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Trump's coup: How loyalty replaced morality as the GOP's core message

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Trump's coup: How loyalty replaced morality as the GOP's core message

Stephen H. Provost

Donald Trump doesn’t like the Koch Brothers. This should come as no surprise. Trump always operates based on three generalized assumptions:

  1. The establishment is bad.
  2. The status quo is bad.
  3. He’s the victim.

The Koch Brothers are about as “establishment” as you can get.

Trump’s pedigree as an outsider railing against the corrupt proletariat (to use the old-line communist term for it) goes back a long way. Let’s look at some of the evidence:

His antipathy toward former President Barack Obama is well-documented. Whether it’s because of his racial heritage or the fact that he remains a beloved figure by millions of Americans, Trump clearly can’t stand the guy. He not only spread lies about his birthplace, he also called him “one of the worst presidents, maybe in the history of our country” and made the outlandish claim that “he founded ISIS” (the terrorist group, not the Egyptian goddess).

One might expect Trump to attack the leader of the opposition. But what’s striking is how readily and how often he disparages members of his own party. Not only is this counterintuitive, but it breaks what’s known in Republican circles as the Eleventh Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Those words were uttered by none other than the most venerated Republican of the 20th century – at least within GOP circles: Ronald Reagan, the man nearly every GOP candidate sought to emulate for nearly four decades.

Trump’s bad blood with the Bush family (which is about as “establishment” as you can get: two presidents and a governor) runs so deep that neither former president voted for him in 2016 – even though they belong to the same party. Trump called the younger Bush’s decision to invade Iraq “the single worst decision ever made.”

Trump also attacked the Republican Party’s most well-known and, arguably, most revered senator, John McCain, saying, “He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

And in 2016, he called Mitt Romney “one of the dumbest and worst candidates in the history of Republican politics.” In short, he’s disparaged his own party’s last three presidential nominees in the kind of vicious terms usually reserved for enemies of the state.

But he didn’t stop with those in government. The NFL, the pinnacle of corporate success in the sports world, and the Koch Brothers, perhaps the party’s most reliable and generous donors in recent years, were next.

Perpetual outsider

Trump’s distaste for the establishment is deep-seated. He’s been on the outside looking in much of his life. He was a developer in Queens who wanted to succeed in Manhattan. He was the owner of a spring football league team who wanted to play with the big boys in the NFL. (The owners kept him out; is it any wonder he’s trying to make life miserable for them now?)

It would be easy – and probably accurate, on some level – to view Trump’s heavy-handed approach to the presidency as the work of a control freak with authoritarian tendencies. But there’s more to it than that. Trump has spent so much time on the outside, he doesn’t know how to be an insider. More than that, he doesn’t want to be. He wants to refashion the presidency in his own image, not just because he’s a know-it-all with a massive ego (he is), but also because he doesn’t trust the establishment.

If it appears that Trump is a threat to the nation’s institutions, it’s because he doesn’t value them. He looks at them with suspicion as the instruments those in power used for so long to suppress his “superior” way of doing things. He might pay lip service to the Constitution, but he has no interest in maintaining the prestige of the presidency. He doesn’t care about old money or old ideas; he has his own way of doing things, and it’s “modern-day presidential.”

He tweeted that.  

So, what is Trump’s way of doing things? About the only thing consistent about his philosophy, other than the economic protectionism that inspired the current trade war with China, is its volatility.

The fact that the establishment wants to “keep things the way they are” helps explain why Trump is so hostile to the status quo. But his impulse to cause chaos goes beyond that. Trump needs chaos in order to feel comfortable, so if there isn’t an enemy to fight, he creates one ... either by goading someone into getting down in the gutter with him or manufacturing a conflict where none existed before. The endgame: to depict himself as the victor, whether or not he truly accomplished anything.

The national anthem controversy with the NFL, the “Merry Christmas” crusade and the summits with foreign leaders all pit Trump against an adversary he can claim to have bested, whether not he’s actually done so. In the end, it doesn’t matter. He’s amassed a loyal enough following that those who believe in him will continue to do so, no matter how outlandish the claim. (This is, by the way, undoubtedly why loyalty is so important to Trump: It’s a necessary bulwark against those pesky things called facts and data. Climate change. Obama’s birth certificate. The size of his inaugural crowd. The list goes on and on.)

Trump’s insistence on upending the status quo, for good or ill, perpetuates his victimhood. He gets to depict himself as the much-maligned underdog who somehow comes out on top. That’s an archetype that resonates with a lot of Americans. Whether or not it truly applies to a billionaire real estate developer and reality show host, he’s convinced them that it does, and that’s all that matters.

He gets to be the victim and be “winning” at the same time. Talk about chaotic.

