THE SPEED at which the Right is mutating is nowhere more evident than in Donald Trump’s America. One has only to examine the tensions within the American Republican Party to get some measure of its disarray. In spite of controlling all three branches of the federal government, the Republicans have never looked more fractious. Fewer and fewer on the right are convinced that politics-as-usual is any longer capable of delivering the changes they seek.
The American experience is far from unique. Across the world, rightists are rejecting the argument that political power is accessible only from the centre. Increasingly, right-wing leaders and activists are turning to ideas and traditions long considered moribund, disreputable – or both. The era of monolithic parties, held together by monolithic ideologies, has ended. By twisting a campaign rope out of many ideological strands, Trump was able to lasso the White House and hog-tie the institutions of American democracy.
It was not always so. For many decades, American political scientists fondly assumed that the average conservative voter in the United States was an essentially benign creature. Conservatives affirmed the verities of the Christian religion and the traditional values which flowed from them. They believed fervently in individual liberty, the sanctity of private property and the virtues of untrammelled capitalist enterprise. If asked to sum up their political philosophy in a single sentence, they would, likely as not, repeat some version of Thomas Jefferson’s claim: “The best government is that which governs least.”
What conservatives were most emphatically not assumed to be, were malignant enemies of freedom and progress. The Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower cleaved proudly to the founding principles of the American republic. On occasion, Republicans had even been known to fight for them.
This “progressive” conservatism was, however, always more apparent than real. It required the constant effort of newspaper editors, party grandees and intelligent presidential aspirants to robe the naked prejudices of conservative Americans in the togas of small-r republican virtue. So long as the means of political communication remained in the hands of these political elites, the vicious ideas and aspirations of small-town America could be filtered out of their betters’ lofty political discourses. No one gave much thought to what might happen to right-wing politics if technology advanced to the point where every citizen could become their own publisher.
Even in the Internet Age, the idea that the President of the United States might dispense altogether with the services of the elite media and communicate directly with his electoral base via social media remained unthinkable – until Trump started tweeting.
Political scientists are aghast at the intellectual chaos manifested every day in Trump’s utterances and tweets. They, along with the political journalists they taught, are utterly unable to make sense of the President’s communications. It’s as though the myriad crazy notions of the American Right have been gathered together in a huge basket (let’s call in Fox News!) into which Trump reaches every day for inspiration. The results are as incoherent and self-contradictory as they are illustrative of the astonishing ignorance and credulity of the “ordinary” American citizen. To the educated, the credentialed, the experts, it simply makes no sense.
But it does. It makes perfect sense. The only way to prevent the Right’s “rope” from unravelling is to ensure that every strand receives equal care and attention. It doesn’t matter that Trump’s electoral base is composed of racists, homophobes, misogynists, fundamentalist Christians, Islamophobes and out-and-out fascists; as well as hard-line neoliberals, climate-change sceptics, union-busters, flat-taxers, economic nationalists and Ayn Rand libertarians; so long the dearest hopes and darkest fears of each component of this bizarre coalition continue to be encouraged by their President.
The other thing that the political scientists and mainstream media pundits, the Hollywood celebrities and TV comedy show hosts, don’t understand is that they are the people who keep the Right’s rope tight. The more they disparage and deride Trump and his “deplorable” followers, the tighter they wind it around themselves: the harder they try to pull the Right down, the more closely the separate fibres of Trump’s eclectic coalition are drawn together.
The Republican Party is no longer an ideological and organisational monolith and it lacks anything remotely resembling a coherent plan for “making America great again”. The billionaires who back it have almost nothing in common with the marginalised men and women of the rustbelt states who secured Trump’s victory. Except this: their hatred for the Democratic Party and their media allies.
While the Democrats and the mainstream media keep the Right’s rope tight, the Republican Party’s disdain for politics-as-usual will grow – and so will the President’s.