July 27, 2021

We were in Ohio, in some small town. It was 2008 and John McCain had just announced Sarah Palin as his running mate against Barack Obama. My duties that day involved a piece for the BBC’s 10 O’Clock News on how the Republican campaign was going. I had bought a tie in a local store and the assistant had complimented me on my accent, “Y’all sound like Hugh Grant.” I did: and it was deliberate. Sounding like Hugh Grant gets an Englishman places in small-town, middle America.

When we got to the venue, something strange was going on. There was a palpable hostility, something I had never encountered before in these places. People saw our camera and scowled. They heard my best impersonation of the sainted actor and seemed distressingly less bowled-over than normal.

As we interviewed people outside the hall where McCain was due to appear, I thought of my mum. She would have rolled her eyes at these folk — she was a Quaker peace activist and had firm views about America generally and the Republican party in particular. But, equally, she would have wanted me to do them justice, despite the difficulties presented.

She thought the media played a role in demonising perfectly reasonable protests (like the CND marches she attended) by focusing on the maddest looking demonstrators. So what should I do about the woman who told me, as we stood in the sun outside the hall, that Barack Obama was, to use her precise words, “An abortionist, a child killer, a murderer”?

Channelling mum, I decided not to use the clip. The woman seemed upset, deranged even. John McCain’s campaign had been a paragon of moderation – he had recently ticked off a supporter at a meeting who described Obama as an Ay-rab – and the use of this woman, and a couple of others who also seemed beyond the pale, would do the whole party and the whole campaign a disservice. Perhaps it was just an off day for her, for all the people gathered. It would not be fair to use them to characterise the wider party base.

Or would it? Looking back, knowing what we now know, we should have used that clip and the others. We should have used our vox-pops to do what vox-pops rarely do: tell us what was happening. I should have spotted — we all should have spotted — that the Republican party was heading irrevocably in a direction not charted by Senator McCain. We should have seen that he was toast, not at the hands of the Democrats, most of whom rather liked and admired him, but at the hands of his own people, his own party. I should have made more of the fact that almost all the people I met that day were energised by the thought of a Sarah Palin presidency. And by an irrational hatred of Obama: not Obama dislike but Obama phobia.

Two new books on the fate of the Republican party make the point that, far from being a hostile takeover, the Trump rise to power was driven by this grassroots — as well as plenty of people at the top. They suggest it shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

Dissent: The Radicalization of the Republican Party and Its Capture of the Court by the New York Times’s Jackie Calmes focuses on Brett Kavanaugh, the Trump appointed Supreme Court Justice who tipped the balance of the court towards the conservatives: the moment the desires of the Republican base became realised. The moment, in a sense, that they won. But it makes a wider point about the people and the party whose victory this was:

“Its voters were Trumpian before they’d embraced his brand ….Long before he’d descended the Trump Tower escalator to run for president, the base was dominated by culture warriors who’d been riled for decades by Rush Limbaugh, his thousands of local imitators, Fox News pundits, and ever more right-wing websites and networks; by 2020 most Republicans got their ‘news’ solely from such sources, willfully closed off from balanced, factual coverage and unpersuadable. Disillusioned by George W. Bush, they’d coalesced as the leaderless Tea Party. Finally, they jumped on the Trump Train.”

Adam Serwer of The Atlantic, in his collection of essays, The Cruelty is the Point:The past, present and future of Trump’s America, suggests that a remarkable myopia at the top of the Republican party allowed this to happen. They thought they were all heading for the same promised land – the bow-tied intellectuals in Washington think tanks and the sweaty farmhands. But no:

“Conservative intellectuals misunderstood that Eden and what it looked like. They projected their low-tax, federalist, small-government beliefs onto a Republican rank and file whose views were far more complex and far more motivated by identity than conservative commentators wanted to admit. So when an authoritarian reality-show star …. appeared, promising to ‘Make America Great Again’, they believed the conservative base would reject him.”

Ooops.

Well ok, but why would they have this belief in the first place? Surely the fault is not with the “great unwashed”, as it were, but in their leaders who failed either to understand them or to bother to work out how to help them come to terms with modernity? The party panjandrums had not exactly delivered for their people. In the era of globalisation, the drift of jobs to China, the atomisation of communities, the relentless onward march of the values of the elite, they had not done much to halt it or suggest alternatives. George W Bush seriously tried, in his second term, to privatise the US federal pension system: the ultimate free-market liberal solution to a problem (future unsustainable debt) that most of the party base could not understand or give a monkey’s about.

So, no, I didn’t see it coming in Ohio on the day my Hugh Grant charm bombed, but nor did people a good deal closer to the party. And it was their job to lead. In that respect, hindsight is doing a lot of work in Dissent : the Trump cataclysm was not quite as obvious as Jackie Calmes suggests. Also, with their focus on Republican party, these books suggest that the Democrats were somehow blameless bystanders, watching as half the nation took to pills and cheap booze and the fetishising of better times when cars had fins and girls wore prettier frocks.

