Trump’s European trip last week provided another occasion for pundits to proclaim that “this is not normal.” In fact, Trump is almost completely normal for today’s Republican Party. His views of what government should be and do represent the logical endpoints of positions that various factions within the Republican Party have been promoting for many years. What is new is Trump’s bluntness, his complete lack of subtlety. To his supporters, this is seen as refreshingly honest. Even Trump’s many lies are so crudely executed that they count for his adherents as signs of authenticity. He speaks his mind, as they see it, without any premeditation, which is often offensive and frequently inaccurate, but is always a true picture of his feelings at that moment. It is this quality that won him the Republican primaries last year.
Trump’s already notorious Poland speech last week presented an undisguised contempt for American traditions. His model for governance as laid out in the speech was medieval in its depiction of a holy war between a West that includes Putin’s Russia and the Islamic world. This is where Trump’s insistence on the term “Radical Islam” leads us. In this worldview, the United States is a Christian nation with a sacred mission to take on the greatest enemy of the faith. The notion of the US as a Christian nation is one that Trump certainly did not invent. The Republican Party has been actively seeking to fan and exploit religious feeling at least since the Roe v Wade decision in 1973. The religious right was a well developed and cultivated phenomenon by the time Trump began his candidacy in 2015. Likewise, it was George W Bush, in the wake of the 2011 attack, who first exploited these views in his foreign policy decisions.
Trump is considered “not normal” too for his overt racism and xenophobia. Here too, however, he is simply saying openly what has been spoken of in code until now. This is Nixon’s southern strategy run amuck, but is not something new in Republican thought. The job of the president and the government, in this view, is to represent “real Americans”. Reagan’s welfare queens and the infamous Willie Horton ad are two of the precedents for Trump’s embrace of the ideas of people like Steve Bannon. This manifests as policy in the longstanding attempts by the Republican Party to destroy safety net programs by depicting them as handouts to people who “are not like us”, so it should come as no surprise that such attempts have become more ferocious in the current Congress. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have been working on this since long before Trump came to power, but he leaves no doubt that he will sign whatever legislation they can send him.
In the European trip, Trump reminded us of his admiration for Putin’s model of how to wield power. Russian elections are nothing more than endorsements of the prevailing ruling power. Their outcomes are entirely predictable, because they are controlled. But Trump did not invent American strategies for voter suppression. Here too we see the exploitation of something that was a Republican initiative long before Trump. By the same token, even if the Trump campaign did collude with the Russians to sabotage the election last year, both Trump and Putin were simply exploiting a media landscape that was born when Republicans succeeded in eliminating the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine in 1973. Modern technology, the internet in particular, have made it far easier to spread biased and even false information, but the removal of the requirement to present opposing viewpoints is what set us on this course.
Trump is also not the first Republican president to believe that his will should be law. In Russia, Putin is wielding power in much the same way as the Communist leaders of old. Nixon also believed that the presidency allowed him to use power however he pleased, but our system of checks and balances held him back then. Now, with the modern Republican Party in control of all branches of our government, it is not clear that Trump’s misuses of power will be checked. There have been almost no signs of any Howard Bakers, ready to challenge the authority of a president from his own party in the name of the greater good. It comes down to a view of government that should be unconstitutional, and would be if Republicans over the years had not made so many judicial appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court.
The sick irony here is that this is just the kind of governance the Founding Fathers of our nation were rebelling against. State religions were a phenomenon of European nations at the time, England in particular. The modern Tea Party stands in opposition to the ideals that prompted the actual Boston Tea Party. Those original Americans wanted elections that empowered all free men, although they lacked the foresight to include women, and they lacked the vision to abolish slavery. What they did do is deliberately create a system that would facilitate these improvements later. They wanted elections where the outcome was uncertain, where the best man could win. They tried to build in safeguards to prevent a man like Donald Trump from becoming president, or to facilitate his removal if that became necessary. Some of the most important of those safeguards were the rights of free speech, a free press, and the right to peaceably assemble and protest. The Founding Fathers knew that we needed to have a free flow of good information in order to make the best choices for the governing of our nation.
So yes, Donald Trump embraces racism, seeks absolute power, and hopes to use the religious right to further his agenda. What is new is that Trump does so so openly and bluntly. He couches nothing in polite language. Where other Republicans might be playing an elaborate chess game, Trump resorts to professional wrestling. It’s ugly, seeking to appeal to our basest impulses, but it allows him to present his battles as entertainment. He can make the Poland speech, because he has conditioned us to expect him to say outrageous things, but he hopes to blunt our outrage through repetition and sheer fatigue. The goals, and the worldview that supports them, have been part of the Republican Party for decades. Trump was simply the first one to realize that it was time to express them openly.
For my musical selection this week, I present Kate Bush contemplating the risks of deception. This one has an official music video that is a fine example of just how bad 1980s music videos could be. Trust me, it’s much better to just stare at the album cover, and let your imagination do the rest of the work: