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'American Carnage' Explores How Trump Won Over The Republican Party

Author Tim Alberta's "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump." (Serena McMahon/Here & Now)
Author Tim Alberta's "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump." (Serena McMahon/Here & Now)
This article is more than 3 years old.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday showcased once again how committed Republicans are to President Trump.

This loyalty is also the subject of a new book, "American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump."

Author Tim Alberta, who is chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine, says Republicans’ defense of Trump during Mueller’s testimony is “consistent” with how they have responded throughout the Trump presidency.

“They have sort of taken it upon themselves to be the president's protective unit,” Alberta tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “Republicans on the hill have very much reduced everything at this point down to sort of a zero-sum, partisan game or partisan battle as it were, and the fault lines here are very clear.”

Democrats have basically done the same thing in their unification against Trump, he adds.

“There's not much interest at this point in challenging their own assumptions and in getting to the truth as much as there is in scoring political points in attempting to score a soundbite that might prove damaging or helpful politically,” Alberta says.

Interview Highlights 

On why Republicans have formed a protective guard around Trump

"It's [a] codependent relationship. I talked a minute ago about fault lines. Look, there used to be fault lines in the Republican Party that existed in an ideological sense about how you go about trying to push for certain policies. Those old fault lines have sort of fallen away, and now it is a very simple choice: Are you with President Trump or are you against President Trump? It's no longer Tea Party versus establishment, conservative versus moderate. None of that really matters anymore.

"The question that defines today's Republican Party [is] are you loyal, unflinchingly so, to the president or are you willing to question him? So we understand that if you are a Republican today, especially at the federal level and you want to hold on to your job, then you are going to demonstrate that unflinching loyalty to the president, and in return, he will demonstrate loyalty to you. He will help you win your re-election. He will send out tweets aimed at mobilizing your constituents behind you in your congressional district. So yes, it's very much a codependent relationship."

On how the Republican Party became this way 

"I think if you go back, especially with the benefit of hindsight now, and you retrace the past 10 to 15 years in American politics and you look at any number of seminal events — whether it is the emergence of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate and this disconnect that she exposes between the elite wing of the Republican Party and the sort of populist conservative base; you look at the bank bailouts, that fall in 2008 and how it exacerbated this tension and this narrative that Washington and Wall Street were playing by a different set of rules than everybody else; you look at Obama winning the presidency, first African-American president in 2008 — and you take it forward, 2010 the Tea Party wave comes crashing over Washington, and you have this enormous amount of political disruption, the cultural disruption is riding parallel right alongside it with same-sex marriage becoming legalized.

"You add all of this up and you could see that there was this wave building, and we didn't know exactly where it was taking us, but we knew that it was building towards something. We just didn't know that it was ultimately going to take the form of Donald Trump. But when you draw a line through all of those events, I think that Trump makes all the sense in the world."

On how Sen. Lindsey Graham illustrates this change within the party 

"Lindsey Graham is a symptom of a broader illness within the Republican Party and whether you want to talk about Ted Cruz, whether you want to talk about Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, you could go up and down the list and there's a very long list of these Republicans who were intensely critical of President Trump during the 2016 campaign. At the end of the day, these folks began to realize as Trump was ascendant, that this billionaire who had never served in office, who lives in the 64th floor of a skyscraper on 5th Avenue, that he had a better read on the voters in middle America than they did.

"And as they came to terms with that and certainly once he became the president of the United States, most of these people understood two things. A: To hold onto their own seat, they would need to get in line. And then they would need to stay on his good side because they understood that if you were going to cross Trump, it wasn't just a matter of offending him or getting on his bad side, but was a matter of getting on the bad side of his base. And that's something that they can't afford to do if you're a Republican lawmaker and you want to win your next election, you had better have Trump's base behind you. And secondly, a lot of these individuals very much privately, and very occasionally publicly they will let it slip, they think that Trump is in way over his head that he has no idea what he's doing. That he is unstable and unsteady and that they feel a responsibility to try and retain influence over him so that they can sort of protect him from his own worst impulses."

On how Paul Ryan and others in the president’s orbit tried to control his worst impulses

"Paul Ryan's a perfect example where look, people can roll their eyes at this, they can call it a copout, but Paul Ryan, he felt as though between him and people like Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster and some others sort of surrounding the president, forming this collective forcefield, buffering him against those own worst instincts, they would basically say to people in private, 'Look, if you think this is a mess now, imagine if Trump had a bunch of enablers around him. Imagine if he had a bunch of people who were actively encouraging those worst impulses rather than trying to guard him against them.' So that's the argument made by a lot of these people and obviously, history will judge them in their own way, but that is, I think, probably a more compelling argument at least than people saying, 'Well, at least we got tax cuts or at least we got conservative judges.' "

On why evangelicals have stood by Trump when he doesn’t uphold many of their moral principles

"It's very much transactional. I think we understand that Donald Trump is transactional, but we don't understand or appreciate the degree to which many white evangelical voters are themselves transactional. Trump met with them and basically said, 'Look you, know that I'm not one of you. I know that I'm not one of you, but I'll tell you this, I'll get in the arena and I will fight harder for you than any of these other people are willing to.'

