The Republican Party is already trying to distance itself from Donald Trump. If, as appears increasingly likely, Trump loses the election, they will certainly try to distance themselves even further, suggesting their nominee was an anomaly. But Trump is not an anomaly — he was an inevitability.
One of the limitations of a predominantly two-party system in a vastly diverse nation, comprised of many demographics with competing desires and needs, is that parties have to form their base by building coalitions.
There are challenges for both parties in bringing together disparate groups who share enough in common to work in concert to elect a majority. But the biggest challenge facing Republican elites has always been how you convince people who are not obscenely wealthy to vote for a platform designed to exploit them.
Over decades, they developed and fine-tuned a strategy based on appealing to bigotry, to othering and scapegoating and victim-blaming. And then they dressed it up in cynical language about morality, patriotism, and nostalgia.
Long before Donald Trump had the chutzpah to make it his actual campaign slogan, the Republican Party was promising to Make America Great Again.
Usually couched in the deceivingly pleasant language of “tradition,” Republican leaders have long traded on the conjured idea of an American golden era, circa 1945 to 1960, after boys who were ripped from the arms of their sweethearts and sent to another continent to fight a great war against tyranny and despair, had returned home as men, as heroes, and set to work, every last one of them, making babies with doting wives and grabbing the American Dream with both hands in the dawn of suburbia.
Scientists in white lab coats and square, black-framed glasses toiled away to make American astronauts the first on the moon, and to fill all the pretty new homes behind perfect white picket fences with fancy, new-fangled household gadgets to make life easier and more fun. Teenagers hung out at sock hops and neon-lit diners, girls longing for lavaliers and boys wondering how to get laid. Elvis’ pelvis was considered a scandal, and Marilyn Monroe a bombshell. Dad had a pension and the promise of a gold watch at the end of a long career with a single firm, and Mom had a Frigidaire. And everyone was happy.
Vote for us — and we will give you that again.
But the Republican promise has always had the very same flaw as their policies: It is contingent on pretending that the complexity and complications of human existence, and the flaws of humankind, do not exist.
It is an empty promise built on an illusion, carefully constructed to conceal that America’s so-called golden age was imperfect like any other, and perhaps even more so than most. Half a million of those boys who went off to war never came home — and some of them were not boys at all, but men, who left wives and children with desperate struggles in the place where their husbands and fathers had been. Some who had come home were never the same, their bodies or minds damaged beyond real repair.
Women who had been called to duty in factories or faraway lands were forcibly driven back into domesticity, segregation was a legal fact, every LGBTx woman and man had a closet of their very own, mental illness was treated with lobotomies, McCarthy was on his Communist witch hunt, and we fought an all-but-forgotten war in Korea for three years and lost over 35,000 soldiers. There were back-alley abortions, and the KKK, and Elvis and Marilyn both died of drug overdoses.
Thus, the real promise is this: Vote for us — and we will restore your waning privilege, so you will maintain the luxury of never having to care about that stuff. About those people who are not like you.
This promise, however, ran headlong into the reality that when you promise an illusion, eventually people are going to notice that you have not delivered.
They kicked the can down the road a ways by telling people it was all about hard work. Just work hard, and you will get your due. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” cried the Republican leadership, desperate to conceal that the entire point was never to enrich the people — including their own middle- and lower-class base — who were the targets of their wealth redistribution upwards plan.
They shouted about bootstraps and work ethic and America’s endless reservoirs of independence and ingenuity while they busted unions and relocated the bootstrap factory to China.
The other flaw in this plan was that marginalized people, on whose continued oppression it was contingent, were not inclined to cooperate. In large numbers, they abandoned the Republican Party, leaving the base overwhelmingly white, straight, cisgender, and increasingly male.
And that base was getting restless and resentful. They started looking for someone to blame.
Republican elites like to own a lot of things, but responsibility is not one of them. It was not their fault that good, godly, white people were working harder than ever and still falling behind. It was not their fault that the only thing the Invisible Hand gave its working class believers was the finger. It was not their fault their enticing promises had come to nothing.
