Paul Pillar

Tribal Beliefs and American Political Parties

The Donald Trump phenomenon and the suddenly frantic efforts within the Republican Party to try to stop Trump have led some observers to believe American politics are at a major inflection point, one where a familiar line-up of political parties and their backers could be substantially revised. Even some commentators who generally support the Republican Party are talking seriously about the possibility of the party breaking up. There is some valid basis for such talk, given that this party has come to embrace positions and interests that have no business sticking together. The political coalition has more or less worked, but it has not rested on substantive logic. So a destabilizing iconoclast with just enough political cleverness, as Trump has, can expose the artificiality of it rather easily.

Foreign policy is not the main front on which the exposure is taking place, but it may be among the first places where exposure becomes too obvious to ignore. Neoconservatives, whose realization of their earlier plans, culminating in the launching of a major offensive war in the Middle East, was made possible by infiltrating the foreign policy of a Republican administration, already are looking for a new home. That process may accelerate if Marco Rubio loses the Florida primary. The fragility of this part of what has been the Republican coalition is demonstrated by how little Trump has had to do to cause the neoconservative alarm bells to sound. He has not even advanced a coherent alternative foreign policy to shoot down. All he has done is to stray slightly from neoconservative orthodoxy: pointing out that the Iraq War was a big mistake and—even though Trump declares himself to be a strong supporter of Israel—committing the sin of suggesting that impartiality would be advisable in a U.S. attempt to help to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

An even bigger disjunction represented by the Republican Party is between the economic interests of a wealthy elite and the fears, xenophobia, and social-issue fixations of the hoi polloi whose votes the elite relies on to put its preferred economic policies in place. Not only is there no logical, substantive connection between these two aspects of what has come to be the Republican agenda; the economic policies are contrary to the interests of most of the ordinary citizens who are casting the votes. In an era of secular stagnation with insufficient demand, many of those voters would be better off with fiscal policies different from what typically has been in the Republican agenda. The basic divide underlying this part of the Republican disjunction is between the one percent that provides the money to political candidates and that portion of the 99 percent that is the target of the campaigns that this money finances and who have been voting for those candidates. Trump, by not being beholden to the donors of money and making a big deal out of the fact that he is not, has been well placed to start tearing down some of the curtains that have covered this divide within the party.

The extraordinary political turmoil we are witnessing is not, as some of the stop-Trump activists would like us to believe, a contest of Donald Trump versus the Republican Party. Trump's candidacy has functioned as a catalyst, but the energy for the turmoil ultimately comes from collision of matter and antimatter that have been the different elements of the Republican coalition. That this is more about the party itself than about Donald Trump is reflected in how it has only been very recently that many within the party have started excoriating Trump, with most of those same people not having seen fit to do so earlier. The same Mitt Romney who made an anti-Trump speech this week was delighted to have Trump's endorsement in 2012. In the current campaign, it was only a few debates ago that some candidates (most notably Ted Cruz) were treating Trump with respect because they hoped to get his backers when his campaign finally failed. It was only after it became apparent that the campaign was not failing that the excoriation began in earnest and the race to the bottom reached the gutter that the contest for the Republican nomination is now in.

Fareed Zakaria sums up well what has been going on here: “Republicans have fed the country ideas about decline, betrayal and treason. They have encouraged the forces of anti-intellectualism, obstructionism and populism. They have flirted with bigotry and racism. Trump merely chose to unashamedly embrace all of it, saying plainly what they were hinting at for years. In doing so, he hit a jackpot.”