While Trumpism is a complex phenomenon, there are three ideas or principles that are consistently present: First, that before Trump the G.O.P. was a political doormat, helplessly walked over by Democrats time and again. Second, that we live in a state of cultural emergency where the right has lost everywhere and must turn to politics to reverse this cultural momentum. And third, that in this state of emergency, all conservatives must rally together. There can be no enemies to the right.
Add these three ideas together, and you have a near-perfect formula for extremism and authoritarianism.
Let’s plug these principles back into my home state of Tennessee. What does it mean if a movement is convinced that its party has been weak and impotent? It means that “normal” politics is seen as a sign of weakness. In Tennessee, for example, in a more normal political moment, the Democratic lawmakers’ brief interruption of House business would have merited censure, or perhaps a suspension of committee assignments. But in the new world, “normal” is deemed weak. It’s imperative to be tough. The more punitive you are, the more you’ve signaled that this isn’t your dad’s G.O.P.
Many Democrats find the idea that Republicans were doormats before Trump to be utterly mystifying. National and state politics were extremely competitive before Trump. As Ballotpedia records, for example, before the 2016 elections, Republicans controlled 68 state legislative chambers, while Democrats controlled only 30. Moreover, at the national level, Republicans had performed exactly as well as you’d expect in a closely divided country. Congressional control flipped back and forth, and so did control over the White House.
Moreover, Republicans in power were hardly impotent. As I wrote in 2019, the G.O.P. was quite successful in passing economic and social legislation in red states (including hundreds of anti-abortion laws), and its presidents were no more and no less effective at passing federal laws than their Democratic counterparts.
The mistaken Republican belief that the party was ineffective before Trump is bad enough, but it’s made incalculably worse by the Trumpist right’s abandonment of limited government politics in favor of embracing an expansive view of state power that views right-wing politics as the last, best hope for a culture in otherwise irreversible decline.
In the Trumpist narrative, the G.O.P.’s previous weakness means that the so-called woke left essentially runs everything. It commands the heights of culture, of business and of education. It’s even making inroads into the military. Republicans who hamstring themselves with a limited government philosophy are on a fool’s errand. Political power must be wielded to bring the left in line. [Continue reading…]