American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump. By Tim Alberta. HarperCollins; 612 pages; $29.99.
If Donald Trump’s shock election in 2016 caught you by surprise, no single work of journalism will quite get you caught up — you’d have to fill an entire bookshelf.
But if Trump’s takeover of the GOP through the 2016 primary and his continued sway over the party still intrigue you, you’d be sorted by reading one title alone. In the age of Woodwardesque pseudo-reporting and other journalistic frauds, Tim Alberta’s American Carnage makes for indispensable political non-fiction. Its meticulously sourced and fact-checked 612 pages chronicle every step in the GOP’s degeneration into its current state of populist temper, policy incongruence and Trumpist sycophancy.
“Never has a President so ruthlessly exploited the insecurity of his people”, writes Alberta about the populist anger that fueled Trump’s race to the Presidency. The lesser-known story is just how long that anger had been simmering below the surface.
Alberta traces it back to Newt Gingrich’s lambasting of the media in the 2012 primary, to the Tea Party wave of 2010, to Sarah Palin’s populist coloring of the 2008 ticket, and to the GOP base’s souring on George W. Bush over growing deficits and big-government policies. A lengthier history of the GOP would include the paleoconservative Pat Buchanan’s race against George H. Bush in 1992, or Barry Goldwater’s brand of anti-New Deal conservatism through the 60’s and 70’s.
These are all key flashpoints in the GOP base´s long anger story with the establishment, but the first fever pitch wasn’t reached until Sarah Palin’s burst into the national scene as John McCain’s running mate in 2008. The ’08 crash, Alberta recounts, added a thick layer of socioeconomic dislocation on top of the political resentment on the right at G.W. Bush’s deficit-fueled wars and straying away from conservative dogmas on issues such as No Child Left Behind and Medicare part D.
The Alaska governor’s inclusion on the 2008 ticket was a canary in the coal mine, or in Karl Rove’s famous terms: “we went from wanting experienced and qualified leaders to people who would throw bombs and blow things up — Trump was the ultimate expression but Palin was the early warning bell”.
But the insurgent wave inside the GOP crests with the Tea Party’s showing in the 2010 midterms — granted, with all the financial and organizational help of the Koch network. Alberta’s finest reporting is of the subsequent tussle for the party’s legislative agenda under John Boehner’s speakership, with detailed scenes of the Freedom Caucus´ secret plotting against the Speaker´s bipartisan efforts. In an interview with Alberta, Boehner called the Caucus´ members “legislative terrorists”. The Ohioan’s record for cutting budget deals in smoke-filled rooms with Obama’s allies made him at once a paragon of civility and a target for the scorn of the insurgent class of 2010.
In short, the GOP was ready to be hijacked long before Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his 2016 bid. Though a donor to both the McCain and Romney campaigns, he’d begun styling himself as an anti-establishment champion by attacking them both for being spineless wimps who’d sowed the seeds of their own defeat by showing deference to Obama’s character. This prescience in sensing the anger brewing in the base, Alberta concedes, had given Trump an early edge over every one of his 15 opponents before the 2016 primary got under way.
In terms of policy, Trump’s upset of the Republican playbook with his America First agenda wasn’t without precedent either. By 2010 it had become clear the GOP’s orthodoxy had been rendered obsolete by the base’s embrace of populism. Once a pillar of the party’s so-called “three-legged stool” (along with a robust national defense and social conservatism), calls for limited government and the gospel of free trade had begun to ring hollow to a Midwestern working-class electorate in the throes of economic turmoil at a scale not seen since the Great Depression.
The deepening gulf on policy between party leaders and the base was best typified by Romney´s offhanded comment caught on tape that “47 percent of people will vote for the President no matter what” because they were “dependent upon government, believed they are victims, that the government has a responsibility to care for them and that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it”.
But Romney’s 47% gaffe was only the tip of the iceberg: his insistence on making work pay and abolishing the so-called “death tax” were alien to a growing share of GOP voters on the receiving end of some kind of welfare, and rarely the owners of any estate. By the time the Harvard-educated former Bain partner won the nomination, free trade, low taxes and open migration had become the stuff of country club conservatism.
However, a key thread running through the book is how little policy mattered in the populist overhaul of the GOP. The anger in the base was so raw, so coarse that it mattered less what policies were put forth to channel it as long as they became a thorn in the establishment’s side. Think of the diametrically opposed agendas of the Tea Party and Donald Trump: fiscal orthodoxy and laissez-faire fundamentalism vs. tariffs and heavy state aid to countervail their effect.
