When watching the Republican Presidential debates, one may think the party has been blessed with a healthy selection of candidates. With so many people running in the race for the White House the quality of candidates must be quite good. This makes sense only if you have been blind to what has been happening in the Republican Party after the end of the Bush Era.
In 2008, Republicans lost their hold on power after widespread popular dissatisfaction with the ruling neo-conservative faction of the Republican Party (which aligned itself with the conservative- religious faction). The election of Barack Obama elicited eager re-evaluation of the party’s platform by rank-and-file Republicans. What came next was a party that chose to completely negate everything the ruling Democrats put forward on the negotiating table. Republicans thought by being the ‘Party of No’ they could transcend the problems bubbling up in their own party.
What you see today in the Republican Party is a power void. Each candidate you see represents a warring faction within the party. The party is substantially more to the right today than under Reagan in the 1980s, which means that most of the factions we see on the national stage represent different variations of the political fringe. GOP consultant Jon Lerner is quoted as saying,
“We are now operating in the Obama Republican Party. The old Republican fissures over social issues are submerged and nearly entirely gone. Obama’s lurch to the left on size-of-government issues has created an aggressive Republican reaction on that basis. So today the biggest divide in the GOP is between those who favor accommodating Obama’s big-government approach where politically expedient, and those who reject it altogether.”
Repealing Obamacare may be the one issue cementing Republicans together, but this is at the cost of having no feasible groundwork for what healthcare system would come in its place. The Obamacare argument has become nothing more than an emotional ideological slogan. Chair of the House Republican Study Committee, Rep. Bill Flores of Texas states,
“We’ve made it crystal clear to the American people what we’re against. We need to talk about a couple of other things-what are we for? What is that vision, and what are the issues that put together that vision?”
Let’s look at the party makeup around the end of the Bush Administration where there was mainly two factions operating. John McCain represented the establishment (operating as the conservative establishment) and Mike Huckabee as the embodiment of the social conservatives. There used to be a grouping of center-right moderates (like Rudy Giuliani) but more hawkish factions have absorbed this group.
The Great Recession of 2008 brought about the political fault lines seen today. The fight over the economic stimulus package (and the ensuing bailout of banks) substantiated populist rage against the government. The election of Obama, as the nation’s first African-American president and a liberal Democrat, caused the right-wing community to ponder how they lost their grip on power. With many changes going on inside the country and around the world during the period of the Recession, many self-proclaimed Republicans felt as though their social and cultural identity was under attack. As banks were labeled too-big-to-fail and lavished with expansive bail out packages, the little guy was getting foreclosed. This is what people saw and this is what mattered.
The rise of the Tea Party in 2010 was a game changer for the establishment faction of the Republican Party. Acting as the resurgent populist wing of the party, questions on the size of government and economic policy was noted as the main focus of activists. These issues proved to be a precursor to accepting a more anti-government agenda. With the Tea Party’s success in gaining congressional seats in 2010, the libertarian faction of the party saw a major opportunity to opine its relevance to a broader audience.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (and 2016 Presidential contender) has reaped the benefits of populist politics on the right wing and is promoting one of the more anti- government ideologies within the party. The libertarian wing of the Republican Party has mostly remained on the fringe due to a tenuously defined ideology of free will and a belief in shrinking the role of government politically, economically, and socially.
Libertarianism gained relevance after the Tea Party revolt of 2010 and ensuing belief that Democrats were using “big government” to take away the rights of “real Americans.” Libertarianism was used as an anti-government/anti-Obama movement that primarily focused on the bank bailout of 2008 to broadly oppose social and economic reforms proposed by the newly elected Obama Administration. Right wing populist rage in the form of the Tea Party cemented an ideology of hostility to anything deemed “too liberal.” Republican politicians took advantage of this period of economic instability, which was also wrought with confusion. More extreme actors attached themselves to the grassroots Tea Party movement in order to gain power in Congress.
The social conservative faction is also relevant in relation to the Tea Party. Texas Senator Ted Cruz is a good example of a social conservative that has aligned with the Tea Party. The party’s extreme shift to the right has left Republican legislators with very little room to operate, as they must figure out how they can work with the Republican power-elite (corporatist-establishment backers) while gaining the vote of average people (usually quite conservative socially).
Although Cruz is an important figure within the Tea Party, he is also trying to use the grassroots movement to straddle back into the Republican establishment. This has helped to make the ‘Party of No’, representing a policy of non-compliance, a mainstream position, which fomented the ideological parameters of Republicans as being represented solely by conservative hardliners.
How does this affect the current 2016 Presidential race? By looking at how Republican nominations are won. Henry Olsen of the National Review writes,
“Republican nominations are won by the candidate who understands that the Republican party is a party of factions, and that one cannot be nominated unless two or more of the factions ultimately prefer you to your opponent.”
Republicans must appeal to very conservative religious voters, very conservative secular voters, somewhat conservative voters, and lastly moderate-liberal voters.
To understand how candidates try to appeal to different groups of voters we must take a closer look at what the Republican candidates of 2016 represent in relation to the existing power vacuum. I’ll use examples from the November 10 debate hosted by the Wall Street Journal and Fox News Business.
