by Michael Liss
“In every country there must be a just and equal balance of powers in the government, an equal distribution of the national forces. Each section and each interest must exercise its due share of influence and control. It is always more or less difficult to preserve their just equipoise, and the larger the country, and the more varied its great interests, the more difficult does the task become, and the greater the shock and disturbance caused by an attempt to adjust it when once disturbed.” —Henry J. Raymond, Editor of the New York Times, January, 1860 (as quoted by Allan Nevins).
“We don’t win anymore. But we are going to start winning again.” —Donald J. Trump, just about any and every day, 2015-16.
The monster is loose.
Donald Trump is done with keeping quiet. It’s possible you might not have noticed the buttoned-up, reserved Trump (I’ve heard it compared to the Higgs boson), but worry not; it’s no longer relevant, and you won’t be seeing it in the future.
Trump wants to be Trump, and he’s tired of people telling him he needs to appear more substantive, more Presidential. So he shook up his campaign, demoted the controversial Paul Manafort (who subsequently resigned), elevated the pollster Kellyanne Conway to campaign manager, and made Stephen Bannon the campaign’s chief executive. Conway is an operative who previously worked for Ted Cruz and has good contacts with the conservative base. But Bannon is the real prize, and the one who raised eyebrows, and a little fear, even amongst Republicans. Bannon runs the influential and persistently inflammatory conservative outlet Breitbart News, which has recently closely coordinated with Trump’s messaging. And Breitbart takes no prisoners. Wild speculation, innuendo, and hyperbole are its stock in trade, and if you are in its sightline, expect to lose.
Trump has made a decisive choice. He will do what got him the nomination. Back to his fastball: an unscripted (but obviously deliberate) stream-of consciousness mélange of pugnacity, promises, patriotism, law-and order, and a firm, unkindly hand towards those who are undesirable because of their origins or political beliefs. He will occasionally throw in a kinder, gentler Donald because he’s retained slash-and-burn types to act as surrogates, but the core Trump message will remain intense and in your face. That’s who he is, a hammer in search of a nail.
This is actually a very smart move, a businessman’s move, and the freak-out from his fellow Republicans misses the mark. Trump isn’t like other politicians. He doesn’t do “pivot.”
Will it work? Will the country turn towards the Trump message, recognizing, as it should, that it represents a major departure from every modern President, all of whom at least articulated a broader vision? Pat Buchanan tried a very similar approach to Trump in the 1992 GOP primaries, and while it got some traction, it fell way short, even amongst Republicans. Worse, Buchanan’s burn-the-house-down speech at the convention was thought to have damaged George H.W. Bush’s chances for reelection.
Of course, that was 1992, well before even the introduction of the iPhone, and the country has changed. Winning, taking it all, has become far more important. Confrontation is both esteemed, and enforced by a proliferation of scorekeepers—special interest groups, think tanks, talk radio, websites.
The paradox, and the beauty, of the Trump candidacy is that it is the apotheosis of this extended show of anger and disdain—but remains detached from the GOP that nurtured and fertilized it. The Donald is not really a Republican. He’s a Party of One, campaigning as himself for himself.
It has been fascinating to watch the party professionals and the conservative intelligentsia go through a grieving and adaptation process. Clearly, there is first an emotional component to this—can they really embrace this much “Trumpiness” in all its enraged peacock glory? The columnist Michael Gerson, who was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter and a senior policy advisor, has written that Trump has a “humanity problem” and that his intemperate language and approach “are not violations of political correctness. They are violations of human decency, revealing serious moral impairment.” His harder-edged colleague, Marc Thiessen, agrees that Trump lacks character—but he says Hillary is worse, so it is irrelevant. The difference between the two is revealing. A Trump-dominated GOP would be difficult for Gerson to bear—he would feel exiled from his natural home. Thiessen, on the other, has a flexible morality depending on the identity of the sinner.
There is also an intellectual/policy debate occurring. Trump isn’t really consistent with conservative values on a host of issues—but the most relevant to “Reagan Republicans” are his views on trade and foreign policy. His rejection of the American approach to the post-WWII order of security treaties like NATO, foreign aid, and measured expression of military power has alarmed so many that more than 50 (Republican) members of the foreign policy establishment have said they are supporting Clinton. And Trump isn’t getting consistent support from the ordinarily pro-GOP business community. Businesses love favorable legislation—but they prize open markets and a stable environment even more.
In truth, it’s questionable how much, at least for this election, these defections actually matter, because most of the GOP Establishment is going along with it and providing the infrastructure Trump needs. Even Gerson had to frame his ethical concerns in political terms—Trump’s “humanity problem” was causing the GOP to lose the under-35 voting cohort by a huge margin, perhaps permanently—and that’s why it needs to be addressed. Not just because it’s wrong.