"And frankly, if you talk to them even today, people in the evangelical right — who are in many cases sort of disgusted by the president's behavior, find his rhetoric on immigration and refugees and many other things to be totally unacceptable — they will tell you in the next breath that Donald Trump has delivered more for their community and their constituency in the first two years of his presidency than George W. Bush did in all eight years of his."

On why the Republican Party will have to change after Trump

"What Trump did in 2016 was delay the inevitable. The math here is unmistakable. Republican states like Arizona and Texas and Georgia, these states alone — you know, forget about the country writ large --they are diversifying at such a rapid clip [that] by 2024, certainly 2028, those states are going to be absolute toss ups. And so if Republicans are going to be viable in the long term, they cannot use the Trump 2016 model as a political coalition. It just is not going to work mathematically. And I do think that the Marco Rubios and Nikki Haleys of the world, people who are already looking beyond the Trump era to figure out what the party looks like in 10 years, they are very keenly aware of that and already attempting to sort of modulate the party moving forward."

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: "American Carnage"

By Tim Alberta

It has often been said that Trump has no core ideology, that he is a man without conviction. This is dangerously false. Any casual examination of Trump’s writings and remarks going back three decades reveals an opportunist who, while fluid in partisan affiliation and most of his policy positions, cleaves to a few bedrock beliefs. They revolve around the notion that globalization is irredeemably injurious to American society; more specifically, that unrestricted levels of immigration, uneven trade deals, and unchecked foreign cheating have undermined the American business and the American worker.

None of these arguments, in isolation, is necessarily wrong or even wrongheaded. Indeed, Trump’s ascent in 2015 was a confirmation of the novel, systemic problems plaguing much of the electorate and the failure of both parties to advance relevant solutions for addressing them.

Yet his policies, rather than leaning forward into the challenges posed in a hyperconnected new century, suggested turning back the clock, looking inward in the hope of returning America to familiar ter- rain rather than daring to discover the uncharted. Trump spoke like the CEO of an aging conglomerate bereft of new ideas, one that recycles vintage labeling to inspire nostalgia instead of creating new products to attract the next generation of consumers.

The marketing campaign was called “Make America Great Again.” And it sold like hotcakes—particularly when printed on his iconic red baseball cap.

“When I listen to Donald Trump, I hear the America I grew up in. He wants to make things like they used to be,” Pam McKinney said outside a Trump rally in Arizona in 2016. She and her husband, Lee Stauffacher, had recently moved there to escape the “welfare state” of California.

“Where I grew up, in the San Joaquin Valley, it was a good, solid community, but it fell apart when the government started pandering to all of these immigrants who don’t understand our culture and don’t want to assimilate,” she said. McKinney stiffened. “I’m okay with immigrants as long as they’re legal. But they need to assimilate to our culture. They can have their culture at home. In public, you’re an American. They’re celebrating their own holidays instead of ours.”

She continued: “I was born in the fifties, when women stayed at home and men went to work and houses and cars were affordable. We had manufacturing jobs, good jobs. We used to farm in the San Joaquin Val- ley. It was called the Bread Bowl of America. Now we get our fruits and vegetables from South America. I remember praying in school, but then that got stopped, too. Trump gives us a chance to take things back.”

America during the rise of the forty-fifth president was witnessing a sweeping and unprecedented demographic transformation, becoming younger, better educated, more diverse, more urban, more secular, and more dependent on a globalized economy. These trends showed no sign of reversal, hence the RNC project attempting to recalibrate a party that had long depended on older, white, rural, working-class, religious voters. The biggest driver of America’s change was the ethnic diversification of the electorate and its political implications.

California became a majority-minority state at the turn of the century. By 2016, whites were 38 percent of its population and dwindling;2 in turn, the GOP became extinct. McKinney and Stauffacher fled to Arizona, only to feel a sense of déjà vu: Over the past twenty-five years, the state’s Hispanic population had nearly tripled, and whites had gone from 74 percent of the population to 56 percent. Minorities would be the majority by 2022, and Democrats planned to end the GOP’s monopoly on the state. (Clinton’s campaign would spend millions in Arizona while all but ignoring the traditional Democratic stronghold of Wisconsin.)

“The good people like us are leaving California because of all that— the influx of immigrants, many of them illegal, who are getting state ID cards, welfare benefits, and other government programs, and not even assimilating,” Stauffacher, a Navy veteran, said. “And now it’s happening here. This state is up for grabs. The entire country is changing be- cause they’re letting people in who will only vote for Democrats.”

This is what “Make America Great Again” conveyed to many voters. Others heard a message that was altogether different—not an identity- based message, but an anti-elitist screed, or a populist call for government reform. The genius of the catchphrase, and what made Trump’s candidacy so effective, was its seamless weaving of the personal and cultural into the political and socioeconomic. His was a canopy of dis- content under which the grudging masses could congregate to air their grievances about a nation they no longer recognized and a government they no longer trusted.

Excerpted from American Carnage by Tim Alberta. Copyright 2019 by Tim Alberta. Published with permission from Harper Books and HarperCollins Publishers.

This segment aired on July 25, 2019.

Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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