It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (16 page)

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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The assumption that the post-Trump American political system will revert to standards of normalcy that existed before Trump is yet another excuse Republicans use to justify their support of him. It’s why Republicans are so desperate to assert that Trump has supported policy that any Republican president would have supported. This is like going to a wedding in which a gunfight breaks out between the groom and the bride’s family after vows are exchanged and dismissing the fatalities because the ceremony had been legally performed: “What counts is they were married, never mind the bodies in the church.” This is a view of government as nothing more than the sum total of bills passed or judges appointed, as if it were possible to assemble a human being from a collection of body parts. It completely ignores the true essence of a civil society that reflects the collective values and aspirations of a diverse country. In the Trump years, Republicans have sent a message that lying is useful and productive, racism is acceptable, the press is the enemy, and a strong-man authoritarian head of government is the ideal.

It’s unfair to blame Trump for how Republican elected officials have responded to his candidacy and election. Each had a choice, and in overwhelming numbers these officials made a personal choice to support a man each knew was wildly unqualified to be president. It’s a familiar pattern, and every Republican can wish upon an American exceptionalism star and it means nothing.

Some version of this story has repeated itself throughout the world over the last century, with a cast of political outsiders, including Adolf Hitler:

Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, came to power on the same path: from the inside, via elections or alliances with powerful political figures. In each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would
contain
the outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politicians. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making.
25

For me, much of this is personal. I helped elect so many who now support Donald Trump, and I know, because I know these men and women well, that they find Trump repulsive and a degradation of their life’s work and espoused values. And yet they support him, knowing on some level that it is damaging to every civic value they have previously held. There is a mutually self-reinforcing abandonment of any sense of higher duty than serving the political moment. It is a contagious failure of responsibility masked under whatever ludicrous cover story the Republican Party is pushing at the moment.

For decades, Republicans fought the culture wars because they believed that culture defined a society. Now they wake up every morning and rush to compete in the embarrassment derby that is their daily fare, striving to find new ways to defend the indefensible. Few are naive enough to really believe what they say, but the palace of lies is a comfortable mansion with many rooms. They lash out whenever one of their own tells the truth, like Justin Amash, because the simple power of honesty melts their world like ice on a hot stove. They tell themselves that the alternative is unacceptable: that if they don’t support and encourage a man who assaults women and lies instinctively, they will soon find themselves facing the red armies of socialism and the country will start to look like…Sweden. There is nothing new or particularly interesting about this deceit. Republicans are linked to a vast life-support system of lies, terrified that the truth will unplug the machine.

American history has never seen a party so unified in perpetuating a massive fraud. This isn’t the action of a rogue president like Watergate but a deliberate, calculated decision for a major governing party of the most powerful nation in the history of the world to join hands and deny what they know is true: that Donald Trump is a threat to the country. At its root is an acceptance of a betrayal of their country that they try to disguise by suppressing those in their ranks who put their country over their party. These people don’t hate America, but they are weak men and women who decided long ago their self-worth was determined by winning elections. One of their favorite refrains off the record to reporters is that it would have been much worse had they not intervened. What will the lasting impact be of their collective failure? No one knows, of course, but I suspect they are knowingly or unknowingly destroying the value of center-right government for generations to come. And that would be under the best-case circumstances. This was their moment to stand for something, and they chose to stand for reelection. Let us remember.

8
THE EMPIRE'S LAST STAND

It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting.

—Tom Stoppard,
Jumpers

The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is a vastly wealthy, powerful force. Though there is no mention of parties in the Constitution, these conglomerates have come to be the most powerful forces in our democracy. Each party is a multibillion-dollar industry that, like any powerful business, will respond when threatened. The greater the threat, the more desperate the reaction. Though no one inside the Republican Party likes to admit it, a deep fear lurks in the heart of the party: a fear of the future. The Trump obsession with immigrants from Mexico and Central America is motivated by his own racism, but it also reflects the knowledge that every new nonwhite voter in America is a threat to the existence of the Republican Party. How rapidly is America changing? Here's a snapshot of the 2020 electorate from the Pew Research Center:

In raw numbers, a projected 32 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote in 2020, compared with 30 million blacks. The population of Asians eligible to vote will reach an estimated 11 million in 2020, which is more than double the 5 million who were eligible to vote in 2000, accounting for 5% of next year's electorate.

