Trump’s party

I’ve been writing a lot about Trump and the Republican Party recently. The last month has shown that Trump is going nowhere, and his most likely vehicle will be the now captive Republican Party.

This long read in the NYT on Trump’s influence over the GOP is essential reading on the topic. I found the idea that Trump’s primary appeal is his combative spirit quite interesting. His base values this because they believe themselves to be in an “existential war.”

And

If the article has a failing it is that its portrait style study leaves the explanation feeling overly psychological, too rooted in the idiosyncrasies of Trump’s personality. Still, I think it is perfectly consistent with more structural explanations if we simply ask why an increasing portion of the electorate feels themselves to be on the losing side of an existential war?

Please do read the whole thing.

Trump the third party candidate

I’ve been tossing around the following question all week:

What explains the Republican Party’s decision to (at least implicitly) go along with Trump’s increasingly brazen attempts to undermine the electoral system and Biden’s victory?

Prior to the election, and in the hours/days immediately following it, I expected that the Republican Party would cut Trump loose. They had gained significant influence over the judiciary through the appointment of hundreds of judges to district courts, as well as three to the Supreme Court. Instead of a ‘blue wave,’ Republicans looked set to increase their share of the House and hold onto the Senate. It seemed a perfect moment for the party: lose a useful but erratic leader while maintaining enough power to make Biden’s administration impotent.

Instead, Republicans have supported him on a spectrum from emphasising his right to legal action, to actively participating in his conspiracies. The few Republicans criticizing him get lots of media headlines, but they are usually either retiring or long-time opponents of Trump. The real power in the party remains quiet. Much has been made of number 3 Republican in the House, Liz Cheney’s, recent statement, which on my reading is rather subdued. Judge for yourself:

“America is governed by the rule of law. The President and his lawyers have made claims of criminality and widespread fraud, which they allege could impact election results. If they have genuine evidence of this, they are obligated to present it immediately in court and to the American people. I understand that the President has filed more than thirty separate lawsuits. If he is unsatisfied with the results in those lawsuits, then the appropriate avenue is to appeal. If the President cannot prove these claims or demonstrate that they would change the election result, he should fulfill his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States by respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”

This muted reaction follows daily accusations that voter fraud is so widespread that the electoral system is unable to deliver free or fair results. These accusations are also increasing distrust with the electoral system among Republicans – although the problem is not as new as we might think.

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The willingness of the party to follow Trump down this rabbit hole comes back to his hold over the party base. The radicalisation of the Republican party started before Trump with the Tea-Party movement, but he has been the apotheosis of its politics of outrage and mistrust. He achieved the second highest voter turnout in US electoral history in part thanks to the brand he has built around himself. Think back to the relief checks that were sent out with his signature on them. He has personalised politics around himself, and in doing so, has made himself difficult to excise from the party. He is also working to hold on to party machinery, with his preferred candidate seeking reelection to Chair of the Republican National Committee.

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There is an element of both carrot and stick here. Republicans certainly want to draw on his pull to increase turnout and energise the base, but they are probably also terrified of the consequences of crossing him. The Republican Governor of Ohio, who appeared to acknowledge Biden’s win, has received threats of a primary challenge from Trump. He has also called Georgia’s Secretary of State a traitor.

Trump’s hold over the base gives him enormous power in any intra-party power struggle because of how dangerous he could be outside the party. Remember, Trump was asked to sign a pledge back in 2015 not to run as a third-party candidate should he lose the Republican primary process. If the party were seen to turn their back on Trump, he could declare the party corrupt – in league with the Deep State – and launch a new party, a new movement. This would be an existential threat for Republicans by splitting the conservative vote. Even if he stopped short of this nuclear option, the prospect of Trump on TV flinging vitriol at Republicans and supporting primary challengers looks like to keep the party in line for the foreseeable future.

Can the Eye of Washington focus?

As reported by the ABC:

All of Hong Kong’s remaining pro-democracy opposition politicians will resign in protest of the dismissal of four of their colleagues from the city’s Legislative Council.

They did so after China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a resolution this week saying any lawmaker who supports Hong Kong’s independence, refuses to acknowledge China’s sovereignty over the city, threatens national security, or asks external forces to interfere in the city’s affairs should be disqualified.

