Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate. Photo: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate. Photo: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

Sean Ledwith considers Donald Trump’s ascendancy within the context of the history of the Republican Party and American power

Last week’s Republican Convention in Ohio turned out to be the grotesque debacle most pundits in the US were predicting. The fears of the establishment that Donald Trump has made the number one party of American capitalism a laughing stock in the eyes of many were confirmed by a grisly sequence of gaffes and squabbles. Trump’s wife, Melania, gave a vacuous speech that would normally have been instantly forgettable but for the fact it was blatantly plagiarised from one given by Michelle Obama at the Democrat Convention in 2008. A lowly speechwriter got the chop but the incident highlighted the amateurish and shambolic nature of Trump’s campaign team.

Governor of Indiana, Mike Pence, was presented as Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate but even he had to admit in his speech most Americans have never heard of him. The unsavoury bile and  aggression of the Convention delegates was graphically illustrated when any mention of Hillary Clinton was greeted with  hateful chants of ‘Lock Her Up!’

The most spectacular implosion came when Ted Cruz, Texas Senator and one of Trump’s former rivals for the nomination conspicuously failed to endorse him as a Presidential candidate. Cruz was lambasted with booing by delegates and his wife was forced to flee the arena with bodyguards. Cruz’s reluctance to publicly back Trump is understandable in light of the  latter’s deranged accusation that the Texan’s father was implicated in the assassination of JFK. This was just one of many unseemly spats between Trump and his Republican rivals over the course of the nomination process that have exposed the fractures within what, ironically, was traditionally known as the ‘Grand Old Party’ of US politics.

The rise of a gratuitously offensive buffoon to the leadership of  the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Eisenhower may seem bizarre and surreal but, of course, it does reveal something deeper about the current state of US capitalism and the challenges it faces, internally and externally, in the 21st century.

Republicans after WW2

The ideological trajectory the party has taken from the Second World War up to this point reflects how American economic and geopolitical power peaked in the first couple of decades after 1945 and has been on a downward curve ever since, albeit not in a straightforward manner. Many Republicans today fear a repeat of the 1964 election when Senator Barry Goldwater, on an unfashionably free market and anti-civil rights platform, was trounced by Lyndon Johnson.

It is a mark of how far the party has shifted to the right on the ideological spectrum that Goldwater would probably be regarded as not extreme enough by many of its supporters today. He was particularly irked by the rise of the Christian Right within the party in the 1980s and denounced those who had a problem with same-sex marriage or gays in the military.

Goldwater’s predecessor as Republican presidential candidate, Dwight Eisenhower, retrospectively resembles a centrist social democrat compared to the ravings of Trump. Eisenhower won two general elections in the 1950s with policies including a massive federal investment in the inter-state highways project, the expansion of Social Security and the minimum wage, and a commitment to enact an equal rights amendment in the constitution. Eisenhower also famously deployed federal troops to desegregate college education in the South at Little Rock in 1957 and warned of the rising military-industrial complex in his final speech as President

The iconic Brown v Board Supreme Court verdict of 1954 that initiated desegregation was also presided over by Earl Warren, a former Republican Governor. Even Richard Nixon, usually regarded as the worst President of the modern era, might seem  a paragon of enlightened rule compared to the current nominee. Nixon’s administration founded the Environmental Protection Agency, organised an official ‘Earth Day’ event  and expanded the affirmative action programme launched by his Democrat predecessors (symbolically, Trump’s 2016 platform includes a commitment to abolish the EPA created by Nixon).

Out of Many, One

Of course, it would be absurd to exaggerate the progressive aspect of these figures. Nor should we lose sight of their pernicious role in propagating the red-baiting political culture of US domestic politics at the time, and of authorising numerous military interventions around the globe to secure US power. The point, however, is that it is unthinkable that Trump, as the modern standard-bearer of the party, would want to be associated with any of these measures or with the political philosophy that informed them. Eisenhower’s Convention speech in 1956 would not have got far before the boos and hostile chants kicked in if he had made it sixty years later: 

Our Party detests the technique of pitting group against group for cheap political advantage. Republicans view as a central principle of conduct–not just as a phrase on nickels and dimes-that old motto of ours: “E pluribus unum”–“Out of many–One.”  Our Party as far back as 1856 began establishing a record of bringing together,. as its largest element, the working people and small farmers, as well as the small businessmen. It attracted minority groups, scholars and writers, not to mention reformers of all kinds, Free-Soilers, Independent Democrats, Conscience Whigs, Barnburners, teetotallers, vegetarians, and transcendentalists! 

Apart from the Latin allusion, Eisenhower also quoted the Norwegian playwright, Ibsen, in his speech. We will probably have a long wait to see Trump do either on the 2016 campaign trail. Eisenhower’s eloquent and finely crafted speech could not be further removed from the boorish and crass absurdities that routinely spew out of Trump’s mouth. Over the course of the primary election process, over the last few months he has managed – among countless other outbreaks of foot-in-mouth syndrome – to dismiss a critical female journalist as being motivated by her menstruation cycle; attempted to gratuitously impersonate a disabled person; promised to ban 1 billion Muslims from entering the US; accused  all Latino immigrants of being rapists and threatened to lock up women who opt for an abortion. How has the party of Lincoln and Eisenhower plumbed such depths? The Republican Party has somehow degenerated from ‘E pluribus unum’ to ‘Build the Wall ‘.

