The American political system remains a mystery to most outsiders and, well, most Americans too. It’s perhaps not quite the Soviet Union that Winston Churchill called “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”, but one question that’s still common, even in the midst of the Republican Party’s endorsement of Donald Trump, is how to explain where Trump’s popularity suddenly came from and, equally, where it might be headed. Wherever that may be, Trump appears to leave chaos, anger and division in his wake. That might be his legacy.
C.D. Jackson, President Dwight Eisenhower’s special assistant for psychological warfare and former publisher of Fortune magazine during the height of McCarthyism, noted that the American political system threw up characters like Joseph McCarthy, much to the bewilderment of America’s allies who feared for their alliance with an erratic superpower.
“We are bound to get this kind of supercharged emotional freak from time to time,” Jackson commented. When a senator goes on the rampage, he opined, there is no party discipline to stop him. “Whether McCarthy dies by an assassin’s bullet or is eliminated in the normal American way of getting rid of boils on the body politic… by our next meeting he will be gone from the American scene.” He was reassuring European political and business elites at a Bilderberg conference at McCarthyism’s height that American power was safe for the world and could manage such “supercharged emotional freaks”.
The key issue is whether Trump represents a tendency that will crash and burn or leave a longer term imprint on America’s political future. There is a deep anti-establishment strain in American history open to exploitation for personal ends at times of crisis. The political opportunism that harnesses that anti-elitist populism may be worked from the Left or Right but it should not be dismissed. There is something very deep at the root of the phenomenon that real leaders and politics must, ultimately, reckon with. What makes demagogues so effective is that they identify and work to crystallise and harness a widespread sense of something being wrong with the ‘system’ – a rigged system run by and for fat-cats and high ups at the expense of ordinary hard-working Americans. And at least some of those demagogue-led movements have left an indelible mark on American political life, for better or worse.
Trump’s rhetoric about enemies at the gates, or within the fortress itself – Mexicans, Muslims, echoes McCarthyite exaggerations of the influence of communists in all walks of American life, including among the pin-striped elite at the state department. Communists, like minorities, it was claimed, were eating away at America, ‘taking over the country’ and subverting its values. Yet, there was a lot more to McCarthyism than opposition to ‘communism’ per se – it was also, more specifically, a Republican movement aimed at extirpating the programmes of the New Deal – a programme of massive state intervention due to the 1930s depression – and the increased power of organised labour and the left more generally. Communism was the rhetorical enemy; the effective political enemy was left-liberalism which, by the late 1940s, also embraced the civil rights agenda – racial equality.
Trump has taken McCarthyism and its techniques to a new level. Not only is he a more effective orator than McCarthy, he is also a master of modern media manipulation methods, part of which he owes to his years of hosting The Apprentice. In addition to his short attention span, and off-hand outbursts that seem to divert right-wing media, he also owes a debt of gratitude to McCarthy’s political aide, the late Roy Cohn, a brusque New York City lawyer.
According to Cohn’s partner, Trump was Cohn’s apprentice: “I hear Roy in the things he says quite clearly,” said Peter Fraser. “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.” Cohn also taught Trump how to keep himself in the media’s gaze by constantly making headlines with exaggerated claims and refusing publicly to back down. And, like McCarthy, Trump argues that the enemies of the American people reside at the very pinnacle of power – in the person of President Barack Obama, the ultimate liberal, minority un-American.
A Barry Goldwater ‘extremist’?
Unlike McCarthy, who soared in the US Senate for a few years but plummeted once he attacked the integrity of the American military and brought anti-communism into disrepute, Trump is the Republican nominee for president. In that regard, perhaps a better comparison might be Barry Goldwater?
A right-wing conservative, Goldwater, who opposed civil rights legislation, went down in a spectacular defeat to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964 – with the latter winning 61% of the votes and 486 electoral college votes (of a possible 538). He also divided opinion in the GOP establishment. Republican ‘moderate’ Nelson Rockefeller, like Ted Cruz with Trump, refused to endorse the nomination of Goldwater.
