The violence in Charlottesville, the murder of Heather Heyer, and the emboldened public activities of white supremacists were another stop along a dark road growing darker. Yet the climate of racial fury engendered by Trump’s rise has a direct connection to a decade of Republican efforts to gain electoral advantage. As the structures of power that created this climate continue to evolve, the Republican Party’s eventual transformation into a truly fascist and white nationalist organization will become all but inevitable.
This claim may sound like hyperbole in a hyperbolic time, but all you have to do is look at what has already happened within the internal dynamics of the Republican Party and extrapolate logically from there.
For brevity’s sake, let’s ignore the party’s tortured past with racism. Forget Nixon’s southern strategy welcoming southern segregationists into the fold, forget Ronald Reagan announcing his bid for the presidency from Philadelphia, MI, where three civil rights workers were murdered, forget George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad, forget California governor Pete Wilson’s high-profile xenophobic tenure, forget W. Bush’s response to Katrina. Let’s begin with the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the warning issued by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security of the growing threat posed by white nationalist terror groups—a warning Republicans blasted as a political attack. The rise in white nationalist extremism could have been chalked up to the election of the first black president, but Republicans and their benefactors were busy dumping napalm onto a wildfire.
Led by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, the party made the cynical decision to oppose Obama’s entire agenda in the midst of a harrowing and dislocating recession. They embraced groups like Americans for Prosperity, backed by those cardboard-cutout billionaire villains, the Koch Brothers, which in turn fomented the Tea Party movement. Supposedly these groups were about tax and spending issues and had no racial agenda—or at least that’s what the National Review would claim every time crowds showed up with overtly racist signs. The fearsome animus of the 2008 election, uncorked by Sarah Palin’s embarrassing tenure as John McCain’s running mate, forewarned of a malevolent turn in Republican messaging: Obama was alien, a foreigner, a radical, a socialist, a Muslim—whatever fit in the moment. As a sideshow, a dipshit reality show host injected the “birther” conspiracy theory with fresh life and media attention every time it threatened to vanish into the dumber corners of the internet.
The Republicans rode this backlash to a stunning victory in 2010. White Americans saw in Obama the very real changing demographic nature of the country. Each presidential election cycle, the potential non-white electorate grows by roughly 2%. The Census Bureau estimates that the minorities will become 56% of the population by 2060. Minorities will become the nation’s majority. Given this, perhaps a resurgence of white identity politics was inevitable, but the way it manifested in the halls of power could have been averted.
Republican bigwigs have long talked a good game about the need to appeal to minority voters, to court conservative Catholic Latinos or reach out to black churches. Yet in the aftermath of its 2010 landslide driven almost entirely by white votes, it embarked upon a campaign of voter suppression. In state after state, demonstrably false allegations of voter fraud fueled laws meant to keep minorities, students, and the poor from voting. If the electorate didn’t like Republican ideas, the Republicans would pick and choose a more preferable electorate.
They also took the opportunity of their 2010 victories to gerrymander state and federal congressional districts into overwhelmingly white fiefdoms. This meant the (mostly) men who represent many of the reddest districts answer only to the most aggrieved white voters, which allowed for ever more radical right-wing victories in primaries. Thus each subsequent election cycle saw increasing numbers of fringe characters and unbalanced individuals seeking office. To be sure, there was a lot of comedic material and schadenfreude along the way (think Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell of Delaware or Dave Bratt’s upset over House Majority Leader and bionic douchebag Eric Cantor).
After its ignominious across-the-board defeat to Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee issued the now-famous post-mortem identifying the party’s weakness with minority voters. It then came close to cooperating with the president on comprehensive immigration reform, but the virulently right-wing House wasn’t having it, and in 2014, yet another round of red meat campaigning brought McConnell to power in the senate. Finally, in 2016 the most fringe candidate of them all stole this hollow husk of a party. Donald Trump won because Republicans had fed their voters a steady diet of outrage, conspiracy theory, lies, and race-baiting for eight years of Obama. Trump has nothing in common with the average suburban or rural white voter except they both watch Fox News and resent the same things; they are enveloped in the same insane epistemic bubble.
