Reliving 2016

Republicans in the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency appear to be fighting the 2016 race without end. Old George W. Bush hands now appear on MSNBC and regularly criticize Trump with more glee than any Democrat. Nicolle Wallace, particularly, former communication director under Bush 2, makes clear not only her disagreement with the president but also her contempt.

From DACA to gun control, Wallace and her panelists, including former John McCain advisor Steve Schmidt and the Rev. Al Sharpton, have managed to merge activism and policy. Gone is the “no labels” approach taken by Mark McKinnon and Ken Mehlman, former Republican National Committee head. Wallace and others have been radicalized by Trump. No longer do they look for help from Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, they are dismissed as either lost souls or subservient to the White House.

For the GOP, these twist and turns come regularly throughout their history. During the 1950s rightwingers persisted in deriding President Dwight Eisenhower as a “me too” Republican because what he promoted was, as Barry Goldwater stated, a “dime store New Deal.” These conservatives, after 1964 when Goldwater was defeated, decided to find other champions, some like Ronald Reagan, who they believed offered voters a clear choice.

While in the wilderness they followed Richard Nixon, while some, a little more impatient, were attracted to George Wallace, the populist Alabama Democrat. Nixon, eager to harness the voters, played on resentments against the press while delineating the electorate into two camps. If you were true blue you were Republican; if Democrat somehow you were labeled exotic.

This politics of resentment found a home with Ronald Reagan. But Reagan was too pragmatic and jovial to lead that kind of revolt. Over time he became, in his own way, an Eisenhower-style Republican. Certainly both Bushes leaned in that direction, although in foreign policy they came closer to Democrats Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.

Which leads us to Trump, who managed to unite every thread of resentment in American life to win the 2016 election. He appealed to Americans who felt alienated by cultural and economic trends they saw as marginalizing them in social and political life. It goes a long way in explaining Trump’s up and down presidency.

What goes unnoticed is how he agrees with Democrats, all the while bashing them. In September 2017, faced with a shutdown, Trump agreed to Charles Schumer’s and Nancy Pelosi’s budget. Swearing never to do it again, Trump nevertheless agreed to it once more in March 2018. Once more he, trying to rally the “base,” acted as if he never wanted to embrace anything coming from the Democrats. Ironically, as in 2017, Trump’s popularity rose in 2018 largely because he compromised.

For all his bluster, Trump remains, as a Catholic cleric described him in 2016, “the loudmouth with a heart of gold.” Unable to give full expression to his business progressivism, he often appears unstable and choleric. Perhaps it is time to follow a different and more sustainable path.