The rise of Donald Trump has generated a range of explanations for his electoral appeal. The most convincing explanations link his success to the actions and rhetoric that has been coming from the Republican Party since at least the 1990s. A more accurate description of this dynamic might be what I refer to as the “double backlash boomerang”. It is a two-step process, with “Trumpenstein” as the end product.
The first backlash was identified most poignantly by Thomas Frank who introduced us to “The Great Backlash” with his book What’s The Matter With Kansas. Frank described how the Republican Party, unable to attract naturally the white working class on economic issues given their pro-corporate agenda and country club constituency, resorted to cultural appeals that painted the liberals, and by association the Democratic Party, as arrogant and condescending elitists who look down upon the working-class masses with disdain for their attachment to God, guns, and traditional family values. Portrayed by Republicans as secular humanists intent on social engineering through government policies aimed at curtailing basic freedoms and liberty, liberals are more concerned with undeserving minority groups and immigrants than hard-working, God-fearing, Christians. This rhetoric served to both anger and mobilize a significant portion of the working class against the Democratic Party and in support of the Republicans.
What Pat Buchanan termed the “culture wars” has now become the routine, standard operating, Republican strategy of “stirring up the base”. Most recently it has involved increasingly outrageous charges against liberals who, it is claimed, are destroying the country from the inside. This strategy was ramped up further during the Obama administration, with the ever-present and not so subtle racist overtones, in the form of questioning Obama’s citizenship and his sympathies, and charging him with being a foreign agent and a communist dictator. The Tea Party movement, cultivated and funded by the Koch brothers, was the most visible manifestation of this “ginned-up” base. This described the first backlash, which has been fairly successful in fueling Republican electoral support among a segment of the white working class.
But the ultimate electoral purpose was to advance the economic agenda of the corporate elite. As Frank argues: “Cultural anger is marshaled to achieve economic ends. And it is these economic achievements — not the forgettable skirmishes of the never-ending culture wars — that are the movement’s greatest monuments. The backlash is what has made possible the international free-market consensus of recent years, with all the privatization, deregulation, and de-unionization that are its components. Backlash ensures that Republicans will continue to be returned to office even when their free-market miracles fail and their libertarian schemes don’t deliver…”
And any chance that the culturally wooed working class would return to the Democratic Party is undermined by the fact that the Democrats, for their part, are equally complicit in joining the “free market consensus”. This neoliberal economic agenda introduced under Reagan, privileging the needs of capital over labor through lower taxes, weaker unions, deregulation, and a far less generous welfare state, was deepened and normalized under Clinton (see NAFTA, welfare reform, repeal of Glass-Steagall), continued with a vengeance under Bush II, and largely left in place unabated by Obama despite its direct role in creating The Great Recession that he inherited. The neoliberal consensus, driven by the bipartisan addiction to corporate campaign contributions, has left the working class with no party representing their interests. Instead of a class-based appeal through alternative pro-labor economic policies, which would alienate their corporate backers, the Democratic Party has developed a codependent relationship with the Republicans using their own cultural and identity politics to attract the educated white-collar professional-managerial class who is likewise mobilized in opposition to the crude and intolerant cultural values advanced by the Republicans.
Abandoning the working class, as Frank puts it, has been the “criminally stupid strategy that has dominated Democratic thinking” since the 1970’s.
So as the 2016 primary season kicked off, you have the mass base of the Republican Party ginned-up and angry, continuing to suffer economically, unable to turn to the now-despised liberal Democrats, yet wanting to “Take Back America”. But they do not see the Republican establishment responding proportionately to the purportedly grave threat to the American way of life posed by Obama and the Democratic Party. If everything they have been told by Republican politicians and Fox News is true, how come the Republican Party has not taken the drastic actions required to stop and halt the clear and present danger? Instead, the Republican establishment, despite the incendiary rhetoric, is perceived as too willing to accommodate and compromise with, rather than aggressively attack, the identified source of American decline.
Thus, the second backlash is unleashed as the base turns, en masse, toward a Donald Trump, in hostile opposition to the Republican Party institution, with Trump promising, through appeals to cultural chauvinism and economic nationalism, to “Make America Great Again.”
Originally fueled by the first Great Backlash, we are witnessing more broadly the boomeranging blowback from years of cultivating dog whistle racism, misogyny, xenophobia, bellicose nationalism, anti-intellectualism, know nothingism, and generalized rage. In short, the Republican Party has spawned a custom-made constituency for the neo-fascist demagoguery of Donald Trump.