We’ve recruited a new secret correspondent in DC covering US politics from the inside. No agenda. No sides taken. Just your friend’s point-of-view. Our first question, of course, was “What’s up with the GOP and Trump?” Here’s what we got:
The bottom line is that 14 years ago the political parties—both of them—swallowed a poison pill and have been living on borrowed time since. Campaign Finance Reform heavily regulated contributions to parties. We’ll skip the rant on why it violates free speech to regulate who and how much money one individual can give to another, but some well-intentioned people working for McCain and Feingold wrote a bill to take the money out of politics. Yet like most regulations, the unintended consequences are toxic. Today, since it requires an army of lawyers to legally navigate the regulatory campaign finance system, only the really big guys can play effectively. It’s why you see more millionaires running. And it’s why the past 14 years have given rise to the Super PAC. They can fund politics. The organized parties can’t raise the money they used to. So effectively the parties exist purely out of habit. Saying you are a “Republican” or a “Democrat,” today, is the functional equivalent of saying you are a Catholic or a Protestant. It’s a social calling card rather than something truly transactional and influential.
The irony is that in trying to control money in politics, Congress created a situation in which American politics functions much more like the feudal system in the European Middle Ages, with a bunch of strongmen all constantly jockeying for control. Parties have been financially neutered. This is bad because when they had control, parties could take good candidates and season them. At least in the old system if a politician was a deadbeat but still a lock for reelection, he was stuck in Congress. For the presidency, the parties found and nurtured candidates who could handle the toughest job ever. It was a winnowing process over decades. So it worked, sort of. Populist voters will rant that it never worked, but whatever one’s politics, 240 years of American primacy offers a compelling counterpoint. Today, parties are no longer what they were. The Republican Party got here first because the GOP is more philosophically diverse. There are southern evangelicals, moderate Northerners, converted Reagan Democrats, and a growing swath of Libertarians, to name a few of the factions…too much fighting in public gives the impression of chaos. People say the GOP is imploding because it started with 17 candidates, whereas the Dems had 3…but the Dems have Hillary Clinton, so the chaos isn’t as visible and her presence is providing the illusion of order, for the moment. That will change dramatically in the next cycle…you won’t see another one like her, especially since the Democrats have a non-existent farm system. Much like the Yankees, they have thinned their farm system to the point that they will have to draw in their major leaguers from outside the party. The Dems have placed all their resources on national elections, with moderate success, but they’ve gotten decimated for 30 years in state and local elections. This is the place for a rant on the decline of labor unions and local Dem organizations, which we’ll skip. Bottom line: there’s nobody waiting in the wings for the Dems. It might not matter. Because Donald Trump was inevitable…whichever philosophy he holds this week. We will increasingly see famous TV personalities running for president. Presidential contests will look like American Idol. Donald Trump was just the first to really capitalize on this shift in the landscape… but over the next 20 years political historians will write a variation of this eulogy on the demise of political parties.
As for Trump, specifically…whatever. Anyone who has spent time in New York knows that you don’t give a boy from Queens a microphone and say “Don’t offend anyone.” Pundits are missing the big picture entirely. They revel in every Trump remark, but he is basically echoing populist frustrations. And the establishment asks, “Where are his real solutions?” There aren’t any. The frustrations he echoes are real and yet unsolvable. Economies change and people lose out. Global transportation means that people will move to America and stand in line with you at your grocery store and they don’t share your view of the Western Liberal Tradition. They don’t say excuse me and hear the phrase E Pluribus Unum and think it’s a new virus. China is not going to stop trying to reclaim its position as the world’s leading economy. The push for political correctness (by a number of alternate names) will tighten its grip to the point of absurdity…especially in a pluralistic nation with digital feeds nationwide. People are mad. And Trump gets it. And he’s riding the moment’s populist wave. The disconcerting thing is…he may not simply be playing to the crowd, and he may have no earthly idea what he is really doing. Even that wouldn’t matter if he surrounds himself with the right people. But what’s alarming is that he seems to take challenge less well than any human being in the history of American politics. He visibly revels in people saying nice things about him, and goes absolutely ballistic at the slightest question or cross-examination. If we are taking any of this seriously—and we aren’t, but perhaps we should—then there is definitely something disconcerting about giving him the only job that has a legal monopoly on the use of force.