The Hong Kong Government has disqualified four legislators — Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Kenneth Leung.

Did China feel emboldened to act given the domestic turmoil in the United States?

It remains an open question how domestic turmoil in the US affects China’s calculus. On the one hand, while a hawkish position on China is now bi-partisan (perhaps Trump’s most significant legacy), political infighting absorbs the lion’s share of energy. According to this argument, China can pursue its agenda more forcefully, confident the focus of media/political attention is distracted.

On the other hand, Trump transformed US policy on China while presiding over the most polarized period of American politics in recent history. If most of Biden’s agenda is going to be hobbled, he might focus on those areas where consensus exists, and unlike some areas of foreign policy, confronting China is easily tied to domestic policy, e.g. industrial policy and jobs.

My view right now is that the promise of Sino-American relations is at risk, but not the peril. On issues like climate, there is room for constructive dialogue and cooperation. Those are also the areas most likely to be blocked domestically. This focuses attention on those issues driven by competition.

Electoral fraud is tomorrow’s voter disenfranchisement

I just watched Trump’s latest press conference (it begins around 16:00). It has been clear for some time that he planned to turn on his lie engine as soon as polls closed (if it was ever really off), but I underestimated how hysterical it would look. Several networks cut away mid-conference to clarify to tell viewers his claims were baseless.

I am now of the belief that, absent an unexpected shift in uncounted ballots, Trump is going to lose this election. He will tie it up in litigation as long as possible, but it seems unlikely the Republican party will choose to die on this hill. They will let Trump go (without actually disowning him), content with a conservative court and the Senate.

Trump’s attack on the electoral system may not achieve the immediate objective of saving his skin, but I expect his claims to stay circulating within sections of the Republican base for years to come, ready to be weaponised. Dog whistling to electoral integrity will allow Republicans to push through even stronger measures to disenfranchise voters or gerrymander districts. So while its great that his immediate attempts to subvert democracy are failing, I am concerned he is setting the stage for a far more sophisticated successor. Time will tell.

*5 hours later*
I’m now not so sure about Republicans not dying on this hill. Here’s Newt Gingrich claiming the Presidential election is being stolen. Here is Republican House minority leader on Fox:

“Everyone who’s listening, do not be quiet,” Mr. McCarthy said on Fox News. “Do not be silent about this. We cannot allow this to happen before our very eyes.”

*24 hours later*

The eagerness by which the Republican establishment is attaching itself to Trump’s claims about electoral fraud raise questions about the relationship between the party and its base.

Lets start from the assumption that the GOP is moving forward as a minoritarian party. The electoral college and Senate already give rural lower population states disproportionately more influence. Mix in gerrymandering and it is possible to see how power can be held without a majority of the electorate. The key is an energized base that reliably turns out. Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing this election shows that relying on steady doses of radicalization works.

One implication is that the party can be held hostage by its base. If Trump succeeds in convincing a majority of them that fraud is underway, then the party has to go along with it, even if only rhetorically. Where the base is highly radicalized, party moderation becomes difficult; moderates will find themselves (and have found themselves) facing primary challenges from the right.

So far this has worked incredibly well for the GOP. With control over the Senate they can block the kinds of institutional reform needed to make the system more democratic; especially because democrats have repeatedly shown themselves more willing to compromise with GOP radicalism than confront it. More paralysis seems likely in the short run, but longer term its hard to see how the GOP’s strategy doesn’t lead to some kind of crisis.

Some thoughts on the election and the future of US power

The final results are still a while away, but it looks increasingly likely that Biden will squeak through to a victory sometime later this week. There are still plenty of things that could go wrong though: the Democratic lead in Arizona is precarious, and Pennsylvania still looks like a coin toss. Trump is lawyering up and attempting to squirt clouds of squid ink over *checks notes* vote counting. I’ve seen videos of Trump supporters in one state demanding that the count be stopped, while supporters in another state demand it be continued. Leaving that aside, here are a few things to think about over the next days and months:

  • The future of the Republican party: After enabling Trump for four years, senior Republicans may have finally found a red line. Republicans like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have challenged Trump’s unfounded claims about voter fraud. Court stacker extraordinaire Mitch McConnell tentatively backed the President saying: “In a close election you can anticipate in some of these states you are going to end up in court, (it’s) the American way.”

