Donald J. Trump will bear the banner of the Republican Party in November. There is a not insignificant chance that he could become President of the United States. Many Republicans are upset. As #NeverTrump dies with a whimper, woebegone partisans will soon turn to recrimination, asking themselves just how it all went wrong.
In the process, they will strain, eagerly, to cast the blame beyond themselves — to find scapegoats and straw men that somehow trump the terror of Trump himself. As this #BlameOtherPeople movement swells, some members may even jump through the cognitive hoops necessary to cast a clothespin vote for Trump, reasoning that the bigoted insanity of their nominee is not really the fault of themselves or their party. Instead, they will say, it is simply the consequence of being dealt a bad hand. Nothing to do but make the best of it and hope, next time, for better luck.
We should not let them off so easy.
Although the catalyst of the modern tea party movement was surely the quixotic 2008 campaign of the fiercely libertarian Ron Paul, it found its traction in the summer of 2009, as Obama’s ambitious legislative agenda was mired in the bog of Congress. This movement of opposition to government overreach was quickly seized by discontented Republican lawmakers and fading Fox News personalities, eager to regain relevancy and refresh their brands. They began to beat the drum on everything from “death panels” to amnesty to the unspeakable horror carbon emission credits. They wielded the dog whistle of the “other” (for it helped immensely that the president was black), slyly reminding voters that the president and policies were un-American; alien.
To watch Hannity or O’Reilly was to feel, night after night, that every aspect of your life was besieged by government forces beyond your control, led by a creature intent on reducing all “traditional” pillars of American society to ash. These wealthy entertainers likely did not believe a word of it. But it was fantastic for ratings.
The 2010 midterms were a drubbing. Republicans picked up 63 seats in the House — the biggest flip since the anti-Truman backlash of 1948. The successive waves of new arrivals were uncompromising in their eagerness to not compromise (lest we forget, they tried to drive the Treasury off a cliff in 2011; in 2013, Ted Cruz shut down the government for 16 days at a cost of $2.2 billion dollars, largely because he could). But the establishment was also in on the game. Congressman Joe “You Lie!” Wilson, who heckled Obama in a 2009 joint address to Congress, had been in the House since 2001. Speaker John Boehner exploited the Tea Party dumpster fire for years, kneecapping most of Obama’s proposals out of the gate and refusing, even after Obama’s strong re-election performance, to an inch.
But it wasn’t enough. The blaze grew brighter. This seething mass of populist rage, gorged for years on Republican obfuscation and Fox News vitriol, could not understand why all the things promised to them had not come true. In 2014, their wrath claimed Boehner’s deputy. A year later, Boehner himself crumpled. It was testament to how far the Republican Party had drifted that this uncompromisingly conservative leader left Congress as a disgraced turncoat and “moderate.”
And throughout it all, Trump was watching.
It would not be a great leap of “Trumpology” (a stupid term that sadly exists) to suggest that, as Republicans co-opted Hannity talking points as their new policy positions, their politics oozed into the same pool of black-and-white morality and bald-faced showmanship that had made Trump a household name. In other words, Trump — listening to a steady stream of Fox News diatribes and watching angry white voters get duped for two, four, six years straight — spied opportunity. His view was reaffirmed after his bizarre 2011 adventure into “birtherism” and his dispatch of private investigators to Hawaii. His outrageous claims were given months of free press by Fox News; they were embraced by an embarrassing number of voters; they were met with hardly a peep of opposition by moderate Republican lawmakers, scared as they were of the new Republican base. The truth and good politics had split paths completely.
And so Trump leaped into an imposing 2016 Republican primary field “more qualified” than any in recent history. He was a laughingstock who crushed the Bush dynasty under his foot; short-circuited neoconservative darling Marco Rubio; even shredded Cruz to ribbons, once the Tea Party’s own flesh and blood. Trump did it by being louder and brassier than anybody else. He twirled the media around his finger. He avoided policy, because it was irrelevant. He even ignored the truth, because it no longer mattered.
Trump did not corrupt or sabotage the Republican Party. Rather, he saw precisely what the party had become — all the anger and hostility that “party elders” had cultivated for eight fertile years — and took it to its logical conclusion.
Who is to blame for Donald J. Trump? It is the right-leaning pundits who boiled the facts until they had no meaning; the Republican politicians who churned public discontent for their own gain; even much of the #NeverTrump movement, who happily rode the tidal wave until they realized, too late, that it would destroy their houses, too.
I felt inclined to write this after reading two good essays on the current state of American politics, either of which could be hijacked by #NeverTrump-eters to shift blame away from the cynical behavior in which they were fully complicit. In the first, Emmett Rensin rightly criticizes the smug state of American liberalism (enter Trump apologist: he wouldn’t be the nominee if Obama and you lot hadn’t been so insufferable). In the second, Andrew Sullivan diagnoses several intriguing causes for Trump’s rise — a pliable media, unemployment due to automation, democratization via the internet — without mentioning the party establishment in anything but wistful terms (enter Trump apologist: this was all completely, 100% beyond our ability to control). These are interesting points. But they do not at all explain why Donald J. Trump is the Republican nominee.
I predict, once the dust has settled, that many #NeverTrump recriminations will turn to President Obama. They will assert, in arguments that will sound extraordinarily seductive to a beaten Republican establishment, that Obama’s divisiveness led directly to Trump’s rise. If Obama had not played our countrymen against each other; if he had not made us weak; if he had not eroded our distinctly American values, they will say, Donald Trump would never have had a reason to run. To this they may even add: the best to avoid a Trump repeat will be to vote for him now — go ahead and get it out of our system.
This will, of course, be a Trump-worthy act of self-delusion. None but the cynical party itself bears the blame for Trump’s victory. Its path toward a brighter political future will begin with his defeat.