What consolation can I offer those who are watching the U.S. presidential election from other parts of the world? To begin, let me say the Trump campaign looks pretty strange to us Americans, too. Then I should quickly add that it is highly unlikely Donald Trump will become our next president. As the opinion polls indicate, his bizarre campaign is not on track to earn him a majority of votes in November. A broad consensus is emerging that Trump’s stances and juvenile temperament make him unfit for the White House; it’s clear from the growing list of GOP politicians and former officials from past Republican administrations who are renouncing him. So we can safely count on the basic good sense of the majority of Americans and the election being in good hands. I only wish I could provide the same reassurance about the overall state of politics in the U.S.
Because we have a two-party system, the effects of the Republican Party’s deterioration go well beyond the current race for president. In some ways Donald Trump is truly an outlier in his party, yet at the same time he is symptomatic of problems that have built up within the GOP over the past couple decades. His penchant for outrageous statements has shown that Trump lives in a bubble all his own. Having focused his entire campaign on riling up the people at his rallies, outrageousness is the object. Since he gauges his success solely by the reaction of the audience in the room, Trump doesn’t bother with facts or preparing to govern. He is stuck in a symbiotic relationship with the slice of the loyal Republican base that won him the nomination.
But it’s not as if the GOP has a moderate side, with practical solutions for the country’s challenges. The rest of the party has been catering to their far-right wing base for years and gotten wrapped up in their own illusions as a result. Compared to Trump, the Republicans’ collective bubble is not as conspiracy-minded or ignorant about the basics of constitutional governance and the rule of law. Still, the party, as a whole, has placed ideology above pragmatism and left itself with an extremely simplistic platform. That’s what happens when you renounce compromise, demonize your opponents, move further and further rightward, and stop competing for swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
Republicans themselves have spoken openly about the dangers of their being the “stupid party.” The Republicans’ fundamental problem is that nearly all of them are campaigning on messages with varying degrees of stupidity. In other words, Donald Trump’s campaign themes may be raving lunacy, but the orthodoxy of the so-called party establishment is still intellectually lazy and irresponsible.
Looking at Trump’s statements, you can see how some of them merely extrapolate from standard GOP positions. Take the U.S. national debt. In May 2016, Trump said the United States might get creditors to take a discount on their holdings of our debt. It was an important reminder that Trump’s own experiences were not transferrable to the office he seeks. Just because Trump built his personal fortune by leaving his creditors holding the bag doesn’t mean that is an option for the country. Trump seemed unaware that the full faith and credit of the U.S. government is key to the dollar’s position as the world currency and not something to mess with.
Again, the point is that Trump’s GOP colleagues only look reasonable in relative terms—and barely so, in this instance. After the Great Recession, congressional Republicans have pushed austerity and hyped the national debt much more aggressively than preceding GOP generations. Compared with Trump, they weren’t so careless as to push the government to the point of default, but don’t forget that Republicans in 2011 pushed the debt ceiling extension closer to the brink than ever before. We should also remember that it was the Keynesian policies of President Obama and the Democrats—resisting calls for austerity—that improved the economy and the federal budget so that the annual deficit shrank by two-thirds and its percentage of GDP by three-quarters. Meanwhile, the Western European economies that took the Republicans’ recommended path of austerity, such as the UK and Germany, have had much weaker recoveries.
Trump has also made inflammatory and baseless claims about America’s system for conducting elections, charging that his political opponents will rig the vote and steal victory from him. As he portrays it, Trump’s triumph in November is such a sure thing, that cheating is the only way he can lose. At one level this is further proof of Trump’s arrogance. Whenever someone puts their name on a ballot, they are taking the risk of losing. The much bigger problem, though, is the sense of expectation and paranoia Trump is spreading among his supporters. If Trump indeed loses to Hillary Clinton, would he and his supporters accept the results or nurse doubts about her legitimacy? Remember that this is the man who launched his political career on racist conspiracy theories about President Obama being born outside the United States and not qualifying to be president.
And similar to the issue of the national debt, Trump’s allegations of Democratic cheating echo a timeworn Republican refrain: the myth of widespread voter fraud. In statehouses around the country, Republican governors and legislators have been busy putting up barriers that make it harder for their citizens to vote—by cutting back on opportunities to vote early, reducing the number of polling places, or imposing new requirements to have ID. They have tried to justify ID requirements as a guard against people trying to vote fraudulently under assumed identities, yet no one has ever been able to find cases of fraudulent voters trying to steal an election. The reason is simple, sending individual voters to the polls is a bad strategy for cheating, a highly inefficient and risky approach.
In fact the voter fraud myth is just a cover story for Republican attempts to suppress black, Hispanic, and Native American turnout. But don’t take my word for it, recently federal courts have taken the Republican lawmakers to task in very direct terms. Here where I live in Wisconsin, for instance, U.S. District Judge James Peterson found that “restricting hours for in-person absentee voting, intentionally discriminates on the basis of race. I reach this conclusion because I am persuaded that this law was specifically targeted to curtail voting in Milwaukee without any other legitimate purpose.” In North Carolina, the legislative history of the restrictions actually showed the lawmakers’ discriminatory intent. As U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote, “the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.”
The radicalization of the Republican Party raises fundamental questions about the ability of two-party system to constructively debate public policy when one of the two major parties has come unhinged. While I am affiliated with the other party, I raise these questions out of genuine civic concern rather than pure partisanship. I spent most of my career in the Washington foreign policy community, where there has traditionally been a great deal of bipartisanship. I have led bipartisan initiatives and co-edited a book that found common ground between Republican and Democratic foreign policy specialists. But lately I’ve concluded that the Republicans’ main ideas on major issues such as government’s role in a depressed economy, voting rights, healthcare, and foreign policy are no longer credible. Donald Trump is symptomatic of a broader problem in the GOP, which in turn poses a problem for the American political system. Our politics will be at cross-purposes with sound policy solutions until we deal with this.
This column was adapted from David Shorr’s new book about the Republican policy agenda, I Call Bullshit: Four Fallacies That Keep Our Politics From Being Reality-Based.