Current opinion polls – for what they’re worth – suggest Trump will lose to Democrat Hillary Clinton in November. But as conservative commentator George Will put it, “Barry Goldwater lost 44 states but won the future”. Within a few years, the Goldwater brand of conservatism became the battering ram that put an end to the liberal New Deal era and inspired Reaganomics as well as the politics of the George W. Bush administrations. And Goldwater championed a form of straight talk that Trump practices: “I think a guy running for office who says exactly what he really thinks would astound a hell of a lot of people around the country,” as Goldwater said. Eventually, Goldwater uttered the lines that ultimately condemned him as too dangerous to be in control of America’s nuclear weapons: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” The extremist label stuck and brought down Goldwater in 1964 but future Republicans crafted a new politics as a result of lessons learned. Trump’s convention speech suggested extremism in the defence of US interests is acceptable.
And therein lies a key lesson: Goldwater won five southern states on a conservative platform attacking racial equality that led to the development of a winning ‘southern strategy’ under Richard Nixon. Despite likely defeat in November, could Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric, male chauvinism and appeal to sections of a disenfranchised white working class provide a model for a future Republican ascendancy?
A George Wallace-style one-man wall?
Trump employs a mixture of McCarthyite smears, Goldwater’s straight-talk, and pro-segregationist George Wallace-style xenophobia. Wallace ran as an independent presidential candidate in 1968. A firm believer in racial segregation, and law and order, Wallace’s America First foreign policy has echoes in Trump’s rhetoric. Wallace promised to take US troops out of Vietnam if the war was unwinnable within 90 days of his taking office. He also declared foreign-aid money “poured down a rat hole” and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their own defence. At home, he stood as a one-man wall, barring the doors of the University of Alabama to black students. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” was his rallying cry.
Making a deal with party elites?
Unlike some other maverick candidates, however, Trump appears willing to build bridges to party elites, and the feeling is broadly (though not exclusively) mutual. Trump’s choice of vice presidential running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, signals the way back into the good books of GOP elites. “Someone respected by the establishment and liked by the establishment would be good for unification,” Trump commented adding that he did like the “unification of the Republican Party”, despite a campaign of vilification of practically everything for which party elites stand for. Pence tried to illegally ban Syrian refugees from settling in Indiana, is a staunch defender of the pro-gun lobby, voted against healthcare reform, supported tax cuts to the wealthy and large corporations, capped the minimum wage for the low paid and is an enthusiastic union buster. In short, he’s a darling of the Republican elite, a label Trump now desires for himself. But GOP grandees like the Bushes have refused to attend the convention, while several delegations refused to endorse Trump’s nomination.
The danger for Trump is that he’s got to where he is by defying party leaders, and rejecting the conservative model associated with smaller government and lower taxes – something that his white working class base roundly rejected in the primaries. Pence is a tea partier, hardcore social conservative who’s religious freedom bill would have permitted bosses from refusing employment to gays. The ‘rigged system’ that Trump has railed against has just worked its magic and lured the maverick into the GOP’s embrace. Trump desires power more than he cares for the views of the voters who propelled him to presumptive nominee. He’s doing a deal. The betrayal of his political base has already begun, whatever he may say about reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act to split investment from savings’ banks.
Newt Gingrich, arch-conservative and former speaker of the House of Representatives, suggests that Trump is unique in the annals of American politics – “Donald Trump has been in politics now for slightly over 12 months. It’s unbelievable.” That may be true but, like Wallace, Trump’s popularity seems to be the spasm of a dying movement and demographic, the death throes of a racial system that has an uncertain future. The demographics of America, heading towards a white minority nation, and the ‘racial’ re-distribution of world power condemns Trump, and Trumpism, to a slow but lingering death. But it can still exert real influence as the passion, alienation, inequality and revenge that fuels it is unlikely to be fully extinguished.
It is not another boil that can be removed from the American body politic but the remnants of a racialised white identity politics driven by the deeply felt loss of “their” country. It may never be more than an angry and vociferous minority but it will remain a force in the political fabric of American politics and, possibly, the basis of a new political organisation of the white radical right. Even more dangerous is the prospect of this newly-empowered faction’s permanent installation in the upper echelons of the Republican Party.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City University London.