In 2010 an explosion at a coal mine operated by Massey Energy killed 29 men. In 2015 Don Blankenship, the company’s former CEO, was sent to prison for conspiring to violate mine safety standards. In 2018, Blankenship appears to have a real chance at becoming the Republican candidate for senator from West Virginia.
Blankenship is one of four Republicans with criminal convictions running for office this year, several of whom may well win their party’s nominations. And there is a much broader list of Republican politicians facing credible accusations of huge ethical lapses who nonetheless emerged victorious in GOP primaries, ranging from Roy Moore to, well, Donald Trump.
To be sure, there have been plenty of crooked Democrats. But usually the revelation of their crookedness ended their political careers. What’s striking about today’s Republican landscape is that people who are obvious crooks, con men or worse continue to attract strong support from the party’s base. Moore narrowly lost in Alabama’s special election, but he received 91 percent of the votes of self-identified Republicans.
And Trump, although unprecedentedly unpopular for a president at this stage of his term, continues to receive overwhelming support from the GOP base. Some Republican politicians have openly admitted that this makes the party’s congressional wing unwilling to hold Trump accountable for even the most spectacular malfeasance, up to and including possible collusion with a hostile foreign power.
What’s going on here? I don’t think it’s an accident that the modern GOP contains so many crooks and that these crooks seem to thrive in intraparty politics. On the contrary, the success of people like Blankenship – or Trump – was an inevitable consequence of the political strategy Republicans have followed for decades. For the simple truth is that ever since Reagan, Republicans have basically played a con game on American voters.
Their sustained, invariant agenda has been upward redistribution of income: cutting taxes on the rich while weakening the social safety net. This agenda is unpopular: Only a small minority of Americans wants to see tax cuts for the wealthy, and an even smaller minority wants cuts to major social programs. Yet Republicans have won elections partly by denying the reality of their policy agenda, but mainly by posing as defenders of traditional social values – above all, that greatest of American traditions, racism.
And this sustained reliance on the big con has, over time, exerted a strong selection effect both on the party’s leadership and on its base. GOP politicians tend disproportionately to be con men (and in some cases, con women), because playing the party’s political game requires both a willingness to and a talent for saying one thing while doing another. And the party’s base consists disproportionately of the easily conned – those who are easily fooled by claims that Those People are the problem and don’t notice how much the true Republican agenda hurts them.
The point is that Trumpism was more or less fated to happen. Trump’s crude racism and blatant dishonesty are only exaggerated versions of what his party has been selling for decades, while his substantive policy agenda – slashing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, taking health care away from lower-income families – is utterly orthodox.
Even his protectionism is less of a departure from Republican norms than people imagine. George W. Bush put tariffs on steel, while Reagan limited imports of Japanese autos. Cutting taxes on the rich is a fundamental GOP principle; free trade isn’t.
Once you realize the extent to which Republican politics has been shaped by the big con, three implications follow.
First, there will be no redemption from within. Principled, ethical politicians won’t reclaim the party from the likes of Trump, because they’re not what the base wants: The modern GOP is no country for honest men. Con artists will continue to rule until or unless the party loses big, repeatedly, and spends years in the political wilderness.
Second, however, the party is indeed vulnerable, because there’s always the risk that voters will catch on to its con. Republican attacks on health care, not lurid scandals, seem to have been the biggest factor behind Democratic victories in special elections. And in November this backlash could give Democrats not just one or both houses of Congress, but also control of many state governments.
But what if it doesn’t? Here’s the third implication, which should scare you: The nature of the modern GOP’s game gives it a bias against democracy. After all, one way to protect yourself against voters who figure out what you’re up to is to stop them from voting. Vote suppression and extreme gerrymandering are already key parts of Republican strategy, but what we’ve seen so far may be just the beginning.
And if you think GOP leaders would balk at gross electoral manipulation, you haven’t been paying attention. There used to be Republicans like that, but they’ve been gone for a long time.