Trumpism before Trump

Trump’s stunning rise may appear to have come out of the blue but there have been significant indicators over the course of the Obama years that something ugly was stirring in the ranks of the Republicans. During the election campaign of 2008 that put Obama in the White House, Trump and other assorted right-wing cranks organised the ‘birther’ movement that absurdly claimed the former was not a genuine US citizen. The Republican presidential candidate that year, John McCain, was forced to name the unspeakable Sarah Palin as his running mate due to pressure from the embryonic Tea Party faction. One year later, Congress was stunned when a Republican Congressman screamed ‘Liar’ at the President as he was making a speech in the chamber, breaking a centuries-old protocol about not interrupting such an event.

Two years into his Presidency, Obama lost control of the House of Representatives to a Tea Party-inspired insurgency that deployed quasi-racist rhetoric to violently denounce the mild amelioration of social inequality that was performed by the Obamacare health insurance scheme. Two years later, Eric Cantor, one of the senior Republican leaders in the House was spectacularly dethroned by a hitherto unknown Economics Professor who claimed the party had gone soft on immigration.  Similarly,at the end of 2015,John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the House, was forced to step down  by the resurgent right of the party for supposedly  being too close to the political centre-ground. 

Even more insidiously, Republicans at state level have been steadily enacting measures designed to roll back the progressive tendency of US social policy over recent decades, particularly in the areas of abortion policy, gay marriage and union rights. Noticeably, since the Tea Party-inspired capture of the House in 2010, there have been more abortion restrictions passed at the state level than in any other five-year period since the historic Roe v Wade decision of 1973. Nearly one third of the restrictions that have occurred since that date have come since the 2010 elections.  Some of  the social conservative Republicans who have spearheaded these retrograde developments are not always enthusiastic about Trump but most of them have lapped up his bigoted,antediluvian rhetoric on abortion, immigration and gun rights.

From slump to Trump

The key factor in explaining the Trump phenomenon is to be located by identifying the contrast between the economic boom of the fifties and sixties, that allowed Republicans such as Eisenhower and Nixon to fund their expansive federal programmes, with the contraction that the US economy has suffered since 2008. Alongside the rise and decline of the US economy’s trajectory has been the emergence of new rivals on the geopolitical stage-primarily China-to challenge America’s superpower’s status which had been hegemonic since the fall of the USSR. In 1960, the last year of Eisenhower’s  administration, the US generated 40% of global GDP; last year it was down to less than half that figure. In contrast, the Chinese economy has been growing by about 10% since 1980 (although it has slowed down in the past couple of years).

A familiar theme of Trump’s overblown rhetoric throughout the nomination campaign has been attacks on China’s supposed currency manipulation and trade imbalance with the US. In one of last year’s Republican debates he referenced the country six times in the space of two hours. Typically, he resorted to insulting language on another occasion, using a mock Asian accent to impersonate the alleged Chinese negotiating style

Negotiating with Japan, negotiating with China, when these people walk into the room, they don’t say, ‘Oh hello, how’s the weather?’ So beautiful outside, isn’t it lovely? ‘How are the Yankees doing?’ Oh they are doing wonderful, great. “They say, ‘We want deal!’

Apart from this tectonic power shift among the great powers since the 1980s, the other major contributing factor in the rise of Trump has been the domestic impact of the recession that dropped on the US economy in 2008. The insatiable greed of the elite that was responsible for the bubble in the sub-prime mortgage market only slowed down briefly in the aftermath of the crash and, according to numerous empirical studies, has now resumed as if 2008 never happened. A report by the Economic Policy Institute last month noted: 

Recessions in recent decades have temporarily slowed income growth among the top 1 percent but they have not altered the basic pattern in which the rich have gotten much richer while nearly everyone else has seen income stagnate or decline. In all, the top 1 percent in the United States captured 85.1 percent of total income growth from 2009 to 2013. In 2013, the 1.6 million families in the top 1 percent made 25.3 times as much on average as the 161 million families in the bottom 99 percent.

Crude solutions 

Presidents such Eisenhower and Nixon represented a previous generation of Republican leaders who recalled the catastrophe of the Great Depression of the 1930s and understood the usefulness of expansive federal funding, social security and cooperation with unions as mechanisms for avoiding the intensive class conflict that had characterised US politics in the pre-WW2 period. They also enjoyed the economic benefits of the long boom after 1945, primarily generated by massive military spending, but which started to expire in the late 1960s.

As US economic and diplomatic hegemony continues to unravel in this century, it is inevitable that right-wing populists like Trump will continue to emerge and offer crude solutions to reverse the decline. Even if Trump is crushed at the polls in November – like Goldwater in 1964 – like minded Republican bigots will continue to hold a tight grip on the US political system at Congressional and state level. Trump is the ultimate incarnation of a post-recession plutocracy that has long since abandoned any pretence to social responsibility and now glories in its own greed and narcissism. If the US has become the wounded beast of the current geopolitical order, Trump perfectly expresses the snarling, ugly face of the beast.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters