It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump (9 page)

BOOK: It Was All a Lie: How the Republican Party Became Donald Trump
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Magnet is neither a racist nor an ignorant man. In a chapter titled “Race and Reparations,” he acknowledged,

Two centuries of slavery and another of discrimination and segregation did indeed produce victims on a world-historical scale. Today’s black poverty is the most visible reminder of a history filled with equal measures of pain and shame on the subject of race.

But this fine and elegant mind looked around America in 1993 and concluded that the success of some blacks must prove that the institutional barriers to success for all blacks have been removed:

All this has meant that for years blacks have not been barred from the economic mainstream. What other conclusion can be drawn from the proliferation of the black middle class in the last quarter century? Though doors still remain to be unlocked, as a general principle opportunity is open for whoever wishes to seek it.
12

When I read this in 1999, did I really believe it? Twenty years later, after eight years of an African American president and the longest bull market in U.S. history, the disparity between white and black economic realities is staggering:

  • Black workers earn over $11,000 less annually than white workers.

  • Twenty percent of black and Hispanic Americans live in poverty, compared with less than 9 percent for whites.

  • The median wealth for white Americans is $171,000, compared with $17,600 for black Americans.

  • Less than half of black households are homeowners, compared with nearly three-quarters of white households.
    13

The comparisons stretch out in a depressingly long line. What is so unintentionally dangerous about the propositions asserted by Magnet and so many others like him is that they give an intellectual justification for an entire industry of hate that has come to dominate the Republican Party. Not many Americans know Myron Magnet or his work, but they know Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Alex Jones, Lou Dobbs, and an endless stream of professional nuts and cranks who roam the internet selling conspiracies, bitterness, grievance, and anger, in search of an argument. When Donald Trump tweets out a defense of “conservative thinkers like James Woods banned from Twitter, and Paul Watson banned from Facebook,” the immediate instinct is to burst out laughing at the image of a cranky old actor and a maladjusted British weirdo whose mentor is Alex Jones elevated to some intellectual standing.
14
But actually Trump is dead right: Woods and Watson are the conservative thinkers of the day.

Once you convince yourself that racism has been defeated and that the real problems in America are the crisis of the family structure, it’s a short walk to the impeached Alabama judge and defeated Senate candidate Roy Moore’s passionate claim that blacks were better off during slavery. America was great, Moore claimed, because “families were united—even though we had slavery. They cared for one another. People were strong in the families.”
15

Today the intellectual leaders of the Republican Party are the paranoids, kooks, know-nothings, and bigots who once could be heard only on late-night talk shows, the stations you listened to on long drives because it was hard to fall asleep while laughing. When any political movement loses all sense of self and has no unifying theory of government, it ceases to function as a collective rooted in thought and becomes more like fans of a sports team. Asking the Republican Party today to agree on a definition of conservatism is like asking New York Giants fans to have a consensus opinion on the Law of the Sea Treaty. It’s not just that no one knows anything about the subject; they don’t remotely care. All Republicans want to do is beat the team playing the Giants. They aren’t voters using active intelligence or participants in a civil democracy; they are fans. Their role is to cheer and fund their team and trash-talk whatever team is on the other side. This removes any of the seeming contradiction of having spent years supporting principles like free trade and personal responsibility to suddenly stop and support the opposite. Think of those principles like players on a team. You cheered for them when they were on your team, but then management fired them or traded them to another team, so of course you aren’t for them anymore. If your team suddenly decides to focus on running instead of passing, no fan cares—as long as the team wins.

Stripped of any pretense of governing philosophy, a political party will default to being controlled by those who shout the loudest and are unhindered by any semblance of normalcy. It isn’t the quiet fans in the stands who get on television but the lunatics who paint their bodies with the team colors and go shirtless on frigid days. It’s the crazy person who lunges at the ref and jumps over seats to fight the other team’s fans who is cheered by his fellow fans as he is led away on the jumbotron. What is the forum in which the key issues of the day are discussed? Talk radio and the television shows sponsored by the team, like
Fox & Friends,
Tucker Carlson, and Sean Hannity.

One of the hallmarks of the Trump era is the alacrity with which intelligent people embrace stupidity. As it was in Mao’s China with the Red Guard, it is a political crime in today’s Republican Party to appear well educated. So we find Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri tweeting a rant about “unelected progressive elites in our govt.”
16
The senator went to Stanford, taught at St. Paul’s School in London (founded in 1509), and graduated from Yale Law School. Senator Ted Cruz denounces “coastal elites who attack the NRA.”
17
Cruz was born in Calgary, Canada, graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law School, was a Supreme Court clerk, worked in the Bush administration, and is a former assistant attorney general. His wife was born in the coastal town of San Luis Obispo, California, and holds a BA from Claremont McKenna College, an MA from Université Libre de Bruxelles, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. She works as a managing director at Goldman Sachs. Heidi Cruz came to national attention when Donald Trump tweeted out an unflattering picture of her next to his wife, Melania, during the Republican primary in 2016 with the line “A picture says a thousand words.”
18
His wife, Melania, is a former nude model with a high school degree.

