We hear a lot about the consternation of the Republican Party “establishment” as a result of the rise in popularity of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Worse yet is that one of them could become their party’s candidate for the presidency. It seems that long-time power players and office holders have been caught by surprise. But it really shouldn’t be a surprise. We can see how the Republican Party has brought this upon itself, with, of course, a little help from President Obama and a largely vacuous press.
Here are a few reasons why Trump and Cruz are so attractive to a great many people in the Republican Party “base.” The first is mostly a natural consequence, while the others have resulted in more of a self-inflicted reverberation.
Firstly, these two men tend to attract those people whom social scientists refer to as “authoritarians.” The concept of an authoritarian personality is not exclusively applicable to politics. It’s more fundamental. But the associated traits do affect political leanings. And not all Republicans or conservatives are authoritarians, but many are—and they are drawn to leaders like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
An authoritarian personality is characterized by a tendency to understand most all things in terms of absolutes and to fit them into tidy categories. Such as, good or evil; Or government programs are always wasteful; One race or culture is superior to all others; Illegal immigrants come for government hand-outs; Poverty is usually the result of a lack of initiative, etc. Authoritarians abhor nuance or ambiguity, rely heavily upon emotion and instinct, and tend to shun any new information that might compromise a strongly held belief (often a preferred belief). They are distrustful of outsiders and very passionate about defending their beliefs, their group, and their leaders. Two extreme manifestations of these traits are the Militia and Tea Party movements.
Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall to keep out Mexican rapists and drug dealers and to prohibit Muslims from entering the country are well fitted to these simplistic, xenophobic tendencies. Ted Cruz’s passionate claims of absolute good and evil, and the certainty of his antigovernment ideology make him attractive to the disaffected—those who feel put-upon by the strain of civic responsibility.
These are largely natural consequences—the products of basic, though regrettable, human nature. But the title of this essay refers to other reasons why so many people think that Trump and Cruz are viable candidates for the presidency. They are the unintended result of several decades of incessantly exaggerated and often false claims by, usually, the GOP and the “conservative” talking heads of radio and television, and by the cynicism and distrust of government fostered by the behavior of members of Congress.
For many decades the Republican Party was mostly the minority party in both houses of Congress. As the opposition party, members were free to criticize the actions of the majority without the responsibility of actually governing. The criticism of Democrats and government became particularly exaggerated with the rise of Newt Gingrich in Congress and Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the early 1990s. Even when Republicans took control of Congress in 1995, they were in opposition to the Bill Clinton presidency.
People often complain about how newly elected politicians change when they get to Washington. They invariably fail to do what they had promised. Of course, the reality is that when politicians are confronted with the requirements and the constraints of actually governing, they are usually unable to fulfill the unrealistic promises of their campaigns. Similarly, when Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the presidency in the 2000s, many people were disappointed with the result. They didn’t fix Social Security. They didn’t reign in healthcare inflation. They didn’t stop illegal immigration. They didn’t win the “culture war.” Most significantly, they not only didn’t shrink the government, they significantly expanded the size and the reach of government. As a result, something of a split emerged between the Republican Party “establishment” and so-called “true conservatives.” The stage was set for the Tea Party movement.
The financial crisis at the end of the Bush presidency, the Great Recession, and the election of President Obama only made things worse—much worse. The necessary bailouts of financial institutions by both the Bush and the Obama Administrations was puzzling to many. They felt like the fat cats were being protected at the expense of the average guy, and besides, they had long subscribed to the notion that government was the problem, not the solution. They didn’t like the bailouts at all, and they blamed the “career politicians” or “the establishment” of both parties.
When Republicans lost both houses of Congress and the presidency in 2008, they sought to channel that anger toward President Obama and the Democrats, and they largely succeeded. Here is where we can blame Obama. While pretty good at giving speeches, the president proved to be really awful as a leader and effectively communicating with those people whom he most needed to reach—the mostly working-class white men who didn’t vote for him. Not only has he been unable to competently wield political power in working with Republicans in Congress, he has enabled the opposition to control the narrative and to disseminate an abundance of disinformation.
Meanwhile, Republicans had little interest in working with the president. They just wanted to regain power. As President Obama began his term in the midst of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that his number one priority was not to rescue the financial system, not to create jobs or to restore the economy, but to ensure that Obama would be a one-term president. Subsequent events showed that sentiment to be widespread among Republicans in Congress.
In January 2010, Senate Republican Judd Gregg and Democrat Kent Conrad crafted a resolution to create an eighteen-member deficit-reduction task force to alleviate the national debt problem. The task force’s recommendations would be sent to the Senate floor for a “fast-track” up-or-down vote. The proposal garnered widespread bipartisan support, until President Obama offered his support too. Because it could have been politically beneficial to the president, Republicans changed their positions, including seven co-sponsors of the resolution who allowed a filibuster to kill their own idea. Fred Hiatt, of the Washington Post, wrote of Mitch McConnell’s change of position, “No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today. No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved. But here’s one that comes close.”