    I suspect Republicans will humor Trump for as long as it is vaguely legal, but will drop him at the first sign of real trouble. They got a conservative court, hundreds of federal judge appointments, and maybe even the Senate out of his Presidency. Biden taking over is not all bed. They can pin the recession and out-of-control pandemic on him, and set themselves up for 2024.

    Looking ahead, Trump has shown that socially conservative working class populism is the GoP’s way forward. When combined with gerrymandering, the electoral college, and judicial appointments, appealing to a radicalized minority is an effective strategy. (There is a certain irony that the electoral college, which in theory forces candidates to have broad appeal across the country, actually concentrates power among rural minorities and a few battleground states.) I expect the party to continue shedding its overt racism to pick up socially conservative minorities; Latin voters turned to Trump in large numbers this election. I expect the party will try and find a more stable, less fickle, version of Trump for 2024
  • Gridlock in Washington: Right now it looks possible that Republicans will maintain control of the Senate, while Democrats hold the House and Presidency. Add to that a conservative leaning court, and there is a recipe for a whole lot of nothing. The NYT reports that business groups are already looking forward to an administration where the rhetoric is toned down, but no serious progressive legislation can pass the Senate.
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An America tied up in domestic battles is unlikely to take any meaningful progressive leadership on the global stage. This is bad news for global climate change (although Biden has announced the US will rejoin Paris) and domestic progressive reform. This might encourage the EU and China to step up further, we shall see.

  • Trump: All I can say here is that I expect his claims about voter fraud to become this cycle’s equivalent of the Birther conspiracy, turbo-charged by an ex-President mouthing off about it every day.
  • Splintered inside and out: A recurring preoccupation of mine is the contrast between US military and financial hegemony and its declining economic and soft power. The US military still has no serious military competitors (except perhaps in cyber), the Federal Reserve is the world’s central bank, and the US dollar is still firmly the reserve currency. Shale has turned the US from an oil importer to an oil exporter. On the other hand, the US share of the world economy has been shrinking for decades, its under pressure technologically, and soft power has taken a hit since Trump. Trump’s tariffs sanctions are an example of how military or financial power can be used to correct for an economic gap.

    How does a power react to a decline in some areas but not others? What changes when we add schizophrenic domestic politics? I’m not sure yet, but I promise to keep thinking about it.

It could be (much) worse

I remember exactly where I was four years ago. My manager was American, but insisted I at least pretend to work. A New Yorker, I suspect she thought the election was a foregone conclusion. By lunch (Australian time), she was watching the live feed with me as a horrified silence crept across the office. I went to a bar later with some friends and we watched Trump’s acceptance speech while two men in MAGA hats danced nearby. The hats had not yet lost their circus performer quality and we watched them a little confused.

The absurd has long given way to the sinister. Trump has already promised to tie up the results in court. His supporters surrounded a Biden campaign bus as it drove through Texas. The fact that they were armed, as they tried to force an opponent’s campaign bus off the road, barely merits a click in today’s climate.

As an antidote to a world that sometimes feels on the verge of disintegration, here are some accounts from times when the civilized world really did collapse. The Silk Roads (which I’ve discussed here and here) recounts how contemporaries reacted to the sack of Rome in 410 A.D.:

In Jerusalem, the news was met with disbelief. ‘The speaker’s voice failed, and sobs interrupted his speech,’ wrote St. Jerome, ‘the city that had conquered the whole world had itself been conquered… who could believe it?’ Who could believe that Rome, built up through the ages by the conquest of the world, had fallen, that the mother of nations had become their tomb?’

Nearly 800 years later, the then centre of world civilization – Baghdad – was also dealt a fatal blow. This is how a contemporary described the bloody swathe cut by the Mongols through the Muslim world:

I wish I had never been born, wrote another, so I would not have had to live through such traumas. At least the Muslim Antichrist will only destroy his enemies, he went on; the Mongols, on the other hand, ‘spared none. They killed women, men, children, ripped open the bodies of the pregnant and slaughtered the unborn.’

Petrarch on The Black Plague:

Our hopes for the future have been buried alongside our friends

Happy Election Day. Please vote if you can.