Trump may have capitalized on these trends with more explicit racial appeals, but demographically, the GOP was already facing an existential threat.
To be clear, even if congressional Republicans grow a spine and impeach Trump tomorrow, the underlying logic and the momentum of the racialist agenda will still make it difficult to interrupt.
It’s not just recent voter ID laws, the closing of polling places in minority neighborhoods, and other flagrant (and successful) disenfranchisement measures. America’s dystopian carceral state has been fueled, in part, by state lawmakers eager to excise black voters from the rolls. According to the Sentencing Project, these laws have culled 6.1 million voters, including 1 of every 13 black citizens. In the key swing state of Florida, 21% of adult African-Americans are barred from voting. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote, though all of the congressional districts home to prisons include the incarcerated in their census counts—the odious Three-Fifths clause updated for the modern era.
The existence of Washington D.C. is itself a racist disenfranchisement policy. Though it has a population greater than that of Wyoming and Vermont, it still has no senators nor a voting representative in the House. This is obviously because the actual population is overwhelmingly black and Democratic.
As North Carolina and Texas have found out, courts can see right through the newest attempts to create modern-day poll taxes, literacy tests and districts gerrymandered for the white voter, but the courts are rapidly changing as a slew of new far-right judges breeze through the Republican confirmation process.
This leaves the party with nowhere to go. The GOP’s electoral health now relies almost exclusively on disenfranchising minority voters and more forward appeals to a shrinking white base. Its candidates have no other path to power.
Even though Fox News acted as state television during the Bush era and as one long smear campaign during Obama’s time, these days it’s actually fairly moderate for a right-wing media outlet. Breitbart News has been ascendant, pushing the limits of decency and reality at every turn. Alex Jones, a snake oil salesman and conspiracy theorist, elbowed his way into the mainstream through the beneficence of one of his most avid viewers, Donald Trump. NRA TV produces YouTube-quality videos for Millenarian gun enthusiasts with clear white nationalist themes. Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of TV stations in the country, acted as a communications arm of the Trump campaign and recently purchased Tribune Media to become the largest TV news broadcaster in the country.
These right-wing propaganda machines will continue to one-up each other to win viewership. Watch a couple hours of Fox or scan the stories on Breitbart, and it doesn’t exactly require an English PhD to see the subtext. These outlets have taken to stoking the fear of the Other full-time.
The problem with feeding this beast, as the GOP has happily done, is that it only gets hungrier, and it only gets harder to stop shoveling chum at it. You will begin to hear your white family members express attitudes and opinions you once would’ve found unthinkable, fed by competing outlets hustling to keep up with the pack. New voices will emerge, each one more bombastic and True Believer than the next.
One of the most alarming developments of the Trump era has nothing to do with Trump but with Republican leadership. There is a direct line from the House GOP’s weaponization of the debt-ceiling to Mitch McConnell’s attempts to ram through an Obamacare repeal in the Senate. The former was a jaw-dropping abuse of power, when a small faction of the hard right attempted to take the U.S. economy hostage in order to extract policy concessions from the Obama administration. Now that it’s been done once, it will become a consistent weapon for authoritarian-minded pols looking for a shortcut to policy victory. Trump himself could threaten a default if he does not get his border wall. Meanwhile, McConnell’s absolute trashing of all Senate norms in order to push forward a disastrous and unpopular bill shows where we’re headed. Trump continues to demand that McConnell destroy the legislative filibuster as he did for the judicial filibuster so Republicans could appoint Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Rest assured, if McConnell doesn’t end the filibuster, some future Republican senate leader will. The other wild card is the Supreme Court itself. If Trump or Mike Pence can get another far-right judge in the next three years, it will tip the Court towards authoritarianism for a generation.
