In the wake of Donald Trump’s nomination, Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi gleefully tramps the dirt down on the Grand Old Party. “Th[e] avalanche of verbose disgust on the part of conservative intellectuals toward the Trump voter, who until very recently was the Republican voter, tells us everything we need to know about what actually happened in 2016.”
At this point, the world doesn’t need any more bloviating and/or hot takes about the 2016 horse race — it’s already a cottage industry. And my hope going forward, in the “be-the-change-you-want-to-see-in-the-world” sense, is that GitM political posts will focus on policies over personalities. But, in the interest of old times and catching up on recent events, let me make a few points about that ubiquitous carnival bunker, reality TV buffoon, and now Republican nominee, Donald J. Trump.
Don’t get me twisted here: A Donald Trump presidency would be a catastrophic disaster for America. However liberal he was until very recently, he has made the calculated decision to run as an openly racist authoritarian, and exploit white anxiety like he’s the second coming of George Wallace. And, true, even if he isn’t a Fascist himself, he’s got white nationalists all happy and energized, and would do until the trouble gets here. But an actual, honest-to-goodness Fascist? No, not really.
Why make this distinction and even try to defend a jackass like the Donald on this point? Because I think it’s important to recognize that:
In other words, Trump is basically just pitching what the GOP’s always been selling — he’s the evolutionary Pat Buchanan. “Frankenstein’s monster” isn’t quite the right analogy here, because the Republicans didn’t “create” Trump, exactly. Rather, Trump is a con man who, seeing the grift at work over the years, decided to execute a hostile takeover of the GOP’s flim-flam operation.
Let’s take Trump’s open racism, which is vile, indefensible, repugnant…and pretty much par for the course from the GOP. Ever hear of the Southern Strategy? Or consider Saint Reagan. In 1976, the Gipper ran on reining in “welfare queens” and in 1980, he sang the praises of “state’s rights” (wink, wink) within spitting distance of the 1964 Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman murders. His successor, George H.W. Bush — the nice, statesmanlike Bush — won his election mainly by threatening a black rapist on every block under Dukakis. Just last cycle, those compassionate conservatives Romney and Ryan were happily dogwhistling about “takers,” “makers”, and the 47%.
(Dems aren’t immune to this sort of pitch either, of course. It wasn’t for nothing that, when he wanted to show he was a different kind of Democrat in 1992, Bill Clinton campaigned at a prison on Stone Mountain of all places. This picture from that event explains the optics of that ridiculousness all too well.)
Same goes for the authoritarianism. For a good half-century now, Republicans have gone out of their way to paint themselves as strongmen father figures who keep ‘Murica safe, and Democrats as bleeding-heart, touchy-feely wimps that are soft on communism, crime, and/or terror. We all remember George W. Bush strutting around an aircraft carrier in military fatigues while his campaign had John Kerry windsurfing like a brie-eating, Swift Boat surrender monkey. When his dad H.W. wasn’t race-baiting with Willie Horton in 1988 election, he was insinuating his opponent looked like a girly-man in a tank. Just this year, we had sneering Ted Cruz promising he would “carpet-bomb” Syria “back to the stone age.”
The point being, racism, authoritarian brow-beating, and catering to white grievance has been the GOP’s bread-and-butter for decades. Trump’s brand of evil is their brand of evil. The Donald just gave up the dogwhistle.
But that’s not all he gave up, and this is where the Trump candidacy gets interesting, and where he may spell doom for the GOP as currently constituted.
Instead, the GOP base seems to be motivated by Buchananism these days: the (correct) sense that the system has been rigged against them — stagnant wages, blue-collar jobs getting outsourced/downsized, the rich getting away scot-free with everything from not paying taxes to destroying the American economy — and the (deeply incorrect) feeling this is the fault of minorities and outsiders. On one hand, as the saying goes, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression,” which is why so many white people whine ridiculously about reverse racism. On the other hand, they are being screwed over, just like everybody else, by rampant inequality, a disappearing middle-class, and an eroding social safety net. Some (though by no means all) Trump supporters are feeling that pressure particularly acutely.