Taken together, this strong growth among minority populations means that a third of eligible voters will be nonwhite in 2020, up from about a quarter in 2000. This increase is at least partially linked to immigration and naturalization patterns: One-in-ten eligible voters in the 2020 election will have been born outside the U.S., the highest share since at least 1970.
1

If the Pew projections prove accurate, this will mean that the white vote has declined from 77 percent in 2004 to 68 percent in 2020. That's a huge decrease. And when coupled with the drop in Hispanic support for Bush of just over 40 percent in 2004 to Trump's likely target of between 25 percent and 30 percent in 2020, it's, well, problematic for Trump and all Republicans. I still believe Trump should be favored in 2020 due largely to his overwhelming financial advantage now that federal funding for presidential campaigns has ended, but the demographic hill will be harder to climb. Looking ahead, in a joint project with the Center for American Progress, American Enterprise Institute, and Brookings Institution, simulations were run of future elections from 2020 to 2036 based on likely demographic trends and past history of performance by each party. Their model runs three different scenarios, from most favorable to each party to least favorable. Each has Republicans losing the Electoral College from 2024 to 2036.
2

These trends have been evident for over two decades, and as someone who has sat in the room for five presidential campaigns and tried to figure out how to get a Republican candidate over the 270 mark, the math has been increasingly oppressive. The obvious choice for the party was to expand its appeal beyond white voters. That diagnosis was as obvious as telling a patient with lung cancer to quit smoking. But at the same time, Republicans were taking steps to change the electoral math by making it harder for nonwhites to vote. In this, they were continuing a long tradition of efforts by powerful white politicians to remain in power by suppressing votes.

Today a group of oddball conservatives such as the former convicted felon Dinesh D'Souza—pardoned by Trump—go to elaborate efforts to defend the Republican Party by pointing to the segregationist history of southern Democrats.
3
For decades during the Jim Crow era, there was no functioning Republican Party in the South, and, yes, segregationists like Mississippi's senator James Eastland were Democrats.
4
But to focus on their party label is to miss the point. Whether they had a
D
or an
R
by their name meant less than having a big
W
by their name,
W
for “white.” The white power structure has a long history of making it more difficult for blacks to vote, from poll taxes to literacy tests to violence. My home state of Mississippi developed what became the blueprint of efforts to exclude black voters with the 1875 Mississippi Plan. It was an effort by whites to reclaim power lost after Reconstruction, when blacks were allowed to vote for the first time. A new state constitution was adopted in 1890 that required payment of a poll tax and the ability to read and interpret any section of the Mississippi State Constitution. There was little pretext of the broad intent of the new constitution; it made interracial marriage illegal and mandated separate schools for blacks and whites.
5
Similar laws were soon adopted in other southern states.

Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act, which made Jim Crow voter-suppression laws illegal, was the defining moment for the modern Republican Party. That year 93 percent of blacks voted for Lyndon Johnson, and the die was cast that has led the Republican Party to evolve into the predominantly white party it is today.
6
As the percentage of the white electorate steadily declined, the Republican Party faced an existential choice. Was it possible to change such that it could attract more nonwhite voters, or would it go down the road of using every means possible to fight the demographic trend of declining white voters by making it more difficult for nonwhite voters, particularly black voters, to participate in the election? This was a fundamental battle for the soul of the Republican Party. In July 2005, the RNC chairman, Ken Mehlman, with whom I had worked closely in the 2000 Bush campaign, went before the NAACP national convention and offered an apology for past Republican efforts to use race as a wedge issue with white voters: “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican Chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
7
As was noted in news coverage, Mehlman was referencing the so-called southern strategy adopted by Nixon. The Pat Buchanan–Kevin Phillips memo to President Nixon referenced in chapter 1 is the original document of what became the very successful efforts by Republicans to convert white Democratic voters in the South into Republicans.

But Ken Mehlman's was a lonely and largely ignored voice in the Republican Party. Among some of us who worked in the 2000 Bush campaign, there is something of a wistful parlor game wondering what a Bush administration might have been like, absent 9/11. His first major legislation was the education reform bill No Child Left Behind, which he signed with Senator Ted Kennedy looking over his shoulder. But that's a world that doesn't exist, and any chance for transformation of the Republican Party into the big tent it then espoused to be has been lost. While the RNC went through its exercise of analyzing the party's problems after its 2012 loss and made the obvious conclusion that in a country that was becoming less white, the Republican Party needed to become less white, Republicans across the country were also quietly but effectively taking steps to balance the electoral equation by suppressing nonwhite votes. It paid off. For the first time in twenty years, African American votes declined in 2016, with turnout dropping 7 percent from 2012.
8

By analyzing specific states where Republicans passed new voting laws, one can track the cause and effect of voter-suppression efforts. None of these laws blatantly admitted their true purpose—the country is not Mississippi in 1875—but it is disingenuous for Republicans to claim they did not know exactly what they were doing. Wisconsin is a state that Donald Trump won by 22,748 votes out of almost 3 million votes cast. In 2011, under Governor Scott Walker, the state passed a strict voter-ID law that U.S. district courts blocked. The premise for voter-ID requirements is to fight voter fraud, but those of us who work in elections know what the court concluded: there is almost no voter fraud in American elections. In his decision, Judge Lynn Adelman wrote, “The evidence at trial established that virtually no voter impersonation occurs in Wisconsin. The defendants could not point to a single instance of known voter impersonation occurring in Wisconsin at any time in the recent past.”
9
The ruling was challenged and a ferocious legal battle ensued, reaching the Supreme Court. Weeks before the November 2016 election, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin allowed the state to apply the voter-ID requirement. It is impossible to quantify exactly the number of voters who were discouraged from voting by the new law. But as Carol Anderson in her analysis of voter restrictions,
One Person, No Vote,
described it,

