The Republicans Find Their Elvis

Things are incomprehensible and then they’re not. We couldn’t have a black president and then we did. Whatever your politics – and many really do hate the guy – the idea of a black president isn’t strange at all now. Someday we will have a woman president, and then that too will be no big deal. What she does in office will be the big deal – and one day we may have an openly gay president, and after a few domestic and international crises, no one will give a hoot that he or she is gay. What does it matter? There are problems to solve, and they seem to be asexual. One day we may even have a president who is an atheist, or at least not terribly interested in religion, who says let’s not turn to God, let’s figure this out on our own – or not. One can carry this argument too far – but you never know.

This sort of thing happens all the time in pop culture. In the early forties, at the height of the Big Band Era – Glenn Miller and the Dorsey brothers and all that – in Manhattan, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and their friends started playing Bop – it was called Bebop at the time. No one knew what to make of it. It wasn’t danceable. The improvisations were long and complex and fast and furious, and often only tangentially related to the underling harmonic structure of the song. Fifths and ninths were flatted. Chords were inverted. You needed an advanced degree in music theory to know what the hell was going on, and you certainly couldn’t sing along. Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology” was “How High the Moon” played inside out and sideways – but the new music was vital and exciting. Then it was quite normal. Now it’s called mainstream jazz. Out here, on Sunday nights, the jazz station out of Cal State Long Beach plays a lot of it. The host, Ramsey Lewis, calls his show Classic Jazz. Go figure – but the same thing happened in the fifties with rock ‘n’ roll – odd and raw and subversive at the time. Now it’s “classic rock” on every city’s oldies station. Aging baby boomers listen and remember those Happy Days when things were as they should be – but this had been a big change. Elvis Presley was rock’s Charlie Parker. Someone’s always changing things.

And Donald Trump is the Republican’s Elvis Presley. There’s a growing feeling that the party of Goldwater then Nixon then Reagan then the first Bush and then the second, and of Newt Gingrich in the nineties and of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and Fox News in the last decade, is no more. Trump is the swivel-hips Elvis changing the norm – with the screaming fans and all the rest.

No, really, and Josh Green, writing at Bloomberg Business two days before the first Republican debate, is trying to figure this out:

On Thursday, voters will experience Trump in a much different context: as the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, who not only leads the presidential field by a wide margin but, as a new Bloomberg Politics poll shows, has a powerful appeal to every segment of the Republican electorate. That’s great news for Trump. But if voters start associating his demagogic rantings about Mexican “rapists” not with Trump alone but with the broader Republican Party, his presence in the field could doom the GOP’s efforts to extend its appeal to new voters. “If he got the nomination talking like that, it would be a big problem,” says Grover Norquist, the conservative anti-tax stalwart. Even Trump’s current standing could tarnish the Republican brand, says Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee: “It’s something very scary for the party establishment.”

It may be too late for that:

The Fox News debate will serve, in essence, as Donald Trump’s political bar mitzvah, the moment when he becomes a “Republican” in voters’ eyes, with all the positives and negatives that implies for his party.

Not every Republican worries about a “Trump effect” harming the GOP’s electoral fortunes. “Trump is a flash in the pan,” says Republican strategist John Feehery. “He’s not a serious candidate, no matter what the polls say. He will self-implode.”

Others are hopeful that Trump will “grow into the role” and comport himself in a manner more befitting a presidential frontrunner. “The question is,” says Norquist “is he capable of turning on a dime when the camera shines on him and saying, ‘Here are my standard, boring traditional Republican views’ with maybe a couple of colorful additions?”

But Trump’s broad popularity and enduring strength among Republicans lend credence to a different interpretation: that his candidacy has become the preferred vehicle for Republican voters to express maximal outrage at their own party’s leaders for failing to carry out the agenda they keep promising. It’s one that many conservatives ardently desire: to deport undocumented immigrants, kill Obamacare, overturn Roe v. Wade, and return the GOP to a position of primacy in American politics.

The party broke too many promises:

“If you look at the whole Republican Party, from libertarians to evangelicals to the Tea Party,” says Steele, “you have a group of people who’ve been lied to for thirty-five years. Republican [presidential candidates] have said, ‘Elect us and we’ll do these things.’ Well, they haven’t. And that frustration is manifesting itself in Trump.”

Well, in the fifties, kids got tired of being told that Perry Como was cool – that was a lie – but this is far more serious. Ed Kilgore sees that:

It’s increasingly clear that the great big grownups of the Republican Party have two large problems. In Congress, there are multiple demands for government shutdowns from the ranks of fiscal conservatives (to cut spending), social conservatives (to defund Planned Parenthood) and certain business types (to kill climate change regulations). Schemes to kill the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare (yet again) could make the clamoring for a shutdown almost deafening and impossible to stop until the government’s shutdown and congressional leaders can produce polls showing it’s really hurting the party and the True Cause of Movement Conservatism.

But on a separate track, the GOP will have to cope with a huge and fractious presidential field prone to “base” posturing, which in the current climate means attacking the Republican congressional leadership for insufficient militancy towards Obama and the godless liberals.