The Harvard Law graduate and former secretary of education William Bennett wrote a best-selling book,
The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals,
in which he assailed President Clinton for his deeply flawed character.
19
“A president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct, deceit, abuse of power, and contempt for the rule of law cannot be a good president,” he wrote.
20
His most popular book was titled
The Book of Virtues
. No one on the right had argued more strenuously for the importance of character:

People of good character are not all going to come down on the same side of difficult political and social issues. Good people—people of character and moral literacy—can be conservative, and good people can be liberal. We must not permit our disputes over thorny political questions to obscure the obligation we have to offer instruction to all our young people in the area in which we have, as a society, reached a consensus: namely, on the importance of good character, and some of its pervasive particulars.
21

But when Trump emerged from the primary, Bennett characterized those Republicans not supporting Trump as not team players who “suffer from a terrible case of moral superiority and put their own vanity and taste above the interest of the country.”
22

What has changed? If he believed what he wrote in
The Book of Virtues
that “it is our character that supports the promise of our future—far more than particular government programs or policies,” if he believed what he wrote about Bill Clinton that “a president whose character manifests itself in patterns of reckless personal conduct…cannot be a good president,” how can Bennett support a man who brags about assaulting women and directs his own son to write checks to reimburse his lawyer Michael Cohen for hush payments to a porn star?
23

When Bill Bennett wrote
The Book of Virtues
and
The Death of Outrage,
he was serving a role needed in all civil societies: intellectual leaders in the public square speak out when they feel a society is adrift from its basic principles. That many disagreed with him is a healthy sign of a self-questioning society, and indeed that very debate is as important as any of the specifics raised. Not to question is to accept and condone. The essence of Bennett’s arguments for the role of character in a society was a plea based on decency and patriotism, not partisanship.

So what sort of signal does it send when a man as intelligent and thoughtful as Bill Bennett decides to contradict his entire body of work to support a man like Donald Trump? What value is left in intelligent reasoning? Donald Trump didn’t crash the guardrails of political and civil standards; rather, the highway officials eagerly removed the guardrails and stood by cheering as the lunatic behind the wheel drove the party straight off the cliff of reason. When a Williams College and Harvard Law grad like Bill Bennett considers a man who found the nuclear triad a puzzling mystery in a primary debate qualified to be president, the idiotocracy is in full ascendant.

John F. Kennedy once held a dinner for all the living Nobel Prize laureates at the White House. Donald Trump invited the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, to the White House so that he could complain about his Twitter account. Trump holds to a theory that there is some vast left-wing conspiracy in the tech world illuminati to personally slight him at every opportunity. But that’s just one of the many conspiracies that Trump embraces. There is a “Deep State” cabal out to get him. The Deep State seems to be driven by Trump’s annoyance that there was a government that existed before he came to power and there is a government that will exist afterward. (The latter may be overly optimistic.) He lost the popular vote due to massive voter fraud. He agreed with Infowars’ Alex Jones that Hillary Clinton might have taken some form of drugs to enhance her debate performance and demanded, “I think we should take a drug test prior to the debate. I do.”
24
Trump attacked his primary opponent Senator Ted Cruz by linking his father to the JFK assassination. He has said that a pillow was found on the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia’s face and he might have been murdered. He’s sided with the anti-vaccine conspiracy nuts. Most famously, he laid the groundwork for his campaign for the Republican nomination by promising he could prove President Barack Obama was born in Africa. He’s claimed President Obama wore a ring with an Arabic inscription. He’s said global warming is a “hoax,” that windmills cause cancer.

In their analysis of the rise of conspiracies in conservative politics,
A Lot of People Are Saying,
Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum describe the connection between Republicans and the need for conspiracies:

The new conspiracism has what we call a “partisan penumbra,” an alignment with radical, antigovernment Republicans. Not all Republicans or conservatives join these ranks, but…they rarely speak out against conspiracist claims. They exhibit partisan reticence. And while the Left participates in its share of classic conspiracy theories, it has not yet taken up the new conspiracism. What we have, then, is an alignment between the extremes of the Republican Party and the new conspiracism—a congruence founded in hostility toward government. These conspiracist claims persist in the United States even when Republicans themselves control government. Today, conspiracism is not, as we might expect, the last resort of permanent political losers but the first resort of winners. Trump refuses to accept the terms of his own victory and incessantly conjures machinations against him, including coups d’état from within his own administration.

But partisan politics is far from the whole story. For what unites conspiracists is not ideological attachment to conservative causes or to the Republican Party but something deeper: disdain for political opposition, regulated party rivalry, and the democratic norm of “agreeing to disagree.” Each conspiracist assault is specific to one candidate or policy or party, but it eventually extends to them all. It is not contained.
25

Donald Trump’s mind is that tabloid you see at the checkout counter of the grocery store claiming that aliens impregnated Chelsea Clinton so the offspring could become president and turn the United States over to the Federation. Few Republicans challenge Trump on his conspiracy obsessions, treating him like an addled senior citizen who calls his congressman’s office demanding to know why the CIA is talking to him through his dentures. The shrug and smile that so many Republican leaders have adopted has allowed Trump to dismiss those who challenge his lunacy as “angry Democrats,” because it is Democrats who seem capable of explaining that Ted Cruz’s dad didn’t kill JFK. But Trump isn’t an addled senior citizen—actually he is, but he’s one who happens to be the president of the United States. The acceptance of the conspiracy theories is just one station in the slaughterhouse of truth that is the Trump presidency. Once there is no challenge to the craziest of ideas that have no basis in fact, it is easy for Trump to take one small bit of truth and spin it into an elaborate fantasy.

This is how Trump can turn a thousand or so South Americans seeking asylum into “an invasion” that threatens the security of the country. A meeting with Kim Jong Un becomes a declaration that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.”
26
“Puerto Rico got 91 Billion Dollars for the hurricane….The pols are grossly incompetent, spend the money foolishly or corruptly, & only take from USA,” he tweets.
27
In truth, Puerto Rico is part of the United States and has received less than $14 billion. Facebook bans dangerous conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones and his English protégé Paul Joseph Watson, and Trump defends them, calling the ban an attack on “conservatives.” His followers promptly call for government control of tech industries.

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