Monday, February 14, 2022

Insurgency (The Book)

The flood of Trump-related political books continues. To this flood, Jeremy Peters, who  currently covers Republican party politics and the conservative movement for The New York Times politics desk, has happily added another Trump-era book: Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted (NY: Crown, 2022).

In the week or so since the book's publication, Peters has been ubiquitous on TV news shows and podcasts, promoting his book and highlighting its significance for our understanding of the Trump phenomenon and of the decades-long insurgent politics within the Republican and "conservative" world which have brought us to this juncture in American political and cultural history.

Insurgency is thus about much more than just the story of Donald Trump and his seemingly surprising rise to the presidency and his dominance within the Republican party and the "conservative" movement. It is a thorough examination of the decades-long development of the Republican party into the strange phenomenon it is today, "of how short the distance always was between Trump and the beating heart of the modern Republican Party." Peters provides the reader a detailed account of the internal transformation of the GOP and of the role of both Trump himself and of his prophetic forerunners like Pat Buchanan and Sarah Palin who predated Trump's political preeminence.

Trump, Peters argues, "didn’t bring anything inside the Republican Party that wasn’t already there. He just validated the suspicions and fed the anxieties of tens of millions of Americans who had long feared they were one presidential election away from losing their purchase on social and political power." Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign a full 30 years ago represented "a no-apologies, nationalistic insurgency that was a watershed moment in Republican politics." As for Palin, John McCain's GOP running mate against Obama in 2008, "she instantly connected with a particular type of American who wasn’t used to seeing someone like her represented at the pinnacle of power in the Republican Party."

That, of course, was an older iteration of the Republican party one which Republican voters have over time been drifting away from -  "drifting away from conventional politicians and their stale policy offerings of laissez-faire capitalism, robust military spending, and rising-tide-lifts-all-boats economics." That older party was well represented by, for example, the GOP's unsuccessful 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who "represented the kind of wealth that many people weren’t seeing as aspirational but as avaricious." Instead of someone like Romney, what such alienated voters wanted "was a president like the people Ailes was putting on Fox News." Meanwhile, many increasingly "saw themselves in Trump," who "had thoroughly remade the GOP in his image."

In addition to the likes of Buchanan and Palin and Ailes, Peters highlights the part played by the Tea Party "that anvil of resentment and rage that promised to flatten Washington and 'Take America Back'.” To an establishment Republican like Romney, Trump was "the court jester of American politics." Yet even Romney realized he required Trump's endorsement in 2012. Peters portrays the spectacle of that event for what it was: "the ghosts of the Republican Party’s soon-to-be past and its future standing uncomfortably together in a physical manifestation of the warring camps within." Unfortunately for Romney (and the establishment Republicanism Romney represented), "finding himself powerless to say no to Trump," Romney "discovered that no amount of scaffolding could prevent Trump from finding a way to steal the show."

Another key turning point was Romney's 2012 loss itself, which amazingly came as a surprise to many Republicans, who had "convinced themselves that most Americans saw Obama the way they did: as a failed liberal ideologue who was ill-suited to lead a country that still hadn’t rebounded from crisis." For some time, "fundamental to the way Republicans have long seen themselves as a party," Republicans had believed "that the majority of the country leans Republican no matter what the results at the ballot box say is."

To trace the trajectory by which Trump became an avatar of conservatism and (even more improbably) a Cyrus-figure for the religious right, Peters highlights both the special salience of immigration (where Trump already resonated with his angry base) and the more surprising story of Trump's successful appeal to constituencies and on issues where no such resonance existed and where logically one would have expected greater dissonance. (One such issue was obviously abortion. Trump, after all, was already "on tape saying things like 'I am pro-choice in every respect'," which he had said in a 1999 interview he gave to Meet the Press.)

The successful rise of right-wing populism is inexorably tied to the mass-market appeal of Trump and his forerunners. As Trump himself has expressed it (and maybe rediscovering now perhaps to his chagrin on the vaccine issue) “The audience tells you where to go.” As one ex-congressman turned Talk show host learned, “Sign on to Team Trump and speak well of him. That’s where our audience is.” And that audience of right-wing media consumers quickly came to see themselves in Trump (as they had seen themselves previously in Palin). Of course, to accomplish this required what Peters calls,"an extraordinary suspension of disbelief."

"Here was a man who bragged compulsively about being rich and powerful but who was complaining, in effect, that he was a victim. He flew into their communities on his private jet to tell them how poorly treated he was, and it didn’t come off the least bit insincere. Swaddled in privilege and given to gaudy displays of material excess, Trump didn’t live anything like most Americans. ... Devoid of empathy, incapable of humility, and unfamiliar with what it means to suffer consequences, he behaved and spoke in ways most would never dare. And yet Trump’s habit of seeing persecutors everywhere he looked did not come off as paranoid or self-obsessed to his fans. It seemed perfectly reasonable because while they may not have used the vulgarities and hyperbole that he did, they agreed with what he was saying and pictured how they’d be persecuted too if they dared to agree with him out loud in the wrong company."

Trump in turn has "noted with no small amount of self-satisfaction how conservative media outlets suffered for giving voice to a point of view that contradicted or questioned him. 'A lot of people don’t want that,' he says. 'They don’t want to hear negativity toward me'.”

And that is where Republican party and "conservative" movement politics appear stuck at present. For decades both have been increasingly radicalized by insurgencies whose long-term trajectories have often been underestimated. Insurgency may not be the final word on a political disorder that seems to be continually evolving still. But it leaves little unsaid about how it has gotten to where it is now.

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