In Wisconsin, for example, black voting rates plummeted from a high of 78 percent in 2012 to less than 50 percent in 2016. In Milwaukee County, which is overwhelmingly African American, fifty thousand fewer votes were cast in a state that Donald Trump won by only twenty-seven thousand ballots.
10

After he won on November 8, 2016, Donald Trump became the first winner of a presidential race to attack the legitimacy of his own victory. Weeks after the election, Trump tweeted, “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
11
It's easy to dismiss this as another boastful lie from a pathological liar, like his claim on 9/11 that he now owned the tallest building in New York. But it's much more. Trump doesn't seem to realize that if millions of voters were actually illegal, it would invalidate his election, because it would be impossible to know for whom they cast votes. In Trump's mind—and it sadly reflects the minds of many Republicans—the assumption is that any illegal voters would be Democratic voters with the associated assumption that they must be illegal Hispanic voters. As a way of trying to justify voter-suppression steps, the Republican Party has invested heavily in the myth of voter fraud. The fraud is trying to convince the public there is voter fraud of any significance. I've worked in campaigns since 1978, and I don't know of a single race in which illegal voters were remotely a factor. Does some illegal voting happen? Sure, just as elephantiasis does occur in America. But should elephantiasis be the focus of the National Institutes of Health instead of cancer? Probably not.

None of the various voter-suppression tools employed by Republicans are overtly race based, if for no other reason than they would be illegal. But discrimination is a bad look—or at least it has been since the civil rights days. Before Donald Trump, I and many of my Republican consulting colleagues would have thought that any embrace of racism would alienate moderate Republicans. But those of us who made that assumption seem to have been wrong. The ability to rationalize the overt bigotry of “good people on both sides” has proven shockingly common among Republicans, who still support Donald Trump at more than 90 percent. But voter suppression doesn't need to rely on race-based formulas to work. The modern political calculation of suppressing non-Republican voters is not complicated. Those at the lower end of the economic spectrum are less likely to vote Republican. And those same people are less likely to have access to the basic tools of the middle class that most of us take for granted—like easy access to a polling place or government-issued ID. Implementing stringent voter-ID laws and reducing the number of polling places and/or reducing early-voter and vote-by-mail options disproportionately target voters who are less likely to be Republicans. Carol Anderson describes it accurately in
One Person, No Vote:

The devices the Republicans used are variations on a theme going back more than 150 years. They target the socioeconomic characteristics of a people (poverty, lack of mobility, illiteracy, etc.) and then soak the new laws in “racially neutral justifications—such as administrative efficiency” or “fiscal responsibility”—to cover the discriminatory intent. Republican lawmakers then act aggrieved, shocked, and wounded that anyone would question their stated purpose for excluding millions of American citizens from the ballot box.
12

In
The Politics of Voter Suppression,
Tova Wang draws a similar conclusion:

Until the second half of the twentieth century, the Democrats were the main culprits. Over the past fifty years, however, Republicans have most frequently and deftly employed election law and procedures to help their party win elections. As the country remains ideologically divided, and outcomes of local, some statewide, and presidential elections have the potential to be close, contemporary Republicans have made it a central part of their election strategy to enact laws and call for practices that will reduce turnout among those who tend to vote Democratic, at least at the margins—where elections can often be won or lost.
13

It's difficult for me to express how much it pains me that Anderson's and Wang's descriptions are exactly correct. Given the overwhelmingly white composition of the Republican Party, the efforts to make it more difficult to vote reflect much of the same instinct as the Jim Crow–era laws. Ari Berman described the impact of a poll tax in Alabama. The law was not specifically targeting black voters, but the impact was profound:

“When you pay $1.50 for a poll tax, in Dallas County, I believe you disenfranchise 10 Negroes,” Henry Fontaine Reese, a delegate from Selma, argued at Alabama's Constitutional Convention of 1901. “Give us this $1.50 for educational purposes and for the disenfranchisement of a vicious and useless class.” Reese represented what Ralph McGill of the
Atlanta Constitution
called “Black Belt thinking,” which infected not only Selma but so much of the South. After adoption of the 1901 constitution, the number of black registered votes in Alabama fell from 182,000 to 4,000.
14

It took the Twenty-Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in 1964 to abolish the poll tax:

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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