War on Minimum Wage
The minimum wage debate is one that affects all working Americans. Goods and services have become more expensive but living wages have not been adjusted to the rate of inflation. In a capitalist system where winner takes all, those on the lower income bracket are punished for not understanding how to make money from the market.
Most Americans do not have access to education that can help them learn how to make money from the market, as that takes money that they don’t have. This is an inbuilt inequality that will be a tough fight to fix. But when it comes to the minimum wage, equity in pay according to the value of the dollar is not a privilege, but a right. Unfortunately those in the Republican camp seem keen on punishing unskilled workers who earn just above the poverty line.
We now have a class of Americans called the working poor; those working two or more minimum wage jobs just to have the basic luxuries of an industrial country (shelter, food, etc.). Many of them do not have the opportunity to fight for a better life when dealing with food insecurity and expensive rent.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson voiced their opposition to minimum wage hikes during the November 10 debate.
Trump equated a raise in wages to a country being beaten up around the world. A country that “doesn’t win anymore” cannot afford to redefine poverty.
This may make sense in the mind of a very angry person, one who has possibly seen his or her quality in life diminish due to jobs disappearing in the country. It seems Trump is trying to rally ultra-nationalistic emotions in his followers in order to blind them to their own problems. It’s likely these are people who can benefit from pay equity but feel provoked to carry the weight of America’s geopolitical position on their shoulders. Should pride come before pay?
Ben Carson chimed, “ Every time we raise the minimum wage, the number of jobless people increases.”
This is not necessarily true. Research by more than 600 economists suggests that higher wages can lead to workers spending their job earnings, thus creating a healthy environment for more job growth. This is not a simple black and white issue, as more research has to be done to understand at what percentage wages hikes could risk a decrease in job growth.
Sen. Marco Rubio had one of the more insidious remarks. He stated, “It’s a disaster if you raise the minimum wage. You make people more expensive than machines.”
He ended his statement on a powerful note by saying, “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
He perfectly conflated the issue of the working poor with those on the lower to middle class who have seen their jobs disappear after the Recession of 2008. Here he is proving himself as a man who cares about the working class while at the same time thinks a decent pay wage for most Americans is a disaster. The philosopher comment is a slight attack on the educated elite, those very people who do make more than welders.
Instead of giving examples of how minimum wage hikes can cause economic destabilization, the candidates sought to reflect a widespread emotion that America has fallen behind. This sets the stage for Republicans to point their finger at “the other” while not understanding that an America in transition is not an America in decline. This transition (disappearance of traditional job industries) is due in part to corporations putting profit over people. We have “fallen behind” due to our growing gap between rich and poor.
Who’s that Evil Dodd-Frank Guy?
The Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 is a piece of legislation signed into law to help bring about reform to the financial system after the Great Recession of 2008. It seeks to capitalize banks to a level that they can sustain market volatility without seeking a government bailout. If a bank is deemed to have systemic risk, they must prepare a defense to prove they can survive bankruptcy without affecting other firms in the banking sector. To its proponents, Dodd-Frank is a definitive measure to help regulate faulty banking practices.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush doesn’t think so. During the November 10 debate Bush said, “What we ought to do is raise the capital requirements so banks aren’t too big to fail. Dodd-Frank has actually done the opposite where banks now have higher concentration of risk in assets and the capital requirements aren’t high enough.”
This is just a blatant lie.
Dr. Ben Carson said, “ I think we should have policies that don’t allow them to just enlarge themselves at the expense of smaller entities.”
It’s impossible to make this statement and actually have read the Dodd-Frank Act.
Sen. Marco Rubio had the smartest lie of them all. He said, “The government made them big by adding thousands and thousands of pages of regulations. The small banks can’t deal with all these regulations. And so the result is, the big banks get bigger, the small banks struggle to lend or even exist, and the result is what you have today.”
He wants you to believe that big government as outlined by Dodd-Frank is the reason banks have become “Too Big to Fail.”
So, the 2008 Recession caused by out of control banks was really the fault of big government legislation of 2010. Let’s not forget that the latest recession developed under a period of de-regulation orchestrated by the Bush Administration: the corporate owned establishment Republicans.
So who benefits from blaming big government for bad banking practices? The people on Wall Street trying to discredit the power of regulatory agencies seeking to overhaul the excesses of their unaccountable practices, the very people who created the financial meltdown.
Marco Rubio understands the populist angst when it comes to bank bailouts. He also knows how to pervert that angst and use it for the benefit of the power elite on Wall Street. The little guy is being fooled and tricked into believing that he can scapegoat all the problems of the country on that of the big government boogeyman.
But no one does that better than Donald Trump.
Donald Trump and the Rise of the Populist Oligarchs
Let’s return back to that power void on the right wing.