In any event, like southern Populists of old (Tom Watson comes to mind), Trump wrestled power away from the GOP Bourbons by tapping into the economic and racial grievances of angry whites, but then chose to blame minorities for those problems. It’s an age-old trick that got him through the white-people-only primaries, but, as I’ll get to in a moment, it will be his downfall in November.
Still, even after he gets his hat handed to him in a few months, Trump’s ascension could well mean a very different GOP from now on — less “conservative”, more nationalistic. While the freak show types who obsess over public bathrooms will always have a home in their little tent, there may well be less talk of Big Guvmint going forward, and more railing against free trade and outsiders. (But, if they maintain their current trajectory, even that will likely only buy them a decade or two.)
And, of course, Trump gamed the broken fourth estate like there’s no tomorrow, garnering $2 billion in free media as of March 2016 simply by being a loudmouth, racist, (and thus click-baity) douchebag. (Ten Dumb Things Trump Said Today – You Won’t Believe Number 4!) CNN in particular has been covering him like he’s the OJ trial unfolding on a missing Malaysian plane. And now that he’s the actual, honest-to-goodness nominee, the media will normalize every nonsense thing that comes out of his mouth — even flagrantly racist bunkum — all in the spirit of Fair and Balanced.
As I said back in 2011 of Trump and at various other times, this is what our broken, High Broderian “both sides” punditocracy does. It’s the same reason we have Paul Ryan, easily as much of a huckster as the Donald, among us these days, and why we get stories like (I kid you not) “Paul Ryan’s Greatest Weakness: Is He Too Smart To Be President?” Er, no, J.R., he’s not.
Anyway, the real upshot here, after the next several months of sturm und drang, is that:
Graham is right. The Californication I talked about after the 2010 midterms is, at least in presidential years, becoming inexorable. Last time around, Mitt Romney won white people by 20 points (59-39)…and still lost handily. The electorate is even less white now than it was then, and will only grow more so. Even Karl Rove concedes that white people alone can’t get it done anymore.
So, what did the GOP do? Their only possible chance in 2016 was to open the party to people of color — maybe a Rubio or Cruz could’ve gained some headway there, tho’ I doubt it. Instead, like alcoholics to the bottle, they chose to double down yet again on angry white people. Donald Trump is the inevitable result of their demographic implosion.
In any case, to be elected president in November, Trump would have to perform even better among whites than Romney did. That doesn’t seem likely. Trump’s numbers are horrible with women. He doesn’t seem to believe in using 21st century GOTV efforts. He’s extraordinarily thin-skinned and always one or two steps away from a campaign meltdown. And, if anything, his constant racism will energize Latinos and other minorities to come out against him in force.
I’ll go ahead and lay down a marker: This election is not going to be close. In fact, it’s going to be a shellacking. There’s only two conceivable ways, as I see it, that Trump could eke it out. There could be some sort of catastrophic event leading up to the election — a major terrorist attack or financial collapse or somesuch. Or the Democrats, for some reason, decide to choose a really, really unpopular candidate to run against him. And neither of those are going to happ…
(Nah, he’s still going to lose.)
So, with that in mind: Yes, Virginia, it is ok for the President of the United States to talk to schoolchildren. In fact, it should probably be considered part of the job. Ask Ronald Reagan. Or George Bush Sr. Or just consider the picture above, taken eight years ago next week.
As with his underrated take on Nixon, Stone mainly seems to want to understand, and thus humanize, Dubya here — Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his boots, etc. etc. And yet, while I found both the sentiment and the attempt laudable, I also think Stone may have missed the mark a bit here. In making Dubya so congenial (partly the fault of Josh Brolin, I guess, who’s both great and thoroughly likable in the role), and in putting so much emphasis on his daddy issues (more on that in a bit), Stone seems to absolve 43 of more than he should in the end. However oppressive the psychological burden of being a Bush, Dubya was ultimately his own man and his own president, and, lordy, was he a terrible one. However, generous Stone’s impulse in trying to understand Dubya, you can’t just pin all of the incompetence and misdeeds of the past eight years on a lousy, poor-little-rich-boy upbringing.
