Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are successfully fracking the Republican Party.
The loudest explosions and most noxious fumes are coming from the crackup of the tectonic plate that once supported the party’s two great factions. The white, working-class voters who are coming out for Trump are on fire because they’re convinced that their alleged allies – the faction made up of the Republican establishment, aka the country club set – have been duping them, pretending to care about their economic, social and cultural complaints.
There’s another group that should be exploding in anger this year – independent and Democratic voters who have put Democrats in the White House for 16 of the past 24 years. Their issues and their complaints also have been blocked and thwarted by Republican establishment puppeteers and their unholy alliances.
The Republican establishment didn’t dupe the Democrats, but it has beaten them repeatedly (and Bernie Sanders Democrats are mad at their party establishment for that). So while Democrats might enjoy watching the GOP implosion, there is also pain and frustration in realizing that their opponents were just as cynical and precarious as they always thought.
The standard Democratic understanding of the modern Republican Party goes something like this:
Since the turbulent 1960s, Republicans have been very skilled at peeling white middle- and working-class voters away from their traditional and natural protectors, the Democrats. This began with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which used race and antipathy to the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements to pry away white voters from the Democratic Party. Watergate blew that plan up. But Ronald Reagan refined the strategy by focusing on cultural “wedge issues” that turned Democratic constituencies on each other: affirmative action, welfare abuse, gun control, “family values” and abortion, for example.
In this narrative, the real Republican powers – big donors, congressional leadership and the corporate flank – conned white working-class voters into abandoning their economic self-interest by selling them on trickle-down economics and the mystical powers of small government, and by appeasing them with race-baiting and conservative positions on social and cultural issues.
The Republican elite basically has gotten what it wanted out of the deal: tax rates and regulation have been contained, campaign finance has been deregulated, corporate welfare has expanded, free trade and globalization have flourished, and the 1% has done incredibly well.
But, in this history, the enormous growth of economic inequality and the stagnation of lower- and middle-class incomes since the 1980s have proved that trickle-down economics was voodoo economics after all. Working-class voters were duped by voodoo politics.
And now these voters finally have realized they’ve been had.
They are on the warpath, stoked by Trump’s authoritarian promise to take care of the business they really care about it – keeping foreign workers out of the country, shutting down free trade that takes away U.S. jobs, kicking ass on crime and terrorism, and punishing the corrupt two-party establishment. Social issue and religious true believers are equally rebellious but they prefer Ted Cruz.
Either way, Republican Establishment: R.I.P., at least until all the kings horses and all the king’s men put Humpty Dumpty together again. The Democratic narrative is finally vindicated.
But if Republican voodoo politics duped their voters in the tourist section and never gave them any upgrades, they have succeeded in keeping Democratic and independent voters at the gate.
For all the years Democrats have held the White House since Reagan, they don’t have a lot to show for it. Obamacare has been their most notable achievement. Gay rights have expanded dramatically. But Democratic ambitions to improve the safety net, raise the minimum wage, address income inequality, enact stronger climate change remedies, toughen gun control, protect abortion rights and increase infrastructure spending have been frustrated quite effectively.
Republicans have exploited their success at the state level by controlling the gerrymandering of congressional districts, thus multiplying their clout in the House. They also have vanquished moderates, centrists and the odd New England liberal from the party – the kinds of legislators eager and able to craft bipartisan programs.
For their part, the Democrats haven’t been able to reconvert Reagan Democrats. Bernie Sanders’ argument is that the party has been too beholden to its establishment – its big donors and corporate backers. Hillary Clinton hopes that when the primaries are over, frustrated Democrats will turn their wrath on the Republicans. They have every reason to do just that.
The Democrats other hope is that neither of the renegades who sabotaged the GOP’s voodoo politics have the mojo to attract voters outside of their angry, conservative white base and are more likely to scare them. If that happens, we will soon find out whether a fracked Republican Party still has the magic to paralyze its enemies in the Democratic tribe.