Slowly but surely, President Trump is consolidating control over the Republican Party — through bullying, polarization and division, of course.
The moderates, of course, were purged long ago. The impending exits of Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona are not an ideological recalibration of the party so much as the whimpering surrender of a politics of civility, common decency and compromise. While Flake notably parts ways with Trump on the issues of immigration and Trade, FiveThirtyEight reports that the Arizona senator’s votes have aligned 89.8 percent with Trump’s positions.
As Corker and Flake step off the stage, Steve Bannon is waging a nationalist insurgency against the party establishment to fill the Senate chamber with Trump loyalists made in the image of the president’s nativist fury and racial resentment politics. The remaking of the GOP is all about the enforcement of an orthodoxy of rage that insists on vanquishing political opponents and mobilizing a narrow base against dissenters.
One of the ironies of the past couple months is that Trump actually campaigned for the establishment candidate in Alabama’s special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacant seat, while Bannon backed the populist firebrand Roy Moore, who fashioned himself after Trump. Of course, Trump electrified his supporters in Huntsville, Ala. on Sept. 22 by calling for the firing of black professional football players who protest police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem, thereby eclipsing the candidate he was supposed to be promoting. While Luther Strange went down in defeat, it was Roy Moore, a Christian theocrat with ties to white nationalists and neo-Confederates who campaigned dressed in a cowboy outfit and brandishing a pistol, that came out triumphant.
Moore shares an important similarity with one of Trump’s allies, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio: Both have demonstrated contempt for the rule of law. Arpaio, later to be pardoned by the president, was convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying a federal injunction against conducting immigration roundups, while Moore was removed from his elected post as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, not once but twice — for refusing to remove a monument to the Ten Commandments from the court and for instructing magistrates that they were not required to follow the federal court ruling allowing same-sex marriage. Notably, Moore and Arpaio, alongside Trump, both vocally promoted the racist conspiracy theory that President Obama was born outside of the United States.
On election night in Alabama, Bannon spoke of “starting a revolution with Judge Moore’s victory,” before celebrating Corker’s retirement announcement and promising to a sweep “ in state after state” to bring candidates like Moore to power. He has since singled out Republican incumbents in Utah, Mississippi, Wyoming and Nebraska, and has reportedly met with Arpaio, who is considering a run for the Arizona Senate seat to be vacated by Flake.
Trump’s miscalculation in the Alabama special election in a sense demonstrates that his presidency is as much a symptom as the driver of the white resentment politics tearing the United States apart. His only core beliefs appear to be his own self-aggrandizement and white supremacy; otherwise, he demonstrates the showman’s talent for latching on to whatever conservative cause is generating the hottest passions, whether it’s dismantling Obamacare, abortion, the Second Amendment, the “war on Christmas,” the Common Core curriculum, Islamophobia, or clamping down on immigration. If Trump’s “fine people” label for those who demonstrate alongside neo-Nazis or any number of other items of circumstantial evidence doesn’t prove Trump’s racism, a passage from John R. O’Donnell’s 1991 book Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump — His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall should be considered definitive.
O’Donnell recounted a conversation he had with Trump about an African-American employee in Trump Plaza’s finance department. “I think the guy is lazy,” Trump is reported to have said. “And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is. I believe that. It’s not anything they can control… Don’t you agree?”
Whether intentionally or by happenstance, Trump’s inflammation of racial resentment against black NFL players and Bannon’s efforts to engineer an electoral revolution are working to the same effect. Of course, they’re making a high-stakes wager that could backfire by giving Democrats an opportunity to flip seats in matchups with extremist Republican opponents. Yet it’s doubtful there are enough disaffected Republican voters willing to switch their support. After all, the only reason Corker and Flake are sounding the alarm against Trump is because they realize they can’t win their primaries; the reason none of their Republican colleagues are joining them is they know their voters would punish them accordingly if they crossed Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump has a more riveting value proposition to offer the electorate — nationalism laden with racial resentment, misogyny, xenophobia and Islamophobia — than the other side. The Democrats’ message, so far, echoes their losing theme in 2016: We’re not Trump.