On the cultural front, during the past year of Trump’s improbable rise, we’ve been introduced to a hilarious cast of characters: buffoons, con men, shills, hacks, and sycophants. Yet it’s the nativist, neo-fascist ideologues, the Steve Bannons, the Sebastian Gorkas, the Stephen Millers who have been awarded the largest prize.
David Duke is resurgent. Richard Spencer, a young, wealthy white supremacist, who can effortlessly relate barbaric ideas in a calm, disarming manner is on his way to becoming a household name. Who will be the first Republican candidate to appear in a picture with him in order to signal to the primary audience? Are we sure Spencer himself couldn’t win a senate seat in Texas or Louisiana, where his family has roots?
Roy Moore, a promoter of the birther conspiracy who believes Keith Ellison should not be able to sit in congress because he’s Muslim, may very well be the next senator from Alabama. Kris Kobach, who helped draft Arizona’s gruesome deportation law SB 1070, and who’s the head of Trump’s “voter fraud commission,” will likely be the next governor of Kansas. Following his pardon, American ethnic cleanser Joe Arpaio will become a serious candidate in any Arizona Republican primary.
All this is to say nothing of “alt-right” acolytes currently filling up the ranks of College Republicans. As its radicalization grows, this feeding tube for the GOP will turn off its typical ranks of pasty, pro-life suburban kids and attract fearsome idiots and cunning racists. This political moment is breeding a generation of ambitious storm troopers while detestable young ideologues like Stephen Miller will become major players in Republican circles for the rest of their lives.
Of course, there will remain a cuticle-thin patina of multicultural, big-tent respectability. The rise of a truly white supremacist party will be aided and abetted by a rainbow coalition of accommodationists. We already had a preview of this when Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin and Economic Advisor Gary Cohn stood behind Trump as he gave his rambling defense of the “very fine people” at Charlottesville. The Asian-American woman and two Jewish men chose not to resign nor impede Trump’s nightmare of a presidency in any way.
The African-American senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, and the Latino senators from Texas and Florida, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have grumbled that they’d prefer white nationalism not be a thing, but they’ll never stand up to Trump or his base in any meaningful way. Nikki Haley remains comfortable serving the president at the UN as does Ben Carson at HUD. Though he got turned down for a job in Homeland Security (not because he tortured people, but because he plagiarized) Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke remains a potent public figure. Omarosa continues to serve as a political aide in the White House—a sentence likely first conceived for a discarded joke in a Jay Leno monologue.
No doubt as the party becomes ever more explicit in its racist, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic appeals, it will recruit ambitious and unscrupulous women, Jews, and people of color as decorative baubles for a frightening revanchism. Meanwhile, we probably do not yet know the name of the most dangerous individuals, the ones who will use the infrastructure of Republican politics to advance a previously unspeakable agenda.
For lack of a better term, let’s call the current Republican platform of steroidal supply-side economics the Ryan Agenda, after the Speaker of the House who has been the “intellectual” “force” behind it. Backed by Koch money, the agenda has one primary goal: cut taxes for the richest of the rich. There is no nuance to this. During the attempt to repeal Obamacare, every analysis pointed out that each version of the bill had little to do with healthcare and everything to do with cutting billions of dollars of taxes for the wealthiest people on the planet.
Of course, there’s not actually a huge voting constituency for the Ryan agenda. No one but millionaires, billionaires, and their ideological mouthpieces want to privatize social security, block grant Medicaid, turn Medicare into a voucher program, and cut home heating oil subsidies. If they do, it’s solely because of an implicit racial appeal.
Go back to the last Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his remarks on 47 percent of the country. This “takers versus makers” paradigm uses the image of welfare queens, gangbangers, and Mexican drug dealers to make the case for stripping programs like Medicaid and food stamps and anything else that can be propagandized as a government handout advantaging minorities. Few would support the Ryan agenda without the specter of an unworthy Other from whom government benefits must be stripped (tellingly, Republicans never go after the home mortgage interest deduction or the tax write-off for private jets; their small government fanaticism extends only to programs that benefit the poor, the marginalized, the non-white).
