DR. MOREAU’S BEASTS NOW HAVE A LEADER
The ignominious fall of Ted Cruz and John Kasich from the GOP primaries only confirms what the polls have been saying for quite some time. The GOP is the party of Trump and all that the billionaire media personality represents. This is quite the shock to people who believed that the GOP stood for traditional, conservative values. It also comes as quite the shock for the GOP leadership who have long understood that Republican emphasis on “conservative” values was always a cover protecting elite privilege in the face of a society that has the potential to become increasingly democratic and egalitarian.
Now the rise of Trumpism has been extensively analyzed in the media, so I’ll not provide an echo chamber for observations already made. However, this phenomenon is interesting from a sociological perspective. It speaks to something that I call the First Law of Institutions and plays on a theory that I postulated years ago that has turned out to be less tongue in cheek than I had hoped.
The First Law of Institutions proposes that the primary function of any institutional complex is to perpetuate itself. Institutions and organizations do this by incorporating as many people and their personal abilities as possible. This First Law takes precedence over the manifest functions of the institution (its expressed purpose) and even over its established leadership. If you want to understand how the Republican Party could go from being the Party of Lincoln to the Party of Trump, then your analysis must take the First Law into consideration.
The Dr. Moreau Theory plays off of another such “law” of institutions. Institutions exist in a social eco-system of other such institutions competing for the very same human capital. In this case, human capital is a finite resource. All institutions cannot incorporate everybody completely. People divide their resources among different institutions and organizations and never completely incorporated into any single such construct. This theory most immediately explains the Tea Party takeover of the GOP and rise of Trumpism. Analyzing this process requires a longer view of historical forces.
Since the beginning, the Republican Party identified with industrial capitalism. In the mid-nineteenth century this was a rather liberal idea in that it challenged the dominance of the established landed elite in the South, though it was well received by the merchant class of the North East. With this in mind, the Republican Party became a natural home for Abolitionists and trade unions, but also anti-immigrant Know Nothings and Protestants fearful of a Papist insurgency among Irish Catholics. In the U.S. two-party system, political parties are more like coalitions of what might be otherwise diverse interest groups. This creates innate internal struggles. In this case, between the abolitionists and the old school Whigs interested in advancing the American System.
Ultimately, the Republicans won. The Civil War settled both the question of slavery and the dominance of industrial capitalism. With slavery abolished and virtually no interest in taking the next step toward racial equality, the radical abolitionists faded from the Party ranks. This left the industrialists and the Know Nothings as the dominant interests within the GOP. African-Americans were loyal Republicans where they could be, but were largely disenfranchised throughout the nation. The Party of Lincoln, in many ways, did not survive Reconstruction. It became the Party of an expanding corporate elite and White Anglo-Saxon Protestant interests. And they were, in Northern national politics, the dominant governing institution while the Democratic Party settled into a regional schizophrenia between rural populism in the West, urban ethnics and labor in the cities and dyed in the wool segregationists in the South.
While some Republicans flirted with Progressivism at the turn of the 20th century, the Know Nothings and the rising capitalist class were collaborating, albeit not consciously, in the construction of a capitalist nationalism. The closing of the frontier meant searching for expansion outside of the recognized borders. The United States was always wary of imperialism unless it could be sold as a means of bringing civilization to the uncivilized. On the continent, this mean “pacifying” Native Americans. Once the U.S. entered the naval arms race it pursued patronage and the civilizing mission of bringing American culture to brown people in South and Central America, the Caribbean, and the Philipines as well as yellow people in China and Japan. There has always been a racist tinge to American expansion, whether it was manifest destiny, filibustering or blatant imperialism. This was a strong point of connection between the capitalist class and the WASP purists in their party.
This dynamic continued through the corporate restructuring of the 1920’s and the presumed New Deal assault of the 1930’s. The Great Depression, however, represented an existential crisis for corporatists. The so-called “free market” which always meant a market in which the corporate elite were free to exploit all resources, natural and human, without limit, was revealed as a great house of cards. The most radical restructuring of the U.S. political economy took place during this time. In many ways it preserved the integrity of the corporate elite and, though there was a strong isolationist presence, World War II resurrected American imperial interventionism. Despite this, the New Deal Coalition consisting of progressives, unions, increasing numbers of African-Americans and Southern Democrats further empowered working people while limiting exploitation. Republican Know Nothings and Southern segregationists, however, limited the reach of the New Deal in the lives of ethnic minorities and African Americans.