“Don’t look at us!” they said, then happily provided their disaffected base with a road map to where their ire should be directed.
It was the fault of those uppity marginalized people. They are the ones who are taking your jobs and sucking up all your tax money on hand-outs and telling you that you are not even allowed to be a man anymore. It’s them.
If it were not for progressives… If it were not for feminists and gays and undocumented immigrants… If it were not for that dark-skinned president…
People who bought into the Republican narratives of self-determination, of rugged individualism, who believed in the American morality tales of Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinism and the Prosperity Gospel, were left with nothing but impotent anger where their hopes of flourishing used to be.
And, having been encouraged to make no social contract, to depend on no one but oneself, to hoard all the rewards of the success that bootstrapping was supposed to yield and share naught, they were then left with no one to blame but themselves when it all went wrong.
Which, obviously, was not going to do.
After cravenly offering up marginalized people as scapegoats, and attentively nurturing their base’s hatred, the Republican Party then gallantly offered to stand on the line between their base and all of those people who were clamoring to take away their hopes, their very way of life, their rights.
They carefully cultivated a dangerous obfuscation between rights and privilege. Rights are not a zero-sum game: Extending rights to marginalized people who lack them does not erode the rights of the privileged people who already have them. If that fact is clear, there is no anger to harvest and misdirect.
But privilege is a zero-sum game. If you are a person with white privilege, or male privilege, or straight privilege, or any one of a number of other privileges arbitrarily conferred on the basis of one’s identity, you don’t get to keep it as we move toward meaningful equality.
And the Republicans have had an enormous amount of success convincing their base that the insecurities they feel as the result of horrendous Republican policy-making — and the discomfort of losing their undeserved privilege — is really the result of marginalized people trying to take away their rights.
Losing one’s rights is legitimately frightening. I watch with horror as Republican state lawmakers erode abortion access and reproductive rights across the nation.
But the disproportionately white, straight, cis, male Republican base is not, actually, losing their rights. They are just being cynically told that they are.
And the resulting fear has increasingly made this country unsafe for the marginalized people at whom conservative fear-born hatred and blame are directed.
Particularly because one of the things that privilege does is insulate one from legitimate fear.
Most very privileged men — white, straight, cis, able-bodied, middle- or upper-class men — spend their lives without knowing sustained fear. Every person knows individual moments of fear — the sort of fear that grips a human moments before a car accident one can see coming but cannot avoid, or in the moment one begins to choke on a bit of lunch while eating alone, when one is not sure if a cough will dislodge the intruder. Privilege does not insulate any of us from that kind of fear.
But the sustained fear of being hurt, being victimized, being exploited — unexpectedly, at any moment, and most frequently by people one trusts — is something that the very privileged do not know intimately, the way the rest of us do.
Women, for instance, live a life of sustained fear. Which is not to say that most women exist in a state of heightened anxiety at all times, but is to acknowledge the reality that our lives are fundamentally different from men’s — as is the way we navigate the world — because of a real threat of rape/violence at the hands of men, mostly men we know. (And because we are stupidly and wrongly tasked with its prevention.) Men’s and women’s lives are very different in that way.
Because of this difference, most women learn how to live their lives against a backdrop of present threat, to a soundtrack of the dull roar of constant fear. For the most part, we learn to continuously process fear as we move through our days on such a subconscious level that it is as natural as our hearts beating without conscious thought — we position our keys in hand as a potential weapon and scan deserted parking lots for potential threats and size up dates in search of anything dangerous with the ease that we execute any one of thousands of other routine daily tasks.
Privileged men do not understand this reality, and, upon having it explained to them, will often react with disgust, with contempt. They accuse women of being oversensitive, of having a pessimistic view of the world, of “profiling” men.
Fear — or, perhaps, fear management — is a central part of womanhood in a way it is simply not a central part of privileged manhood.