The irony is that beneath both agendas lie the same disgruntled base. The swift conversion to Trumpism of Freedom Caucus stalwarts such as Mark Meadows and Jim Jordan has prompted Alberta and others to label the entire Tea Party adventure as a downright farce in retrospect. A more nuanced reading would discern the Tea Party’s focus on fighting the spenders rather than the spending itself: a bloated elite in Congress seen as unaccountable to the people who put them in power. In this view, fiscal conservatism is less about actually reining in deficits than about tying up those with the power of the purse.
Alberta is right, however, to dissect the Tea Party as a cultural movement at its core, an early warning of the social and demographic trends that would explode into full view with Trump’s election: a country growing apart from itself where one side feels no longer at home. The Tea Party’s staunch reaffirming of constitutional principles can be seen as a way to assert jus soli for a faction ever more economically distressed and alienated by a mainstream culture deserting the heartland for the liberal cosmopolitanism of the coasts.
Granted, populism is a tendency fueled by anger, and angry populists only care so much about actual policies. But a fuller account of the GOP’s transformation would include some mention of the reformicons. Alberta declines to tell the important story of the loose group of opinion writers and think-tank scholars who sensed the rapid obsolescence of free-market orthodoxy in the post-2008 political landscape.
Just as the GOP began diagnosing an urgent need to reach out to minorities in its widely broadcast 2012 autopsy report following Romney´s narrow loss, a motley crew of visionaries had embarked on a similar process on the policy side. Their work matters for two reasons. It is a window into the future of a GOP that’s burned the bridges to its free-market orthodoxies of old, and it helps contextualize the not-so-firm opposition to Trump’s shattering of said orthodoxies.
Think of trade. There was a time when establishment Republicans were so in love with free trade they saw no point in touting its benefits to their constituencies. Yet as China’s exports began threatening entire living ecosystems in the Midwest that revolved around stable, middle-class jobs and a pathway to the American Dream, it took a select few writers from America’s finest conservative think-tanks and opinion pages to chart a different course for a party whose electoral fortunes had already began to rely on those same segments of the electorate.
Fast forward to now. Trump’s tariffs, surely, are no Republican’s cup of tea (I am not counting you, Pete Navarro). But if some have come around to the idea of penalizing with some form of barriers to trade, at the very least, China´s theft of American IP or its heavy subsidizing of state-owned companies, it is in large part due to the intellectual groundwork laid by scholars such as Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute — their work has radically changed how Washington talks trade. A similar dynamic holds for other policy fights such as over the child tax credit.
American Carnage looks back at a decade of interlaced trends in politics, demographics and discourse leading to the era of Trump — but its pages hold a great deal of cues too about where the GOP may go with his first term drawing to a close. Why has the Republican establishment been so weary of crossing the President? How much of that allegiance is genuine self-interest, and how much of it is “obscene bootlicking”, Alberta’s phrase for Mike Pence’s praising of Trump’s every word and deed?
The picture that emerges from Alberta’s book isn’t as damning of Trump’s party as the media would have you believe. Republicans, the book’s 300 interviews with lawmakers, administration officials and party worthies show, aren’t cowards so much as they’re duplicitous. Just as they confide their utmost disgust at Trump’s tone and some of his policies in private, they face a set of constraints that leave little room to make their true feelings towards the President publicly known.
On one hand, the President and congressional Republicans stand on the same electoral base, one that Trump, not them, has riled up to turn out in greater numbers than at any other primary race in GOP history. Heading into what promises to be a nasty impeachment cycle, Trump’s approval among them is 95%, a figure Republicans know they can’t beat.
On the other, despite Trump’s tearing up of GOP policy orthodoxy, he has delivered on some of the core pillars that Republicans have dedicated entire careers to advance. If they want to keep the judges, the tax cuts, the deregulation and other successes coming, their thinking goes, they’d better stay in Trump’s good graces to keep wielding a positive influence over his erratic instincts.
And there goes the party of Lincoln’s current state: a base thirsting for populist victories, a narcissistic President who’s staked his success on delivering them, and a cadre of establishment wimps who dare not cross him for want of a share in those same political wins. Who said standing on principle was easy?