Regardless, the New Deal political economy was the dominant construct after World War II. American industries, having expanded during World War II without suffering the same devastation as those of our competitors, was the only economic song and dance in the world. Anyone who wanted to do business had to do so with the United States. New Deal legitimization of unions, limitations on corporate and financial power and a redistributive tax structure resulted in the greatest period of wealth expansion in American history. Regardless, corporatists bristled under limitations to their power. African-Americans, now a powerful influence on the Democratic Party, demanded an end to Jim Crow, thus butting heads with Southern Democrats in the ultimate rift of the New Deal Coalition. In the meantime, young people were looking at their world, a world of dehumanized organization men, racism and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation in an increasingly militarized nation. The New Left was starting to question every aspect of American society from sexual relations to pollution, from gender roles to what it means to be truly free.
The successes of the civil rights movement and the New Left challenges to just about every traditional norm gave the corporatists an opportunity to make an effective counterclaim. While the Democratic Party, the old New Deal Coalition, was falling apart at the seams, with segregationists abandoning the party in the face of its civil rights platform and established imperial interventionists butting heads with a surging peace movement, the Republican Party was incorporating disaffected southern whites via Nixon’s infamous Southern Strategy. This dovetailed nicely with the party’s traditional Know Nothings. Mainstream Protestants started to embrace the growing Evangelical movement in their call for law and order and a “return” to traditional Christian values in the face of a threatening secularism. In the meantime, corporatists embraced the libertarian constructs of Barry Goldwater to justify advancing positions that would otherwise have proven unpopular, juxtaposing individual freedom with market freedom. They became the conservative coalition.
Through it all, however, the corporatists have maintained a delicate balancing act with the Know Nothings. The truth is, corporatists really don’t care about social issues like abortion or marriage equity in any political sense. They care about the preservation of corporate interests. Social issues are a wedge by which they can convince those who are hurt the most by corporate power to vote against their own interests in order to protect the unborn or to stop “those people” from sponging off of their hard-earned money.
True, there have been some insurgencies popping up to challenge the Republican Party from within and without. George Wallace is the most noteworthy. Still the GOP and the Conservative Coalition have proven effective soldiers in the corporatist army, discrediting liberalism, rolling back the New Deal and the Great Society, deregulating the economy, paralyzing what few regulators remain. Free market policies once relegated to the Hayak/Rand fringe are now taken for granted regardless of their clear faults. It is obvious that when the American people have to tighten their belts the government should have to tighten its belt, even though that is exactly the opposite of the truth. Through the New Right, the corporatists were able to protect their elite interests while at the same time offering little in the way of medieval regression as demanded by they far right. Abortion remained legal. People still received food stamps. Even conservative icon William F. Buckley derided the John Birch Society as a lunatic fringe not to be taken seriously.
Ronald Reagan lamenting Welfare Queens and exclaiming that government is the problem (except the military of course. The military is always the solution) was one of the most effective constructs in political history. It was so effective that the Democratic Party turned away from its New Deal/Great Society goals and embraced a Third Way advanced by the Democratic Leadership Council. Pro corporate Democrats distinguished themselves from Republicans mostly by virtue of their willingness to preserve Social Security and Medicare. Everything else was on the table. Glass-Steagall, welfare, civil rights. The New Democrats became Republican Light in preserving the corporate status quo.
That is, of course, until the entire corporate facade came crashing down in 2008. Corporate conservatism, in the face of bank bailouts and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, was so delegitimized that the Democratic Party was able to put one of “those people” in the White House. True, he was still a corporatist who would do little to advance the former glories of the New Deal at a time when the nation needed the New Deal the most. Still, he was clearly not “one of us” and the Know Nothing, wing-nut, end of the party went batshit crazy! Now the First Law had to be applied like never before.
At first, the mouth frothing, self-proclaimed “Tea Baggers” were hardly to be taken seriously. It was clear that they were responding to their own irrational fears about the Kenyan in the White House and his socialist agenda. The racist implications were carefully shrouded in a patriotic patina. But for the Republican Party and the corporate conservatives, watching the base of their support withering away, maybe inviting the erstwhile lunatic fringe to Tea was a worthy endeavor.
This is where Dr. Moreau’s monsters come into play. The entrenched conservatives in the Republican Party had a double agenda. By the second term of the Bush Administration it was clear that the GOP was the conservative stronghold. Unfortunately, the Bush presidency, two failed wars and the Great Recession, in discrediting the party, also discredited the movement. That the Republican Party had become an ideological stronghold meant that it could not satisfy the demands of the first law by making an ideological shift as did the Democrats in the 1990’s. Nor could the party afford to experience a rift like that created by the Dixie Democrats in 1948, or by the McCarthy/McGovern wing in the late sixties and early seventies that devastated the Democrats, opening the door for the New Right. No, the Republican Party would have to pander to the most base elements of its coalition, the far right now marching under the Tea Party banner under the name Tea Party Patriots and other pseudo-patriotic slogans.