So boys, especially privileged boys, do not learn how to sit with fear the way girls do. We tell boys explicitly not to be afraid; we tell them that being afraid makes you girly. They learn that to be afraid is to be like a woman, and to be not a man.
And then we structure the world so that privileged men do not have a lot to be afraid of, so that it is easier to maintain an identity that is rooted in not being fearful, even though fear is a normal part of human experience.
It is not, of course, only men on whom Republicans have worked this dark magic. White people have been urged to be fearful of people of color harming them; straight people have been urged to be fearful of LGB people undermining their marriages and corrupting their kids; cisgender people have been urged to be fearful of trans women sharing bathrooms; Christians have been urged to be fearful of Muslims and atheists, the latter of whom are often accused of wanting to criminalize Christmas.
On and on it goes, with Republicans all the while accusing progressives of “playing identity politics,” for wanting to eliminate fear-driven divisions.
An enormous amount of Republican social policy is based around a phantom “right” to feel safe. No such right actually exists. Being safe and feeling safe are not the same thing. But most of the Republican base is so divorced, by virtue of their privilege, from actual danger that the very feeling of not being safe is anathema to them.
As a result, there are large parts of the population in this country who do not know how to process fear. And then there is an entire industry is dedicated to planting manufactured fear in those very people. The Republican Party. Fox News. A vast weapons industry whose marketing is based on the specious premise that there is Something to be afraid of, Something from which you need to protect yourself.
The same people whose privilege affords them the luxury of never having to learn how to sit with, how to live a life in the echo of, how to process fear are the target demographic for manufactured fear.
And the less privileged among their ranks — the working class men and women of otherwise undiluted privilege — have real fear about job insecurity or healthcare access or how the heck they are going to pay the mortgage next month. They are fears that are out of their personal control, and for which the Fear Manufacturers are happy to provide scapegoats — immigrants and brown people and feminists and kissing boys — lest anyone notice the Fear Manufacturers have been the architects of that real insecurity, too.
What is one to do when one has no capacity to process fear, no ability to sit with it and live with it, no developed strategies for coping with fear?
Well, in a lot of cases, one buys a gun. Or many guns. And then looks for an authoritarian who validates both your fear and your hatred, and promises that he is the only one who can protect you.
Donald Trump’s entire campaign has been built around such a promise. He is the savior the Republican Party has always promised, but never delivered. And he expresses as much contempt for the party leadership over that failure as the base feels, reflecting and validating their anger at having been ignored.
He exploits their fears for his own gain at every turn. His ascendancy is firmly rooted in the bigotry and anxiety carefully cultivated by the Republican Party for decades. He is not a betrayer of their values, but their most shameless promoter.
And now the party elites have the temerity to publicly lament that the genie won’t go back in the bottle.
“What happened to my party?” wonder the vanishing moderates of the Republican Party, shaking their heads gravely and publicly wringing their hands, before shuffling off to wash them of any responsibility.
But they are what happened to their party. Their reckless exploitation of the darkest prejudices, the worst of human nature. Their greed. Their careless fearmongering. Their cynical scapegoating. Their endless denials of injustice.
They happened, with their insatiable appetites for more wealth, more power, more influence, more control. Their voracious need to win.
They happened. They and their bumper sticker sloganeering in a complicated world.
Now they shamelessly deflect blame by pretending to by mystified by why their base is rallying around a billionaire with a bumper sticker slogan stitched in gold thread on tacky hats.
And they are already demonstrating that no lesson has been learned, as many of them wish longingly that Mike Pence were atop the ticket, despite the fact that he is just Trump without the theatrics — and with a demonstrable record of precisely the sort of cruel politics that led them to this moment.
If we narrowly avoid the national nightmare that a Trump presidency would have been — and if we manage to escape his loss without widespread violence as a result of his irresponsible and dangerous talk about election rigging — the Republicans have already telegraphed they are not inclined to take a hard look at themselves.
They prefer deflection to self-reflection. Which is exactly what got us here in the first place.
They will not hold themselves accountable, so we will have to, to ensure we never come anywhere near this precipice again.