Friday, August 7, 2020

It Was All a Lie (The Book)

Repentant Republicans, who have 
been sufficiently traumatized by Trump-era darkness to finally see the light, are actually few in number, but they are often prominent enough and vocal enough to make more noise than their actual political significance seems to warrant. Among the loud list of Never Trumpers, Lincoln Republicans, etc., Stuart Stevens stands out for the clarity and completeness of his repentance. Right from the start he admits he was wrong - and had been for some time.

"I have no one to blame but myself. I believed. That’s where it all started to go wrong. I was drawn to a party that espoused a core set of values: character counts, personal responsibility, strong on Russia, the national debt actually mattered, immigration made America great, a big-tent party invited all. Legislation would come and go, compromises would be necessary, but these principles were assumed to be shared and defined what it meant to be a Republican for the last fifty years. What a fool I was. All of these immutable truths turned out to be mere marketing slogans." So begins It Was All A Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (Knopf 2020).

To my mind, one of the classic conundrums of contemporary American politics has been how for 40 years the Republican party has won elections (although revealingly has won the popular vote in a presidential election only once since 1988), while pursuing patently unpopular policies to enrich economic elites at everyone else's expense (i. e., at the expense of most voters). The obvious explanation has long been recognized as the party's increasing identification with white grievance culture. 

Stevens is big on that Reagan-era mantra "personal responsibility." He argues that "any sane path forward for something resembling a conservative governing philosophy in America" — if such a thing actually exists — "must start with honesty and accountability. I have this crazy idea that a return to personal responsibility begins with personal responsibility."

So Stevens takes some responsibility for his career as a Republican political operative, for his participation in past Republican campaigns. As such, Stevens himself employed appeals to white grievance populism to help his candidates win. He notes how Republicans went from 39% of the African American vote in 1956 (Eisenhower) and 34% in 1960 (Nixon) to 7% in 1964 when Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act. since then, no Republican presidential candidate has exceeded 17% of the African American vote. But, unlike the 2012 Republican party "Autopsy," he recognizes that this was not a failure of messaging but a predictable consequence of how Republicans have campaigned and how they have governed.

"The reason African Americans overwhelmingly reject Republicans isn’t based on word choices or phrasing. It’s based on policy. It isn’t how Republicans are talking to black voters that results in 90 percent or more of those voters refusing to vote for Republicans. It’s what the Republicans are doing, once elected. ... Since 1964, black voters have heard the Republican Party with exquisite clarity; more important, they have seen what Republicans are doing once in office."

Given all the attention Trump has gotten for himself, his character, and his personality, there is a tendency to see this Administration as an aberration, which it may indeed be in terms of traditional norms and behaviors, but Stevens's point is to emphasize how Trump is the "logical conclusion" of where the party has been for some time. And that suggests a stark consequence for the party's post-Trump future: "The Republican Party has legitimized bigotry and hate as an organizing principle for a major political party in a country with a unique role in the world."

Stevens is also particularly on target when it comes to his party's supposed preoccupation with so-called family values. "Trump doesn't signal a lowering of standards of morality by Republican voters. Instead he gives them a chance to prove how little they have always cared about those issues. Trump just removes the necessity of pretending."

All of which reminds me of my favorite 2016 quote from Russell Moore: 'The  Religious Right turns out to be the people the Religious Right warned us about." 

Increasingly a part of the picture has the party's retreat from democratic commitment, most evident in its increasing efforts at voter suppression. Unsurprisingly, for a party that has lost the popular votes in all but one presidential election since 1988, "Republicans have fallen in love with the Electoral College because they see it as a way for the 'real America' to balance the power of the 'coastal elites'.”

The one bright spot Stevens sees in his party is some successful Republican governors. He mentions Phil Scott of Vermont, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and Larry Hogan of Maryland. "They are the last outposts of a dying civilization, the socially moderate, fiscally conservative Republican Party. I’ve worked for all three. I’d like to say that their breed will continue, but it’s difficult to understand how what they represent can coexist with the empowerment of the Trump elements within their state parties. ... In a world in which whatever happens in Washington dominates the national conversation like never before, it’s difficult to imagine the calm competence of these Republican governors having much impact on the direction of the Republican Party."

So it seems whatever future Stevens sees for his party is predictably bleak. "How Long," he asks, "can a political party that is defined as a white party cling to power in a country changing as rapidly as America?"

To go back to my original question, how does a political party whose ideological and policy preferences overwhelmingly benefit a wealthy elite minority win elections? For decades, it has aspired to do so by embracing certain cultural and moral grievances. More recently, it has also embraced outright opposition to democracy. Stevens seems to find both tactics both reprehensible and doomed to long-term failure.

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