If you’ve ever read anything about Bush 43, the story goes as you might expect: After a brief intro in Rangers Stadium, we meet President George W. Bush (Brolin) and various advisors in the Oval Office, as they mull over the decision to go to war to Iraq in 2003. (Speaking of which, Cheney seems a bit too Dreyfussian to me, Jeffrey Wright’s Powell is far too heroic, and Toby Jones is too lithe and elfin — and not nearly porcine enough — to capture Karl Rove, but Thandie Newton’s nerdy, scroonchy-faced Condi Rice is both kinda cruel and scarily dead-on.) In any case, soon thereafter we flip back to Junior’s days at Yale, where the young dauphin spends his time drinking, frat-ernizing, and generally upholding the unyoked humor of his idleness. Basically, Dubya — crafty and streetwise, but too often convinced in the infallibility of his “gut” — is a good-natured screw-up of the first order, and he’d be the first to admit it, as he does time and time again to the long-suffering, emotionally reticent if otherwise indulgent “Poppy” (James Cromwell).
Yet, despite failure after failure, this good-timin’ man evenually manages to muster up one great success in his life by wooing a good-hearted woman, the lovely librarian Laura (Elizabeth Banks). And, after a literal come-to-Jesus moment at the age of 40 (that’s right, the bottle let him down), Dubya decides he will follow in Poppy’s footsteps and enter the family business of politics. But, will his parents ever take this prodigal son seriously, particularly as compared to the family’s one great hope, Jeb? And, even if they do, what lengths will Dubya go to alleviate his long-standing psychological issues with his father at this point? Would he, for example, start a war he thinks 41 didn’t finish?
Now, from Charlie Sheen choosing between his working-class hero pa and Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, to Mickey and Mallory Knox inflicting the consequences of their childhood/sexual abuse on unsuspecting bystanders in Natural Born Killers, psychologically overdetermined characterization due to daddy issues is usually as omnipresent as mystical shamans in Oliver Stone films. (Or, for the other side of the coin, consider Mother Mary Steenburgen as the Ghost of Quaker Past in Nixon, or Angelina Jolie hissing with snakes in Alexander.) And, by itself, the Poppy-Dubya emphasis doesn’t bother me all that much — Stone is at his best when he’s painting on a broad canvas and laying it on thick, and just as the “cancer on the presidency” that was Watergate lent itself well to the gothic, Fall of the House of Usher look of Nixon, the story of 41 and 43 is an easy target for Henry IV/Henry V-type overtones.
All that being said, can all the colossal mistakes and errors in judgment that have characterized the past eight years really just be attributed to the Dubya family dynamic? Stone tries to mitigate this notion some, I guess, by giving us an imaginary disquisition in the War Room on the World According to Dick Cheney. (It involves oil, Iran, and the embrace of empire.) Still, one mostly gets the sense here that Dubya is a regular, friendly fellow who’s just bitten off more than he can chew in an attempt to please his pop. Such a reading, I think, underplays Dubya’s own arrogance, his close-minded conviction in his own sense of the right, his Ivy League legacy-kid air of entitlement, his sniveling weasliness when caught in a pickle, and his habitual intellectual dishonesty. Put another way, I get the sense the real Dubya is much more of an unlikable jackass than Stone and Brolin make him out to be here, and you can’t just pin all that and Dubya’s constant sucking as president on Pop. I mean, c’mon now, dads don’t get much worse than Darth Vader, but Luke turned out ok (if a bit whiny like the old man.) Eventually, the man must stand — and fall — on his own.
Still, for all its wallowing in Freudian father issues, W does end on an enjoyably bizarre note, with Dubya writhing on the horns of existential crisis. (No wonder he started reading The Stranger.) Has the prodigal son succeeded beyond his father’s wildest dreams in Iraq, or has he forever shrouded the Bush name in ignominy? And how does one handle a situation like the one in Iraq anyway, where, unlike baseball (and bowling), there are no rules? For Dubya, it seems, the story ends at is has for him in most other situations — with him walking away with a smile, not looking back, and leaving someone else to clean up the godawful mess he’s left behind.