Jonathan Chait sees that too:

The official (i.e., non-Trump) Republican Party has experienced its activist base during the Obama years as an incessant and implacable series of demands for ideological purity. Republicans have dutifully complied with every policy demand. They have refused to increase taxes, even at the cost of programs they support, like infrastructure and defense. They quickly withdrew cooperation from all of President Obama’s legislative initiatives, opposed virtually all of his nominees, and joined self-destructive demonstrations of anger they knew would fail.

It has never been enough. Eric Cantor had dutifully toed the party line for his career and even repeatedly sabotaged John Boehner’s nascent attempts to strike a fiscal compromise, and when a right-wing primary challenger defeated him last summer, Republicans decided they had to repudiate … the Export-Import Bank, a tiny and justifiably obscure federal program.

And then there’s Trump:

Next to the tiny ideological bumps Republicans have obsessively smoothed from their record, Trump’s profile of deviations is incomprehensibly vast. He has called himself pro-choice, endorsed single-payer health care, praised Hillary Clinton’s performance as secretary of State, donated to Democrats, and called for a huge onetime tax on existing wealth. It must be galling for the party regulars to prostrate themselves helplessly before the base, purging any hint of independent thought, only to watch a formerly pro-choice, libertine if not liberal Democratic donor, waltz into the lead.

The contrast with Ted Cruz is telling. Cruz has fashioned himself as the leader of the tea-party movement in Washington, and he has mostly grasped the nature of conservative agita. Republicans believe their leaders have done too little to fight the president. “I have yet to meet a person whose criticism of Congress is, ‘You guys haven’t cooperated with Obama enough,'” he announced the other day. (Which is preposterous, of course: Republicans in Congress wouldn’t cooperate with Obama if Obama’s idea was to help Nancy Reagan cross a busy intersection.)

Cruz has the knack for self-destructive political theater, competitive Reagan idolatry, and purer-than-pure factional infighting. But Trump has outdone him not just in celebrity appeal, but in calculated offensiveness. Trump’s crude denunciation of Mexican immigrants as criminals made him the symbol of Republican nativism in the Latino community, yet this only enhanced his appeal. The most staggering indicator of his success to date is not that he has maintained his polling lead. It is that opposition among Republican voters has actually decreased. A month ago 59 percent of likely Republican voters said they would never vote for Trump. That has fallen to one third. The attacks on Trump have actually backfired.

Like Charlie Parker and then Elvis, Trump is hard to explain:

Outsiders have struggled to comprehend how Republican voters can attach themselves to an economic agenda so plainly at odds with their own interest, or whip themselves into a frenzy over a manufactured outrage (whether it is Elián González, ACORN, death panels, or the legitimacy of Obama’s birth). Trump embodies that mysterious X factor that has eluded analysts of all sides. His affect supplies his appeal – he is strong, mad, and, above all, unapologetic in a world that demands that he apologize. Trump is not the spokesman for an idea at all, but the representation of undifferentiated resentment.

Norm Ornstein sees it this way:

We head into the first presidential debate in Cleveland with Donald Trump leading the field and confounding the confident predictions of a slew of pundits that his collapse was at hand – whether after the Mexican-rapists comment, the slam at John McCain as no hero, or other statements that offended elites but only seemed to attract more support from Republican hoi polloi. What explains the Trump bump? The answer is the emerging, even dominant force in the GOP – an angry, anti-establishment, anti-leadership populism that was triggered by the financial crisis and the 2008 bailout, cynically exploited in 2010 and 2012 by the “Young Guns” in the House and other GOP leaders in Congress to convert anger into turnout and elect Tea Party-oriented candidates. This force is now turning on those leaders, creating problems not just in the presidential race, but in a Congress whose leaders face the possibility of implosion ahead.

The angry populism has only grown with conservative rank and file incited to expect the repeal of Obamacare and an Obama capitulation on debt-ceiling showdowns and government shutdowns, ending repeatedly in disappointment. The sharp drop in Republican Party favorability shown in a recent Pew survey was driven by disenchantment among Republicans – an 18 percent decline in only six months.

And Trump is the ideal avatar for these angry populists, perfecting what had been done so far:

Following behind is Ted Cruz, who rode the wave to his Senate election – beating, in a primary, a bedrock conservative who had the misfortune of being an office holder – and then to his role as a thorn in the side of his own party’s establishment. Cruz upped the ante last week with the unprecedented step of calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a liar on the Senate floor as McConnell maneuvered to assuage most of his conference and the business community by securing a vote to salvage the Export-Import Bank. And, the same week, another angry populist, House Republican Mark Meadows, dropped a resolution to remove the Speaker. That’s two shots across the bows of the top-Republican leaders in Congress both Boehner and McConnell – conservative by any objective standard, but neither conservative or radical enough to satisfy the large and restless populist wing of the party.

Of course they should have seen this coming:

After Republicans won the Senate and gained seats in the House in the 2014 midterms, a parade of leaders from Speaker John Boehner and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to McConnell and his deputy John Cornyn said that Republicans were now going to have to share responsibility for governing – meaning no shutdowns, no more fandangos over the debt ceiling, and a positive agenda to send bills reflecting a conservative framework to the president for signature or veto. That included an alternative to Obamacare and action on pressing problems like infrastructure.