No: all of upper-middle-class America was complicit. Dissent suggests that Kavanaugh, this unappetising privileged man, party animal who was accused (though never in court) of attempting rape, was somehow emblematic of a Republican party that had lost its bearings. But all of what the author Chris Arnade has called “front row America” had lost its bearings. The Democrats were as (perhaps, are as) committed to elite protection as the GOP was. The capture of places at the best universities. The amassing of great wealth down the generations. The huge pay in Google or Facebook or whatever anti-racist, anti-sexist corner office they inhabit. To blame it on Kavanaugh and the capture of the Supreme Court seems a bit lame: it is arguably true that the court has been skewed by a rural/conservative bias imposed with little democratic accountability. It is certainly true that rural states representing minorities of Americans have assisted in bringing this modern Supreme Court into existence. But shouldn’t the Democrats have seen this coming? Could they not have kept their appeal wide enough to head off disaster?

One of the oddnesses of modern US politics is how the structural imbalance of power has been accentuated. The divide between rural and urban America is not new: but the almost total retreat of the Democrats from the rural areas and of the Republicans from inner cities has placed a formerly gentle conflict on steroids. In the past, it was not principally party-political. Small state conservative Democrats were a thing, so were big city progressive Republicans. That’s almost over now: and the big cities put the Democrats in charge of the culture, leaving the small towns to place the Republicans in charge of the politics of the nation, via the various processes that keep urban political power in check.

You can see why the cultural losers in the boondocks fight so hard to win politically. What Jackie Calmes calls “the radicalization of the Republican party” is not just about being nasty. It’s about holding on to an idea of a nation that until recently was widely accepted. Or is that naïve? Is it also about a dislike, a fear, of people of colour?

Adam Serwer’s book claims that the Republican radicalisation is mostly about race. The title is from an essay he wrote, a piece that caught the mood of the anti-Trump nation during the presidency. Serwer had been looking at photos of lynchings of black men in the deep south — at the suffering and the pleasure it was giving the attackers:

“Taking joy in that suffering is more human than most would like to admit. Somewhere on the wide spectrum between adolescent teasing and the smiling white men in the lynching photographs are the Trump supporters whose community is built by rejoicing in the anguish of those they see as unlike them, who have found in their shared cruelty an answer to the loneliness and atomization of modern life.”

That single paragraph electrified anti-Trump America. Finally, an explanation for all the horror. An explanation that does not excuse or condone or dress up with some fake stuff about reduced life chances but an explanation that does also explain Trump supporters in a way that does not dehumanise them. In the book of essays Serwer provides context and builds on the theme. But he’s a subtle writer: this is not a dull jeremiad about racial injustice tearing America apart. In fact rather the opposite. As he says in one of the essays, he sees a way out:

“The reality… is that political violence is less common in the present than it has been at many points in American history, despite the ancient plague of white supremacy, the lingering scourge of jihadism, and the influence of a president who revels in winking justifications of violence against his political opponents and immigrants. Many Americans can’t stand one another right now. But apart from a few deranged fanatics, they do not want to slaughter one another.”

Well, it’s a start. Sawyer concentrates on what the Democrats must do now. Press on, he says. Don’t compromise. In fact, his call is for a radicalisation of the Democrats to match the Republicans. After this political fight, make sure there is a winner and a loser. Don’t compromise to turn it into a tie that undoes the victory, as happened more than a century ago: “In the aftermath of a terrible war, Americans once purchased an illusion of reconciliation, peace, and civility through a restoration of white rule. They should never again make such a bargain.”

I am not entirely sure that the nation can take the kind of punishment Adam Serwer has in mind – presumably involving the packing of the Supreme Court, the abolition of the remaining rights of Senators to filibuster, perhaps the abandonment of the electoral college too. And the mighty roar of a Trump-inspired fight-back.

Both these books assume that the Democrats must go for broke now. Sawyer wants constitutional and political upheaval and Calmes seems to think the whole game is up: she has also lost faith in the ability of the Republican party to come home to democracy. She approvingly quotes the conservative anti-Trump columnist Kathleen Parker: “The chance to move away from Trumpism, towards a more respectful civilized approach to governance that acknowledges the realities of a diverse nation and that doesn’t surrender to the clenched fist, has slipped away. What comes next is anybody’s guess.”

My guess is that it’ll be bumpy but ultimately the Republicans will return to democracy. And the Democrats, under Biden, will keep to a moderate path. Optimism about America is in short supply, I grant you; but in the Serwer essays, we have a clear-minded Left-wing critic of his nation who is essentially coming out as an optimist. There is no point, he believes, in concentrating on Trump. There is every point in noticing what has happened, and learning from it:

“As much as he may have appeared to be the driver of the forces tearing the country apart, he was more a consequence of them, of our failure as a nation to live up to our founding promises. The cruelty was the point, but it was also always a part of us.”

Don’t give up, in other words. Not on the Republicans. Not on America. Not on democracy.