Unless you have been living under a rock, you must have noticed that the Republican presidential campaign has been taken over by demagogues and right-wing lunatics. All establishment candidates are polling in single digits—for a combined total of less than 20 per cent. This has unleashed a panic in the herd.
The clear leader in the polls is a nativist fearmonger who is stunningly unpopular outside his Know-Nothing base. Right behind him, we have an ultraconservative with no less than a perfect rating from the American Conservative Union; the gold standard of conservative Congressional surveillance. Indeed, based on scores for donors, voting record and public statements, Cruz is as far right as it gets in American politics.
The Republican primary calendar is front-loaded with states friendly to the insurgents. Polls in Iowa show the front-runners in a statistical dead heat; while in New Hampshire, the demagogue has a comfortable lead. Trump and Cruz are quite likely to win big in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. They are also likely to consolidate their positions in the “SEC primary” on March 1, when a dozen, mostly Southern, states go to the polls. Due to the Darwinian effects of 15-20 per cent thresholds for earning delegates in many of these states, the field is very likely to winnow down to three, or perhaps even two, candidates. Indeed, the betting markets are predicting a three-way contest; with Rubio barely making it into the game.
Since these early states award their delegates on a proportional basis, number-crunchers at FiveThirtyEight argue that Rubio could still make a comeback later by prevailing in the winner-take-all primaries in Florida and Ohio that are presumably less sympathetic to the insurgents’ messaging. While this is a mathematical possibility, the Policy Tensor wouldn’t bet on it. The only way for Rubio to realistically make a comeback that late in the game is if Trump and Cruz split the early delegates evenly between themselves. If either acquires a commanding lead by March 1, Rubio is toast. Also toast, would be the GOP establishment. With 3-1 odds, that’s where we are headed.
As I see it, there are two ways to look at the unraveling of the Republican Party. One is from top-down, the other bottom-up. Let’s start with the latter.
MacWilliams finds that support for Trump comes largely from authoritarians. More precisely, people who say they want their kids to be respectful, obedient, well-behaved, and well-mannered are considerably more likely to support Trump than folks who want their kids to be independent, self-reliant, considerate, and curious. But the study does not examine the time-variation in the number of authoritarians or the intensity of their radicalism. Is Trump succeeding because the number of authoritarians has been rising? Or because authoritarians have become more polarized and more suceptible to demagoguery?
I suspect that the radicalism of the Republican base is not unconnected to the slow-motion race death of poor White America. First uncovered by Case and Deaton, who found a half-a-million excess deaths in 1999-2013, the issue has since been further explored by the paper of record. The Times found that the rise in death rates among Whites can be largely traced to drug overdoses. No doubt the narcotics epidemic is itself a symptom of the economic devastation of the hinterland; in no small part a result of the GOP’s policies since Reagan. As the United States rushes headlong into a two-tier society, the losing half is getting angrier and self-destructive. Angry White Americans are clinging ever harder to their guns and bibles. And they are more ready than ever to blame Mexicans, Muslims, and elites for all their ills. Enter Donald Trump.
The top-down picture is not just a story of the GOP moving to the right en masse. What we have is a radical insurgency within the insurgency that is the Republican Party. The insurgents have mounted an unprecedented challenge to the party establishment from the right. As far as I can tell, this has two distinct drivers. First, gerrymandering: The carving out of safe districts by both parties to create a House in which 90 per cent of incumbents get reelected. The flipside of safe districts are more competitive primary races that are decided by the party faithful and tend to push candidates away from the center over time.
Second, and by far the much more important, is the rise of ultraconservative activist billionaries. Campaign spending and lobbying were extremely important even before Citizens United unleashed the floodgates. By now, the GOP has become a billionaires’ free-for-all.
Newspapers speak of the “Sheldon suck-up fest” and the “Koch primary.” This is also manifest in the current campaign. Trump is a billionaire himself, as he never fails to remind us. Incredibly, ninety-five per cent of the $38 million of outside financing for Ted Cruz comes from literally three moneyed interests: A Texas real estate mogul behind Caprock Partners contributed $10 million; hedge-fund manager
Jim Simons Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies pitched in $11 million; and the secretive Wilks Brothers, who made their billions in the fracking boom, shelled out $15 million. We are well and truly back in the robber baron era.
Of course, these developments pose an existential threat to the GOP itself. In the short run, with either Trump or Cruz at the helm, it cannot hope to prevail in November. More omniously, Business is likely to desert a party that can neither hope to win nor be trusted to govern. What we are witnessing is nothing short of the final denouement of the GOP’s post-Reagan strategy that was based on the premise that angry Whites could be mobilized to support policies in the interests of the business class but otherwise ignored. Now that it takes just four billionaires to mobilize the entire base, it was only a matter of time before the whole strategy backfired.