Donald Trump is forty four days from the end of his presidency. With his departure the easy ability of Republican candidates to capture the presidency will come to a whimpering whining end. Trump is not going to be back. With all the legal and financial problems he will face before 2024, his triumphant return is not to be.
We begin with Republican Ronald Reagan elected in 1980: To understand what has happened it is important to understand that the Republican Party inherited by Ronald Reagan had already begun its conquest of the old conservative Democratic South. In order to hold the conservative white South the Republicans became more conservative than they had previously been. They also became more “religious”. They had always been the party of Protestant religion but, by holding the South, their newfound religiosity drew even more fundamental religionists to them
The tie to the South also encouraged Republicans to downplay their strong connection with African Americans. Black citizens had traditionally been overwhelmingly Republican, particularly those who came north. After all they were in the North because Southern Democrats had treated them so badly. Ignored by the Republicans, they have overwhelmingly moved to the Democrats.
Republicans in 1980 had a much stronger connection with World War II than the voters of today. The war had ended, after all, only thirty five years earlier (the equivalent now of something happening in 1985). From their perspective the Axis threat had quickly been replaced by the threat of Communism backed by the Soviet Union. One enemy had replaced another.
For Ronald Reagan, the major purpose of his presidency was reducing or ending that threat. No expenditure was too great. For Republicans, still psychologically a minority after Roosevelt’s multiple election triumphs, defeating communism became their party’s reason for being.
Then in 1991, with Ronald Reagan’s former Vice President, George H.W. Bush in office, we won! The Communist Party in Russia had been driven from power. When Bush made the announcement during a State of the Union message there was a strange silence (Bush was clearly disappointed with their response). Republicans suddenly lost their reason for being. They hardly knew what to do next.
That was not surprising. Republicans had been free to talk about some social programs because they could argue that those programs had to be delayed in order to concentrate on the struggle with the Soviet Union and with Communism. They were also dedicated to cutting taxes for the well-off but, other than that, they had no real legislative goals.
What they did do after the Russian communist collapse was to try and find new enemies. They tried to stir fear of emerging China but had to give up when it became clear that the Chinese at that point had no way to get here. They went back to attacking socialism (it’s still big this year). They talked about mysterious enemies in our own government. It was difficult for them to avoid social programs unless they could summon up credible dangers elsewhere.
With that as background, think about Donald Trump. The talking heads will keep telling us that somehow Donald Trump was an inevitable result of what had gone before. It is true that there are an enormous number of people in the country, particularly outside big urban centers who are angry because they feel left behind. That is the direct result of Republican unwillingness to do anything to help them (making workers better off signals expense to corporate owners).
The truth is that any Republican candidate in 2020 would have avoided campaigning for real programs and would have held up imaginary enemies. And, having been fooled by the Republicans for years it is hardly surprising that those left behind would not turn to conventional Republican. Those people at the rallies did not think of Trump as a politician. They thought of him as a rescuer!
It was unfortunate that their “rescuer” was so pathologically self-centered that he could not help fooling them too. Even if Donald trump had actually cared about his dedicated followers, he didn’t have the ability to organize any real program and get it through Congress. Doing a program to lift up regions would have been much more difficult than focusing the powers of government on the pandemic. Members of Congress were frightened enough to have wanted to help. He still managed to fail utterly.
Still, with several hundred thousand dead, the narcissistic Trump was determined to run again. Frightened as they are of his devoted followers, most elected national Republicans are continuing, even now, to be publicly supportive of Trump’s election effort. Given all the problems and inequities revealed by the struggle with the pandemic, what is the content of their own political campaigns?
They talk about the threat of socialism (although most could not explain what socialism is). They talk about the radical left (no one knows what the radical left is). They talk about the horrible dangers posed by Antifa. There isn’t any Antifa! It doesn’t exist, but every little group of “radicals” think they will sound important if they are part of “Antifa”. After all those years, Republicans are still campaigning against imaginary enemies!
For Donald Trump it’s all over! With Biden in office Trump’s ability to threaten will recede because his followers will recede. Many of his rally goers were former Democrats, uninterested and uninvolved in politics until they became followers of the charismatic Trump and his excitement inducing campaign. Without him they will once more retreat from active political life. What will be left will be the more traditional cultural Republicans who may once more support a revived national party from below.
They will no longer be the majority party. They may lose a considerable number of Congressional elections. Depending on the success of Joe Biden and those who come after, we may find ourselves with a modern version of the kind of alignment we had before the “wrong turn”. The Democrats will become the major party and the Republicans temporarily at least in demographic minority. We will have returned full circle to where we left off. The forty year old wrong turn will finally have been righted. We can once more be on the march to join and, perhaps to lead, in the modern world.