It has become fashionable in some circles, including Democratic Party ones, to loudly and confidently proclaim the inevitability of a Trump 2020 victory if [progressive demon of the moment] continues to push for [progressive policy demon of the moment]. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the fashionistas’ favorite scapegoats, as are Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The pundits’ “thinking”is that ideas like the Green New Deal, raising taxes on the rich, and revamping our immigration laws are just too radical for mainstream Americans, who will inevitably shy away from this kind of “socialism” and vote for Trump once again. (Note to those who looove deploying “socialism” as a pejorative; you keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.)
That Trump will pick up votes from people who would have voted Democratic but for their distaste for some left-wing politician or policy is a predication both absolutely true and spectacularly inane. Every single contested election, from city constable to U.S. president, features voters who are far more motivated to vote against one candidate than for another; indeed, 2016 was the high-water mark of this very phenomenon. Yet Hillary Clinton is no more responsible for Trump 2016 than AOC would be responsible for Trump 2020. Trumpism is not a bug of the left, but rather a feature of the right. It is the successful culmination of a decades-long effort by the Republican Party and Republican presidents to push America as far away from civil rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, and economic equality as possible.
“Well, I am a Republican, and I would run as a Republican. And I have a lot of confidence in the Republican Party.” – Donald Trump
When William F. Buckley founded the National Review in 1955 as the intellectual vanguard of the new conservative movement, two of its core principles were white supremacy and opposition to civil rights. In his infamous 1957 editorial entitled “Why the South Must Prevail,” Buckley asked,
Whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because for the time being, it is the advanced race.
Thus inaugurated the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” a hugely successful effort to convince white, southern voters to switch their party allegiance from Democrat to Republican by playing on their most racist fears. This strategy was candidly and horrifically summarized in 1981 by notorious GOP strategist Lee Atwater, during an interview he gave to political scientist Alexander Lamis, while Atwater was working in the Reagan White House.
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Lest one thinks white supremacy was the only culturally regressive weapon the GOP employed to wrest power away from Democrats in the ’70s and ’80s, the Republican party also gleefully demonized pregnant women, LGBTQ, HIV-AIDS patients, welfare recipients, and of course immigrants in an effort to forge an electoral majority anchored in fear and loathing.
“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” – Mitch McConnell
The Republican party’s push to the extreme right was not simply a reaction to the progressiveness of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The fact that Bill Clinton embraced the “New Democrat” centrist model of neo-liberal economics and starkly reactionary racial politics which, including leaving the campaign trail in 1992 and flying back to Arkansas so he could personally glorify in the execution of a mentally handicapped African-American man, did not stop the GOP from trying its hardest to destroy him. As John McCain found out in South Carolina in 2000, even when there is no Democrat in the picture that can be accused of creating a “backlash,” Republicans will still resort to the vile racialization of politics in order to win an election. Finally, when it came time to defeat Obama, the GOP found no stoop too low or dog whistle too shrill. Never mind the fact Obama rose to national prominence as a post-partisan, “post-racial” patriot. Never mind his firmly centrist foreign policy agenda, or his cozy relationship with Wall Street. Never mind his Affordable Care Act was partly inspired by a Republican plan from the 90’s. None of that mattered. For the GOP and forces of white supremacy and reaction, Obama founded ISIS, joined Hezbollah with his wife, was a Kenyan, a communist, and a fascist. As McConnell so plainly stated, he had to be defeated by any means, at any cost.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s 1962 novel Mother Night, the character Howard W. Campbell, Jr. sits in an Israeli jail cell awaiting trial for war crimes. He was an American secret agent in Berlin during WW II, and was so good in his cover as a radio broadcaster for the Nazis that Hitler himself would glory in Campbell’s propaganda. At the end of the novel, after finally receiving a letter from the one person alive who could corroborate that Campbell was indeed an American spy and not a Nazi, Campbell decides to hang himself for “crimes against himself,” for becoming what he pretended to be.
From roughly 1968 – 2016, the GOP became so good at pretending to be something like Donald Trump that it became Donald Trump. It discarded dog whistles and southern strategies in favor of pure, white supremacy. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started the GOP on this path fifty years ago. They did not launch the war on drugs in order to criminalize being black in America. They did not produce the Willie Horton ad. They did not coddle a man who launched his presidency by identifying an entire nationality as a bunch of rapists. If Trump is still president on January 20, 2021, it will not be the fault of Democrats and progressives who have spent the last four years fighting and running against him. It will be the fault of the Republican Party, which has spent 50 years doing all it can to elect him.
– Joel Feinman