One of the worst things that happens after an unexpected political event is that the media scrounges around for someone who predicted it. With thousands of pundits making millions of predictions, you’re bound to find someone who predicted anything. They then proclaim this person to be a genius and hang on his every word.
The rise of Donald Trump was unexpected. Many of the wise Washington insiders proclaimed that that it could never happen. So now they are scrounging around, trying to find out why it happened.
For me, there is no one reason. It’s a combination of many factors. Here are a just a few I think contributed:
- A general dissatisfaction with political system and the economy. Specifically, a government that keeps expanding its role while unable to handle the duties it already has assumed. And an economy that seems to be making a lot of people at the top rich while the middle class stagnates.
- A conservative field that was weaker and more divided than expected. Trump jumped on the one issue that made him stand out: immigration.
- Trump’s celebrity status gave him an instant advantage over a bunch of guys most people had never heard of.
- The GOP front-runners didn’t recognize the danger and spent more time fighting each other and supporting weak candidates than stopping Trump.
- A conservative pundit class that has demonized Obama, blasted Republicans as enablers and portrayed compromise as surrender.
- A GOP leadership that was happy to sow that whirlwind.
- A liberal punditsphere that has portrayed almost every conservative as an uncaring, incompetent vileness. So when a truly bad GOP candidate came around, they were the boy who cried wolf.
Even then, I’m not sure I’m right. Sometimes … things just happen. There isn’t a really compelling reason. Only a small fraction of voters vote in primaries and they are somewhat subject to whims and bandwagons. I always leave open the possibility that this is just one of those things.
Still, it’s food for thought for the next few months. But Vox has decided to scrounge around and find one of the few pundits who did see it coming. And, for someone who correctly predicted the rise of Trump, I have to say … he’s really full of shit. He starts with having met New Gingrich.
And over the next 16 years, [Gingrich] put that plan into action. He delegitimized the Congress and the Democratic leadership, convincing people that they were arrogant and corrupt and that the process was so bad that anything would be better than this. He tribalized the political process. He went out and recruited the candidates, and gave them the language to use about how disgusting and despicable and horrible and immoral and unpatriotic the Democrats were. That swept in the Republican majority in 1994.
The problem is that all the people he recruited to come in really believed that shit. They all came in believing that Washington was a cesspool. So what followed has been a very deliberate attempt to blow up and delegitimize government, not just the president but the actions of government itself in Washington.
This is garbage. The reason Newt portrayed the Democratic Congress and leadership as corrupt and arrogant is because they were. They had exempted Congress from numerous laws that applied to the rest of the country. Their speaker, Jim Wright, was using his garbage “book” to rake in millions of dollars under the table from special interests. The powerful head of their ways and means committee, Dan Rostenkowski, wound up serving 17 months in prison for mail fraud.
When the Republicans swept into power in 1994, they didn’t try to tear down everything government did. They tried to tear down things they didn’t think government should be doing in the first place. They instituted spending restraint, they passed government reform laws and they worked with Clinton to balance the budget. This is a very weird alternate version of history.
Then, there’s a more radical conservative ideology that has been a dominant force out there in Washington and in a lot of states. That’s the Freedom Caucus and Cruz, and that’s what we wrote about in the book. This is a radical set of beliefs. They want to blow up all of government, and are willing to use more radical tactics. They don’t much care about shutting down the government or breaching the debt ceiling, or any of those things.
There’s some element of truth to this in that there is a faction of the GOP that sees Washington as irreparable and shutdowns/defaults/debt ceiling crashes as acceptable. I’ve railed against it myself. But to say that there is something new and awful in the way the Republicans oppose Obama is to elide huge chunks of recent history:
- Government shutdowns are not new. The first government shutdown was in 1976, when Democrats opposed President Ford. When Reagan was President, the Democrats shut down the government seven times (albeit usuaully for short periods.)
- The GOP has used the filibuster a lot and won’t consider Obama’s SCOTUS nominee. But this has been building for a while. The Democrats filibustered Bush all the time and specifically filibustered numerous Bush judicial nominees. Early on in Bush’s presidency, the Democrats warned that they would filibuster any Bush SCOTUS nominee for up to four years if necessary.
- Under the Democrats, the budget process basically stopped, at one point going more than three years without passing an actual budget. One of the few things the GOP has done right in the last year is to return to a normal budget process.
- Under both Democrats and Republicans, the federal bureaucracy has basically run unhindered, passings thousands of regulations without any oversight that cost the United States at least a couple of trillion in lost economic activity. In fact, Obama’s big achievements — financial reform and Obamacare — specifically left parts of the bill to be written by the bureaucracies.
- The few Republicans trying to get control of the process and make government work — e.g. Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell — have been relentlessly demonized by the liberal pundit class.
- A huge amount of government dysfunction can be traced to how the Democrats treated President Bush, whom they proclaimed to be “selected not elected” and often simply refuse to work with.
In short, this isn’t just a Republican thing. The dysfunction of Washington has been building for a long time. It’s been a tit-for-tat political tribalism that places party loyalty and beating the other side over anything else.
Where the Republicans worse? Probably. They reflexive opposition and demonization of everything Obama does has been a big problem. And Republicans, because they value smaller government, have less of a problem with government not being able to do the things Democrats want it to do.
However, it is foolish to say Republicans want to “blow the whole thing up”. They simply want government to do fewer things. No Republican is talking about dismantling the military or abolishing police. No one is going to end highway spending or Social Security. It is the height of hyperbole (and part of the problem) when wanting to end the staggering expensive dysfunction that is Obamacare is portrayed as “blowing up the government”.
Moreover, the Democrats have more than played their role in creating this problem. They have expanded government power in every direction. They have completely sold out to unions, racking up huge retirement obligations that no one can pay and raising the minimum wage to economy-killing levels. They have ignored the critical need for regulatory and tax reform. They’ve dragged their heels on criminal justice reform. They’ve made a lot of noise about special interests but done nothing to actually stop them (big part of stopping them: reduce the need to peddle influence by shrinking government power). The Democrats had completed unfettered control of the federal government for two years and mainly used that window to shovel money at their interests and layer on thousands of new regulations in the service of the big banks and insurance companies.
I do think the system has gotten to a critical juncture. We’re facing trillions in future debt and a hamstrung economy. We need a functional Congress and a competent President to fix this. That’s absolutely not Trump, who recently talked about “negotiating our debt” and causing a global financial crisis. But I’m not sure there’s anyone on the national scene right now — except maybe Paul Ryan — who both grasps what needs to be done and has the political acumen to get it done.