Gerson is tilting at windmills, and unless Trump goes absolutely nuclear (metaphorically, we hope), it’s doubtful that GOP will be altering course over the next ten weeks. What they are planning to do is be agile—embrace Trump where his message resonates, while allowing endangered incumbents to distance themselves when necessary. They have to be figuring that Trump is considered such an outlier that, win, lose, or mixed, he won’t define or guide the future of the party—they will. Trump is just going to be that white-knuckled trip on the roller-coaster that your girlfriend insisted on taking you on—scary, but in the end, harmless.
This may be wishful thinking. If he wins, Trump will still hate being handled. He will be rough on his opponents, regardless of what jersey they wear. If he loses, his insistence that defeat can only be the result of fraud and a rigged system will poison politics.
But that still doesn’t answer a seminal question—is Trump a symptom of something that has already occurred, a broad failure of leadership that might be corrected, or a harbinger of a greater electoral realignment that will involve both parties, since neither seems to have satisfactory answers to the questions that divide us?
There is a historical analogy, but it isn’t a comfortable one. The election of 1860.
What Henry Raymond saw in January, 1800, before the election of Lincoln, was a persistent failure of vision and political courage. In the ten years preceding, from the last great attempt at statesmanship, the Compromise of 1850, the country lurched from one wrenching crisis to another. We had “Bloody Kansas” and the Lecompton Constitution, John Brown, the Dred Scott Decision, Seward’s “Irrepressible Conflict” speech and Preston Brooks’ near fatal caning of Abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner (and subsequent canonization in the South). The Whigs ceased to be an effective political force early in the decade, and the Democratic Party was factionalizing by region. The balance of power between the states still tilted South—in both 1852 and 1856, the Democrats nominated pro-slavery Northerners, Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, but the South was reaching a point of no return.
Demography was a tide that was running against the South in a way that the Founders never anticipated. Every metric demonstrated much faster growth in the Northeast and Northwest—areas in which there were no or few slaves. The 1860 Census showed a one-third increase in population in just ten years, but only 2 million of the 8.5 million new citizens were in states that would ultimately constitute the Confederacy. The increase in the Northwest was startling—Wisconsin and Illinois doubling, Iowa trebling. And of the territories that would later become states, the fastest growing areas were those geographically less disposed to support slave labor. People were moving to places with land and opportunity, and away from the South’s agrarian ideal. Cold electoral calculation meant the South must inevitably lose representation in Congress in the next redistricting, and their leadership was growing ever leerier of any democracy they couldn’t control.
Economically, the South was also falling behind. Labor-intensive farming was taking its toll in the older states—Virginia and North Carolina, in particular, had soil fertility issues. Moreover, the South had not taken steps to diversify. Manufacturing output, represented in dollars, nearly doubled during the decade, with almost all of that going to free states. Business opportunities drew people to cities, and away from the South. Trade from the Northwest was shifting away from the South—shipments of corn, wheat, and pork grew exponentially to the North, all the while shrinking in the South.
What is peculiar about our thinking about the 1860 Election is that it is an inversion of what actually occurred. It was the Democrats who were more obsessed about slavery, because they had the disadvantage of trying to appease all regions. The Republicans were reasonably unified on that point, and were able to broaden their appeal. Their pitch spoke to more than race and slavery. In an eerie foreshadowing, they campaigned on three other ideas that have a remarkably contemporary feel: First, economic planks to suit each region—protective tariffs, agricultural colleges, and internal improvements. Second, both Democratic corruption and the manifest inadequacy of the Buchanan Administration. Third, assurances to emigrants from other countries that the Republicans would protect them from adverse legislation. Trade, infrastructure, immigrants, and race. Amazing that a century and a half later, we are still arguing vociferously about the same issues, just moving the chess pieces a bit.
The rest, as they say, is history, a sad history. The South made it clear before the election that it would not accept Lincoln. In effect, they no longer trusted democracy. Perhaps they implicitly took heed of an observation Nevins made in The Emergence of Lincoln: If you added the Lincoln and Douglas popular votes, you had a decisive public expression against the expansion of slavery beyond the states it was already in. And Nevins quotes an illuminating point by Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell, a Southerner, who noted that the grievances that the South most acutely felt were either not material or not remediable. On the one thing the South desperately wanted—an end to discussion about the slavery issue and resistance to its spread—the North could not yield. Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural Address, summed up the result “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”
The great, mythical monster, the Kraken, was loose—lured, as it always is, by the arrogance and foolishness of men.
Of that, we always seem to have an abundant supply. History has an uncomfortable way of repeating itself.