“In the race for the White House, lefties seem to have the upper hand. No matter who wins in November, six of the 12 chief executives since the end of World War II will have been left-handed: Harry Truman, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, the elder Bush, Clinton and either Obama or McCain. That’s a disproportionate number, considering that only one in 10 people in the general population is left-handed.” In the WP, authors Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt explain why all your Oval Offices are belong to us, the lefties. We also swelled the ranks of both my undergraduate and graduate cohorts, whatever that’s worth.
Dubya gets his damsel: Elizabeth Banks will play Laura Bush in Oliver Stone’s forthcoming W, with Josh Brolin in the title role. W starts shooting next month in Shreveport. As a admirer of Stone’s Nixon, I for one am looking forward to the finished product.
Update: Here comes 41. Stone casts James Cromwell and Ellen Burstyn as George H.W. and Barbara Bush respectively.
“‘I hear you’re looking for me,’ he said. ‘You wanna go mano a mano right here?’” In excerpts from his new book, Fall of the House of Bush, published in Salon, Craig Unger examines the ideological divide between Bush father and son and tells the true story of Dubya’s coming to Jesus. “One way of examining the growing crisis could be found in the prism of the elder Bush’s relationship with his son, a relationship fraught with ancient conflicts, ideological differences, and their profound failure to communicate with each other…According to the Bushes’ conservative biographers, Peter and Rochelle Schweizer, family members could see [Bush 41’s] torment. When his sister, Nancy Ellis, asked him what he thought about his son’s plan for the war, Bush 41 replied, ‘But do they have an exit strategy?’” This goes a long way toward explaining the elder Bush’s recent spate of (really depressing and hard to watch) public crying jags. (See also Joan Walsh.)
“‘We screwed up and left Saddam Hussein in power. The president [then George H.W. Bush] believes he’ll be overthrown by his own people, but I rather doubt it,’ he quotes Wolfowitz lamenting [in 1991]. ‘But we did learn one thing that’s very important. With the end of the Cold War, we can now use our military with impunity. The Soviets won’t come in to block us. And we’ve got five, maybe 10, years to clean up these old Soviet surrogate regimes like Iraq and Syria before the next superpower emerges to challenge us … We could have a little more time, but no one really knows.‘” According to Salon‘s Joe Conason, Wesley Clark’s new book suggests the existence of a smoking-gun 2001 memo that outlined in full the neo-cons’ delusional ambitions for the Middle East before the Iraq War. “‘Six weeks later, Clark returned to Washington to see the same general and inquired whether the plan to strike Iraq was still under consideration…”Oh, it’s worse than that,” he said, holding up a memo on his desk. “Here’s the paper from the Office of the Secretary of Defense [then Donald Rumsfeld] outlining the strategy. We’re going to take out seven countries in five years.” And he named them, starting with Iraq and Syria and ending with Iran.’ While Clark doesn’t name the other four countries, he has mentioned in televised interviews that the hit list included Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Sudan.”
“Forty percent of Americans have never lived when there wasn’t a Bush or a Clinton in the White House…Does a nation of 303 million people really have only two families qualified to run the show?” The AP’s Nancy Benac reflects on the Bush-Clinton problem with our politics. “‘I think we would be fundamentally healthier if we broadened the zone of candidates who could make it to the top,’ [presidential advisor David Gergen] said. Historically, politics has been open to newcomers who rise up to reflect the grass-roots sentiment of the country, Gergen said. That’s still possible, he said, ‘but it’s harder than it used to be, especially because it’s so hard to raise money’ for expensive national campaigns. The Clintons and Bushes, he said, have built up strong ‘brand’ recognition for their names.“
“I frankly think it’s a natural default from the failure of this advice of the people they had. It was impossible to argue anymore that some of the people who got us into this mess were giving good advice.” With Dubya’s White House in shambles, will Bush 41’s team ride to the rescue? Let’s hope so — I much prefer those guys to the militant neocon wing that’s been holding the reins the past six years. Still, as one observer pointed out: “Bush’s mind works differently from the normal political mind…Maybe these Baker guys can talk him off the ledge, but nobody’s done it yet.”