent altercation between Trump and the three-women group of Democrats known colloquially as the ‘Squad’).
It is a tactic that the older guard, Nancy Patricia Pelosi et al, is seeking to deflect. Yet the appearance of these internal differences suggest that the Democrats face a milder version of a civil war themselves – one fought between its older, pragmatic centralist members and the younger, energized followers of the ‘new new left’. And without agreement on a shared path Trump, the artful tweeter of discontent, will use these differences to fracture efforts by the Democrats to recapture the Whitehouse in 2020.
But for the bulk of us, by-standers to this American tragicomedy, the situation can seem bewildering and nonsensical; yet we remain aware that our fate is entangled in this unworldly mess (think climate change and trade tariffs). Eldridge Cleaver, the African American activist, presaged this situation in his 1968 treatise Soul On Ice:
“It is not an overstatement to say that the destiny of the entire human race depends on what is going on in America today. This is a staggering reality to the rest of the world; they must feel like passengers in a supersonic jet liner who are forced to watch helplessly while a passel of drunks, hypes, freaks, and madmen fight for the controls and the pilot’s seat.”
Returning to Alberta’s thesis, in a 2018 TIME opinion piece Charles Skyes reasoned that political entities seldom lurch dramatically from one form of ideas and identity to another: “usually” he writes “it is a gradual process of compromises that make sense in the moment, but which have a cumulative effect — like a frog being gradually boiled.” The story laid out across American Carnage suggests that this argument may only be half-true, given the changes that have occurred over the short period of the Trump era.
But correct or not Tim Alberta has done us a favour by setting out the paths that have brought us to our current point, while providing us with a sense of what lies ahead.
To end, if one wishes to find some comfort at the end of American Carnage it might be found in the past words of another American, the historian Samuel Eliot Morison, a man whose faith in the regenerative capacity of his nation’s culture and its political system remained unblemished by historical events:
“ We have passed through abnormal periods before this, periods of disorder and violence that seemed horrendous and insoluble at the time. Yet we survived as a nation. The genius of our democracy is its room for compromise, our ability to balance liberty with authority. And I am convinced that we will strike a new balance this time, and achieve in the process a new awareness of human relationships among our people.”
Me? I’m not so sure . . .