Whither conservatism?

The irony about Trump’s approach is that it isn’t conservatism. Not only has Trump badmouthed, at one time or another, most of the senior figures in the Republican Party, he’s turned the GOP on its head. Conservatism generally defends the status quo, but Trump has challenged it at every turn, defying party orthodoxy on everything from tariffs to Russia; depicting enemies as friends and vice versa. There’s a good reason many see Trump’s tactics as something out of George Orwell’s 1984: He hasn’t just changed the equation, he’s inverted it.

trojan-horse-607574.jpg

He’s succeeded because he’s tapped into a large segment of the population that identifies with his victimization: aging white America. They don’t see the status quo as conservative anymore; they see it as an artificial construct foisted upon them by Democrats who have unleashed “diversity” as a Trojan horse inside the gates of Fortress America. (Hence the quest for a border wall.) Trump has also forged common ground with Republicans – and some independents – who believe that the Democratic Party is a tool of big-money liberals and corrupt Clinton cronies.

And the Koch Brothers? Charles Koch recently indicated his organization would consider supporting Democrats who shared the group’s values. There may not be many of those, but regardless, those words were likely music to Trump’s ears. He doesn’t want any part of the Koch Brothers and their establishment Republican politics. Tying them to Democrats enables him to do two things: discredit them as traitors among rank-and-file party members and reinforce his narrative that the Democrats are puppets of the monied establishment.

Trump can then refashion the Republican Party as a party of the working class, at least on the surface, depriving Democrats of a foundation that dates back to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He’s seeking to force political a realignment the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Southern Democrats abandoned the party for the GOP during the Reagan years, when Christian conservatism was flexing its political muscles under the likes of Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.

Purging the Establishment

Trump has retained this social conservatism as an element of his movement (although, as a New Yorker with little religious pedigree, he has no personal stake in it). Now he’s adding economic populism to the mix; it’s a natural fit, and one that’s at odds with the Koch Brothers’ vision of corporate dominance. This realignment makes sense strategically, and also, not coincidentally, fits perfectly into Trump’s anti-establishment crusade.

It’s appealing to many in the economic lower classes because they’re often rural-based social conservatives who feel uncomfortable relying on urban secular Democrats to protect their economic interests. They don’t trust them. They had a natural distrust of Hillary Clinton (who, it should be remembered, abandoned Arkansas for New York), and Trump stoked this distrust to his own benefit by relentlessly portraying Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.”

One reason Trump’s base is so solid is because Bible Belt conservatism and blue-collar populism are such a natural fit. Instead of relying on an uneasy coalition of corporate heavies and “values voters,” he’s creating a more natural alignment between social conservatives and the working class – specifically, the white working class. In doing so, he’s narrowed overall party support, which is to be expected because homogenous groups are less broad-based than coalitions. But he’s also solidified it, because “purity” breeds loyalty – to other members of the movement and to Trump in particular.

Loyalty is exactly what Trump wants. He eats up the resulting pseudo-messianic adoration at pep rallies designed to attract true believers. It feeds on itself and strengthens the foundation of the movement, even as it alienates those on the outside.

Folding the big tent

Trump’s approach flies in the face of Republican attempts, largely unsuccessful, to expand the party by pursuing a “big tent” approach advocated by the Bushes and others. By contrast, Trump’s motto is, “If you’re not for me, you’re against me.” His message: People shouldn’t have to apologize for what they believe and who they are. This, of course, is why such fringe groups as white supremacists are so strongly attracted to Trumpism: Membership isn’t predicated on philosophy, but on loyalty. He doesn’t have to come right out and embrace them. His willingness to overlook their most repugnant ideas is enough.

Establishment Republicans, for the most part, have seen little choice but to go along with the program, and they’ve no one to blame but themselves. In creating “safe” districts via gerrymandering, they’ve unwittingly engineered the perfect platform for Trump: pockets of true believers who fit Trump’s sweet spot – working-class social conservative – like a glove. Traditional GOP members can’t go against Trumpism without all but guaranteeing they’ll lose in the primary.

The result is that the Republican Party doesn’t stand for much of anything anymore. It exists at Trump’s pleasure and can be remade, at a moment’s notice, at his whim. Tariffs? BFF photo ops with Vladimir Putin? Personal behavior that’s about as far from “Christian” as you can get? None of it matters. What matters is loyalty. Welcome to Cosa Nostra Americana.

Ronald Reagan? Who’s that?

Stephen H. Provost is an author, former journalist, historian and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump examines the toxic relationship between journalism and Donald Trump, focusing on the media’s transformation from impartial observer to ringside commentator and sometimes-combatant in the 21st century culture wars.