They would feed their beasts with a strategy of strict, relentless obstructionism and a ruthless propaganda campaign against the President who must be stopped at all cost. The Tea Party Right would support the Republicans with pressure from the street and reward Republican obstructionism by overwhelming the polls in 2010, handing Obama what he admitted to be a sound “shellacking.” The Tea Party wave, however, brought with it an expectation of ideological purity that would have been impractical even if the application wasn’t so catastrophic in its potential.
There was a litany of so-called small government and culture war demands being made by the insurgent Tea Party. The culture war demands were largely irrelevant, but when this new set of legislators threatened the very stability on which the corporate elite relies, the conservative establishment understood the danger of the beast they nurtured. The corporate elite used the fear of Obama socialism and death panels to feed their monsters. Once the monsters were given slack on their chains they made their demands, overturn Obamacare, institute a free market (which, ironically meant ending government patronage that the corporatists liked), outlaw abortion, impeach Obama because…you know…Obama. The Tea Party monsters were willing to use drastic strategies to achieve their goals, including shutting down the government and refusing to raise the debt ceiling, thus destroying the faith and credit of the United States. After all, government is bad, debt is bad. It was government by mantra, not policy.
Ending crony capitalism, defaulting on our debts, shutting down the government. These were the last things the corporatists wanted. This was bad for the bottom line. Consequently, the Tea Party monsters accomplished absolutely nothing except a decrease in the U.S. bond ratings. Obama was re-elected. Obamacare remained the law of the land and was legitimized by the supposedly conservative Supreme Court. “Those people” kept flooding over the border in an uncontrolled tide. Obama even raised taxes on the job creators! What the hell?
For the Tea Party monsters there was only one possible explanation for this failure of righteousness. The movement was betrayed by Republicans in Name Only…RINOs. The party would have to be purged of the ideologically impure, and this included the corporate elite. It was time for the monsters to start eating their own, while the establishment tried desperately to keep the cages locked. Their only hope–John Boehner!
Look, these are normal institutional processes. They shift and respond to changing social and historical inputs and goals or they become irrelevant. American party structures, being mostly organized coalitions are even more prone to shifting relations among those they have incorporated. In 2008, the failures of the Bush Administration, including the economic collapse, the Republican Party experienced a crisis of legitimacy, weakening its elite leadership. They turned to a more purist and extremist base to regain legitimacy, cultivating this group by playing on their fears and collective anger.
However, in doing so, the party was unable or unwilling to live up to the purist promises it made to secure this support. Perhaps no organization could satisfy such demands. From the beginning of this transition, the Republican Party was set up for failure. Here we have an institution, poised at the center of national power, its leadership delegitimized and its base, already fearful and angry, disappointed by what they saw as broken promises. The conditions were ripe for insurgency and even the rise of a demagogue.
And the demagogue has arisen.
The rise of Donald Trump, it turns out, is very revealing about the conservative movement itself. It has always been my contention that Trump, a member of the corporate elite, is not a threat to the Republican establishment because of his “anti-establishment” mission. He’s a threat because he is a spotlight illuminating the decades long fear mongering and stereotyping used by conservatives to promote wildly unpopular policies. He seems incapable of speaking in Republican cypher. His political ineptitude shows conservative scheming in sharp contrast.
In truth, the conservative movement is not premised on tax cuts, small government, family values or patriotism as so deftly presented by Ronald Reagan. Trump has openly contradicted all of these principles. In fact, contemporary conservatives are nothing more than those fearful of losing their traditional status in society, mostly, though not exclusively, white protestant males. They are, consequently, angry with those they see as taking advantage of their insecurity, namely ethnic minorities and foreigners. They see threats from all sides, internal and external. Trump plays to all of these base emotions through a belligerent combination of nationalism, militarist machismo and ethnocentrism that shares some eerie similarities with fascism.
Trump targets his message to those who feel that they have been disempowered, denied their birthright to the American legacy. He is the incarnation of the dominant white male. Trump’s supporters may even see themselves as potential Trumps if not for the meddling of “Those People.” He is the walking wet dream of the conservative base. In the end, those values promoted by the conservative establishment, intended to empower the corporate elite, were never really all that important to the base any more than culture war issues mattered to the elite. Trump is giving the base what it wants, appealing directly to their bestial instincts.
Now we have a potential rift between the Republican Leadership now represented by Paul Ryan, an erstwhile Tea Party champion who has since had his rough edges dulled by establishment largesse, and the monster horde represented by Trump. It is unclear how this will play out, but regardless of where one stands in the coming civil war, it’s the Trumpians who have the momentum, the energy and a transcendent worldview motivating their loyalty. The establishment has…um…Paul Ryan.
Like it or not, the Republican Party is now the Party of Trump.