And this is how a more classical fascism will take root in the GOP, because it’s doubtful there are many compromises Capital would not be willing to make so long as the agenda of short-term profit continues to advance. Merck CEO Ken Frazier faced Trump’s Twitter wrath following Frazier’s resignation from The White House Business Council, and even more brouhaha erupted when several other CEOs followed suit, but this is all such cheap theater. Did Frazier announce that Merck would no longer donate to the campaigns of politicians that support Trump? Did he express regrets about the $1.6 million his company spent to influence the 2016 election, the majority of which went toward electing Republicans because they are the most eager deregulators? Of course not.
Capital, in the form of Wall Street, in the form of enterprising plutocrats like Ron and Rebecca Mercer, in the form of corporations like Under Armour and Campbell’s Soup will eventually make their peace with whatever radical racial politics erupt. The corporate state and the moneyed elite who suckle off its diseased tit have nowhere else to go. They will continue to buy what influence they can in the Democratic Party, but the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders suggests that this is not safe territory for them. In order to ensure the state continues to serve the interests of corporate profit, these institutions will have to accede to whatever insanity bubbles up from the ranks of the Republicans. Furthermore, look to the example of Arizona’s SB 1070, which was written in part by private prison companies. There is a lot of money to be made in a police state—not just by private prisons, but by the already booming national security-industrial complex that began raking in huge profits following 9/11.
A truly fascist political movement will be great for the bottom line.
This all may sound over the top—as it always does when a nation’s politics take a sharp turn into unprecedented territory. Do you think we’re the first people to ever try to tell ourselves, “Things will go back to normal eventually”? This is about the slow, intractable logic of decisions already being made and trends already under way.
There are basically only two ways the Republican Party can avoid becoming a de facto fascist, white supremacist organization. The first is a robust challenge to Trumpism from within the party itself. This would require not just impeachment, removal, or a primary challenge in 2020 but independent conservatives running third party candidacies in states and congressional districts where the most ideologically frightening people win primaries. It would require spoiler candidacies and honest outreach to minority communities in the form of policy, not just photo ops. In short, it would require a civil war within the GOP to step back from this cliff. Let’s just say I find this scenario highly unlikely. Political courage is already in such short supply these days, but it’s particularly absent in the Republican caucus. The craven, gutless acquiescence to Trump will make up whole chapters in history books.
The second possibility is that in 2018 and 2020 voters hand Republicans such a brutal electoral rebuke that it changes the party forever. I have real doubts that a free and fair election will actually occur. With their monopoly on government, Republicans have chosen to, of course, degrade protections from election hacking, restrict access to voting in 17 states, and empower Kris Kobach with a national scheme to repress the vote. It’s not out of the question that violence breaks out at the polls or some other excuse is concocted to curtail elections, which, apparently, Republican voters would be okay with. Another wild card is the role of Russia and its attempt to globalize right-wing animosity and export its brand of repression, human rights abuses, and kleptocratic rule.
But let’s say a two-cycle landslide does occur. What then? Democrats and their allies must, at minimum, win back state houses to overturn voter suppression laws and reduce gerrymandering. More likely, what’s needed is a new Voting Rights Act with a nationalized effort to protect the integrity of the ballot and extend the vote to marginalized communities. New laws to check the Presidents ability to pardon, to hire and fire in the Justice Department, and to launch nuclear weapons should also be on the table. At the end of this road is the elephant in the room: taking on the insidious influence of big money, which creates fertile ground for fascism and white nationalism to take root. Even before Citizens United, the situation was bad, but the last three election cycles have proven that the reign of dark money will continue to turn our democracy into a sick global laughingstock.
If neither of these paradigm shifts occurs, we know what to expect, because we’ve seen it before. Even after Trump is long gone, candidates will rise to prominence with hot rhetoric and noxious policy notions. Anti-immigration measures will grow harsher, law enforcement will operate with even greater impunity, and brutal crackdowns on voting, protest, the media, and other democratic institutions will follow.
When we reach that point, even with History’s warnings, our journey will be over uncharted land.