Republican pundits have been beside themselves about the rise of Donald Trump. Charles Krauthammer proclaimed that Trump’s candidacy “will damage the [Republican] party” because Trump isn’t a “serious” candidate. George Will said Trump was an “affront” to those focused on “making conservatism intellectually respectable and politically palatable.” Bill Kristol even said that he would support a third-party candidate over Trump.
Yet Trump’s position is attributable to what Republicans have been doing for decades to denigrate government and expertise.
It’s not about Trump but what we could call Trumpism. Its rise has led to all the outsiders doing well.
Carly Fiorina sounded confident debating but she’s never served in government. Fiorina followed up from doing terribly as CEO of Hewlett Packard to losing decisively to Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California. Last week she was seriously off on foreign policy and climate change. Told that tapes of Planned Parenthood didn’t show what she claimed, she doubled down.
Ben Carson, a surgeon with no political or government experience and very limited policy knowledge, is doing well in national polls and in Iowa and some other states.
While lazy commentators compare Trump (and sometimes Carson and Fiorina) to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, they’re completely off base. Sanders had four terms of mayor of Burlington, and he delivered, protecting consumers and revitalizing the downtown. And that was before serving in the U.S. House and Senate. Sanders won his last election with 71 percent of the vote.
Just as absurd are comparisons between outsider Republicans and President Reagan. Before running for president, Reagan was governor of California. He was a principled pragmatist who both cut and raised taxes and propounded an optimistic view of a nation that is welcoming to immigrants.
Whatever you think of their policies, every Democratic candidate has had extensive experience in government.
But for decades, Republican elites have promoted the idea that government, especially the institutions they don’t control, is awful.
In trying to take congressional control from Democrats in 1994, Newt Gingrich urged Republican candidates to characterize their opponents and Congress itself with 64 specific words, including “corrupt,” “pathetic,” “radical,” “abuse of power,” and “sick.” Denigrating Congress was a flip from promoting congressional power during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.
Ginning up suspicion toward and fear of government was endemic when Congress worked on the Affordable Care Act. Sarah Palin’s absurd claim of “death panels” is most famous, but others used similar language, some crafted by strategist Frank Luntz.
A 2009 memo from Luntz advised Republicans to claim there would be a “Washington takeover.” After all, “Takeovers are like coups. They lead to dictators and a loss of freedom.”
Tying the ACA to rationing, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said, “In a government-run system, the government decides who gets treatment in medicine and who doesn’t. That means the government decides who lives, who dies.” None of this was true, but it promoted distrust in government.
Republicans too often stand against experts. What a change from when the party was associated with the Progressive Movement’s embrace of trained professionals for governing a century ago.
Now it’s common to hear Republicans brush aside what major scientific organizations say about climate change, often with claims scientists are corrupt and in league with insidious politicians. Trump falsely links immunizations and autism.
Empirical reality is overlooked. As the unemployment rate falls and the percentage of Americans with health insurance surges, some Republicans still claim Obamacare isn’t working and that it’s killing the economy.
While both parties have their share of strangeness, political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein note that this turn away from pragmatism increasingly characterizes today’s Republicans.
Research by veteran reporter Jackie Calmes attributes these dynamics to a conservative media who “don’t give a damn about governing.” Those media have stoked the xenophobia and birtherism Trump espouses.
And so today’s top Republican candidates are people who have never governed, propelled by a party base that all too frequently embraces their know-nothingism. Considering that nearly half of Republicans falsely believe Obama is Muslim, it’s no surprise that Trump didn’t correct a man who said so.
Establishment Republican criticisms of Trump are often grounded in fears their party is completely turning off Latino voters and young people.
But it must be said: The party is reaping what it sowed.