After serving as a Republican congressional staffer for some twenty-eight years—the last sixteen as a senior analyst for the House and Senate budget committees—Mike Lofgren resigned in exasperation in 2011. Among the many observations he revealed was this:
A couple of years ago a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) that there was a method to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government—i.e., the Republican Party—will come out the relative winner.
In 2011, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner negotiated a “Grand Bargain” in which a combination of tax increases and spending cuts would substantially reduce the deficit and avert a crisis over the debt ceiling. The package included entitlement reforms that Republicans had sought for many years, and which would have been difficult for Obama to persuade the Democrats to accept. The Grand Bargain was a grand compromise that would have been hugely beneficial to the nation, both immediately and long term. At the urging of Paul Ryan, however, Majority Leader Eric Cantor scuttled the deal primarily for two reasons—any tax hikes at all would taint their ideological purity, and they believed a compromise agreement with Obama might help his reelection.
The irony is that Obama was reelected anyway and Cantor was defeated in 2014 by a (Tea Party) primary opponent after radio personality Laura Ingraham, along with Ann Coulter, had accused Cantor of supporting “amnesty” for illegal aliens. Of course no one in Congress, including Eric Cantor, had proposed or supported amnesty. Such is the power of disinformation in American politics.
Disinformation abounds because the press has too often failed in its responsibility to inform the public of the facts. While partisan outlets, such as FOX News, MSNBC and Talk Radio, make great profit (FOX anyway) by offering their patrons ample doses of a preferred, but imagined, reality, legitimate press outlets find themselves wanting for viewers or readers. What Sarah Palin calls the “lame-stream” press is so afraid of being accused of a “liberal bias” that they merely report the claims of two sides of a debate without bothering to parse out and report the truth, even if the claim of one side or the other is dangerous or ridiculous. As Paul Krugman quipped, “if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet’.” And if FOX News repeated the claim often enough, a great many people would believe it.
The cynicism fostered by obstructionist members of Congress and the misconceptions fostered by disinformation from congressmen and conservative radio and television has produced an angry and misinformed portion of the electorate that is apt to believe the wildest claims—like Donald Trump’s claim that, as a better manager and negotiator, he can “make America great again” (as if America isn’t great now), or Ted Cruz’s claims that the national debt is a result of “Obama’s out-of-control spending” (the rate of growth in discretionary spending during the Obama presidency has been the lowest since Eisenhower), that climate change is a hoax, that “Obamacare is a job-killer” (unemployment has dropped from 9 to 4.9 percent since its enactment) and has caused premiums to “skyrocket” (medical inflation remains near historic lows), that “millions have lost their health insurance” (the uninsured rate is now the lowest in history), that “Blue Cross Blue Shield cancelled all their individual policies in Texas” (I still have one), that Obama has “degraded our military,” that the president “ignores our immigration laws” (Obama has deported more people than any other president), Syrian refugees are entering the U.S. without “any meaningful background checks,” and the truly idiotic claim that a flat tax is the remedy for an overly complex tax code.
To tap into a populist mindset by appealing to fear and emotion and to less educated voters, the Republican Party has taken to dumbing down its narrative and agenda, at times completely abandoning rationality. No longer the party of Barry Goldwater who brought Planned Parenthood to Arizona or George H.W. Bush who chaired a Republican task force on population issues, the party now acts as if abortion has little to do with unwanted or unsafe pregnancy. To protect coal mining constituents and to avoid regulation of any sources of greenhouse emissions, they deny the science of climate change. To protect their hold on ill-informed religious conservatives, they either eschew or deny the findings of evolutionary science. To attract gun “enthusiasts,” they pretend that gun ownership is a practical means of self defense, while stoking fear of gun safety laws. To avoid driving away xenophobes, they refuse to pass sensible immigration reform and, instead, cynically mischaracterize the character and aspirations of immigrants. In place of the intellectually sound party of Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol, the Republican Party has become the anti-intellectual party, where the word “elite” is a pejorative. It has become the party of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin (who is pretty sure that Paul Revere rode to “warn the British that they weren’t gonna be takin away our arms”), and now of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump.
Of course the Democrats have their own problems—problems that require wholly different explanations. Among them are, like on the Republican side, the primary process pulls them too far to the extreme, and so few Democrats are willing to go through the ordeal of running for president, they are left with two extraordinarily weak candidates. There is no shortage of Republican candidates, but because of the irresponsibility of their party’s culture, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that competent candidates are rejected while it is Donald Trump and Ted Cruz who are preferred by a substantial portion of their party’s electoral base.