But those high expectations were going to come up against the underlying differences in outlook, rules, and electoral dynamics between the two chambers. The Senate worm turns from 2014 when a slew of vulnerable Democrats elected in 2008 were up, to 2016, with many more Republicans up than Democrats, including several elected in the great GOP sweep in 2010 from blue states. The result required McConnell to shape votes and issues to protect them, but with no comparable group among House Republicans. That fact alone meant that most bills that could capture majorities in the Senate would not be acceptable to Republicans in the House, and vice versa. In the House, there is the unusual challenge, especially for Boehner, of finding majorities with Republicans alone. That challenge was itself underscored at the beginning of the new Congress, when despite the excellent election results, 25 Republicans voted against Boehner for Speaker – the largest number of defectors in a century.

The first eight months of the 114th Congress were characterized far more by failure to launch than by policy accomplishments.

Nothing is getting done, or can get done, and now there’s Trump, who says he will fix it all, at the right time:

Remember, all of this will play out in October just as the presidential nominating process is really heating up. As it unfolds, expect the slew of angry-populist presidential candidates, some of them sitting senators, including Trump, Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and others, to push Congress to toughen up, stare Obama and his Democrats down, and push for confrontation. They will do the same, most likely, with the debt ceiling, which has to be raised by November or December, putting additional pressure on McConnell, Boehner et al. And they will join the chorus, raising bloody hell as the primaries and caucuses begin, about the perfidy of their own establishment leaders, getting even more distance from a Washington where Congress is run by Republicans.

And who is better than Donald Trump to lead the Republican sneering at the perfidy of their own establishment leaders?

Earlier, Martin Longman had pointed out their anger:

The right hasn’t just been sold a bill of goods on things like voter fraud and Benghazi and Obamacare. They’ve also been promised a bunch of things that the Republican politicians either had no ability or no intention to fulfill. The Republican bigwigs don’t want to ban abortion. This isn’t Falangist Spain or Paraguay or Saudi Arabia. This isn’t Greece, either, and the GOP leaders have no desire to abolish the IRS. When the Republicans last had a man in the Oval Office, he vastly increased the power of the Department of Education and created a huge new prescription drug entitlement program for the elderly. This wasn’t some aberration. The Republicans who hold federal office aren’t nearly as opposed to federal power as they’d like their base of supporters to believe. They also have the ability to jettison their own bullshit when the bullshit hits the fan, which is why they pay our debts and why they gave the banks a huge bailout despite it contradicting their previously declared ideology. What we’re seeing now is a growing realization that nominating another Bush and expecting these promises to be kept is Einstein’s definition of insanity….

Until you understand what a massive fraud has been perpetrated on the right by the right, you will not begin to understand Trump’s success.

Before he could begin to be plausible, they first had to prepare the ground so that Birtherism would strike these people as plausible. Donald Trump didn’t do that; he just exploited it once it was done. And he’s still exploiting it.

So, when no one you know thinks that Trump will be the nominee, maybe they’re correct. But maybe they just haven’t thought this through because the consequences are too frightening and depressing to contemplate.

Ed Kilgore notes the consequences:

To the Mitch McConnells of the world, this year’s GOP problems – or problem – are maddening, because the party’s strategy is so very simple: get to 2017 without screwing anything up, and then it’s time to talk turkey about this group’s and that group’s demands and IOUs. But “the base” is not only tired of waiting; it realizes its maximum leverage over the GOP is now, and so is its opportunity to take the wheel themselves, whether it’s by forcing a government shutdown strategy on McConnell and Boehner or rejecting safe and sound presidential candidates in favor of Trump… And as “responsible” Republicans battle the chaos, in the background you can hear the soft clucking of chickens coming home to roost.

And so we have something new in Donald Trump, as Trip Gabriel explains here:

He announced a “foolproof” plan to destroy the Islamic State, but said, “I’m not going to tell you what it is tonight.”

He proposed a “great wall” to keep out illegal immigrants, but changed his mind when he visited the Mexican border.

He donated $10,000 to re-elect Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, but in attacking Mr. Walker, blithely revealed that he had no idea of the governor’s record when he made the contribution.

Donald J. Trump, who will be at the center of the first Republican presidential debate Thursday night, may prove as elusive a target to his rivals as a puff of smoke.

That is because Mr. Trump’s popularity – his support in some polls is double that of his closest competitors – is built on his unfettered style, rather than on his positions, which have proved highly fungible.

He may be the first post-policy candidate.

Can we deal with that? Of course we can. In the forties no one knew what to make of this hard bop stuff, and now that’s how jazz is supposed to sound. In the fifties, no one knew what to make of this new rock ‘n’ roll stuff – especially the parents – and now it’s Classic Rock – AARP music for grandparents. In a few years post-policy candidates will be a dime a dozen, and comfortably boring – not to say things will be any better. Someone’s always changing things. The Republicans have found their Elvis – but they should remember what happened to Elvis. It wasn’t pretty.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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