Donald Trump epitomizes the dangers of having a leaderless chorus within a major political party in the United States. Much of his popularity stems from skillfully orchestrated tough talk on minorities with very little political power. He declared his run for the presidency with an overt attack on Mexicans and illegal immigration, which can be described as no less than a rallying war chant. This allowed a clear division to be created in those who support and those who oppose Trump, which helped him obtain a built-in political base of Sarah Palin’s old voting bloc. By gaining most of the Tea Party base, Trump was able to galvanize right wing populist ideology to help him build coalitions with other factions. As we are seeing, that takes work.
Day after day, we are harangued by pointed one-liners from Trump, masterfully crafted to shape his image as a man who will work for the common folk. He wants people to believe that closing down our border with Mexico and expelling illegal migrants would be a source of national pride. What he won’t admit is how such unprecedented actions would affect things like trade policy and humanitarian treaty law. One of the appealing things about Trump is that he takes complex topics and oversimplifies them for his audience. Apparently changing the nature of American democracy as a pluralist society into a more fascist leaning one is not understood by Trump supporters.
In response to the recent Paris terror attacks, Trump stated that mosques should be shut down and Syrian refugees already in the country should be deported. It is true that the nature of terrorism has changed since 9/11 and we are living in an age where asymmetrical warfare has mutated into a globalized war. Western intelligence units and other information gathering entities must put to use practical counterterrorism measures. But Trump’s rhetoric on this topic is layered with language that sounds appealing to people who are bigots; those people with unwavering dislike of any race or religion that is not their own, and thus undeserving of rights granted in the U.S Constitution.
Trump is a man who knows exactly how his audience thinks. He understands how to take advantage of people who lack knowledge of how geopolitical realities of the 21st Century affect American power, thus he is able to utilize simplistic (and hostile) messages to appeal to Americans who are angry. These people are angry mostly because they can sense a lot has changed in the past decade, but they are unable to comprehend why political shifts are happening in the world so quickly. They believe that America is not “great anymore” due to the Obama Administration. They view national power as a sports game (remember “we are number 1” slogan) and measure our worth by how many countries we can subdue and sabotage. They understand American power by the rule of the fist. This is antiquated thinking and will not help America re-define its role as a dwindling hegemon in a 21st Century multipolar world.
The rise of Russia, Iran, and China as regional hegemonies must be met with strategic foresight. To do this we must be able to apply proper definitions to what we see changing in the world. The general public would be far better off if they had a (social, media) platform that can help clarify these issues for them. Instead, America has Donald Trump preying on the nation’s most vulnerable minds.
He remarked on ISIS after the Paris attack by saying, “I would just bomb those suckers, and that’s right, I’d blow up the pipes, I’d blow up the refineries, I’d blow up every single inch, there would be nothing left.” This is not a policy. This is nihilism. This sounds appealing when scared and angry but terrorism experts sound the alarm on the destruction these kinds of statements can elicit worldwide.
The strategy employed by ISIS can be described as controlled anarchy. They want to destroy the power of Western societies through a war of attrition in areas they control in the Middle East. They want America to engage in the region in order to prove that military might alone can never defeat radical Islamist doctrine.
Listen carefully here to what ISIS has stated,
“America will not find a state on which it can take its revenge, because the remaining states are its clients…It has no choice but to occupy the region and set up military bases… This will put it at war with the population in the region. It is obvious at this very moment that it stirs up movements that increases jihadi expansion and create legions among the youth who contemplate and plan for resistance.”
Tactic wise they want to,
“Diversify and widen the vexation strikes in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it of energy, will and money to the greatest extent possible.”
Terrorism, as asymmetrical warfare, is now being used to engage the West in a war where militant jihadis have the clear-cut advantage. It’s almost like a scene from a modern day tale of how empires fall. Remember the Roman Empire was taken down by those on the periphery of their power: the barbarians (typically considered any foreigner) who took advantage of a Roman society weakened by internal polarization and overstretched resources.
We are currently living through a transition period. These are complex times that are very hard to define. The danger increases when having a power void on the American political right and within a party that only knows how to employ reactionary violence. The rule of the fist will only get us so far in our current era. We should be very careful how we employ military strength; we risk falling down by the weight of our own power.
When you look at the situation from this angle, does Donald Trump sound like a guy we can trust? Or is it becoming clear that he is a clever demagogue?
Why do people like him? He is a pop idol who is rich and tough talking, embodying the success of the American dream. Everything this country promises they can become. He has deceived the economic populists on the right that he has their interests in mind due to his statements on Wall Street and big corporations using the power of big government to hurt the little guy.
But Trump is no little guy. He is an extremely wealthy man who understands the emotional aptitude of most Americans. Most Americans do not have a developed interest in politics and chose to disengage. This is a country that is very young but very rich, where people grow up thinking that politics doesn’t affect them up until they get angry. But anger is not the driver of healthy democracies; it is the divider of them.
Our leaders will continue to take advantage of us for what we don’t know and what we don’t care to understand. They will continue to use identity politics to box and categorize us, making it easier for them to control our impulses. A little understood truth is how much the progressive left and populist right agrees on big-ticket issues concerning the economy. If the left and right could build a coalition on this unifying topic, it would be a powerful thing. Unfortunately, a leaderless right and a Hillary leaning left will make this impossible.