What most of the worst people in Donald Trump’s administration have in common is that they are Republicans. This simple fact is obscured sometimes by the many ways in which Trump is genuinely an aberration from the political norm—like his practice of naked nepotism rather than laundering the perpetuation of class advantage through a “meritocratic” process—and by the fact that many of the most vocal online spokespeople for “the resistance” ignore the recent history of the Republican Party in favor of a Trump-centric theory of How Fucked Up Everything Is.
But it is necessary for liberals, leftists, and Democrats to actually be clear on the fact that the Republican Party is responsible for Trump. The Democrats’ longterm failure to make a compelling and all-encompassing case against conservatism and the GOP as institutions, rather than making specific cases against specific Republican politicians, is one of the reasons the party is currently in the political wilderness.
I was thinking about this as I read Margaret Sullivan’s profile of Amy Siskind, a former Morgan Stanley managing director who now daily catalogues the perfidies of the Trump administration for a growing audience of pissed off liberals.
“It’s scary to look back on the early weeks and see what we’ve already gotten used to,” she said. Examples: a secretary of state who rarely speaks publicly, the failure to fill important positions in many agencies, a president who often eschews intelligence briefings in favor of “Fox & Friends.”
“We forget all the things we should be outraged about,” Siskind said.
What goes unmentioned by Sullivan is Siskind’s prior experience as a national political voice, as one of the nation’s most prominent “PUMAs”—Hillary Clinton diehards who believed the presidential nomination was stolen from her in 2008. Pre-Trump Siskind didn’t just endorse John McCain in 2008, she also wrote that she’d support Sarah Palin over Barack Obama in 2012. It should go without saying that any Palin presidency would have rivaled Trump’s in terms of both norm-shattering and sheer incompetence, but even that shouldn’t distract from the fact that even a John McCain presidency would’ve been a disaster for the nation.
President McCain would have totally delegated domestic policy to think tank hacks and GOP Congressional leadership—just as Trump largely has!—so that he could’ve focused on starting a war with Iran. He would have appointed unqualified people to positions of power because they are his friends. If he had had a Republican Congress, he would have signed anything they put on his desk, and what they put on his desk would’ve been terrible for the country.
All of this was clear in 2008—it was clearer, in fact, because we were still in the dying days of the calamitous Bush presidency. The extremism and incompetence of the modern GOP was, in 2008, an inescapable fact of politics.
This is not to say that Amy Siskind should not be listened to because of her prior beliefs, or that her project is less useful because of them, but merely to point out that its premise is badly flawed. Trump himself is abnormal. The actions of his administration, with a few notable exceptions, are not. Democrats need to disabuse the Amy Siskinds of the country of their belief that more genteel Republicans would act more responsibly.
Let’s look at another example:
If it’s true that “no other president would hire” a man like William C. Bradford it’s only because Twitter didn’t exist in the year 2001. But I challenge anyone to look at this list of incompetent Bush hires—or this list—and tell me none of them would’ve had a history of inflammatory or racist Facebook comments, if Facebook had existed at the time. Almost every serious candidate vying for the Republican nomination in 2016 would have hired countless guys exactly like this had they managed to win the presidency, because guys like this are the Republican Party.
Nearly everything Trump’s done with his appointments and hires, even his chief adviser’s devious plan to destroy the administrative state through understaffing and the installation of loyalists and hacks at every government agency, is just a continuation of a mission begun under George W. Bush. Mike Brown’s sole “experience” before running FEMA was that he was a friend of George W. Bush’s campaign manager. Bush’s ICE chief was a lawyer who’d worked for Kenneth Starr. Monica Goodling, the central figure in the Bush administration’s politically motivated purge of U.S. Attorneys, was a dimwit ideologue lawyer with a degree from Pat Robertson’s bottom-rung law school.
Next time you boggle at the sight of the president’s unqualified son-in-law flying to Iraq to get briefed by generals on the facts on the ground, remember that George W. Bush sent a business school chum to privatize Iraq’s economy and a 24-year-old with no relevant experience to reopen the Iraqi stock market.
The worst members of Trump’s cabinet—Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos—are Republicans. Their analogues in any possible alternate Republican presidency would’ve been basically identical in how they carried out their work. Jeb Bush would’ve signed the AHCA. Marco Rubio would’ve sold arms to Saudi Arabia. John Kasich would’ve abided the theft of a Supreme Court seat and selected a justice just as conservative as Neil Gorsuch, if not Gorsuch himself.
None of those men would’ve lobbed crude personal insults at cable show hosts. They wouldn’t have been as cartoonishly, personally corrupt in their business dealings (though scores of their appointees would have been). But even the most consequential way in which Trump differs from a hypothetical alternate Republican president, his blatant obstruction of the investigation into whether or not he is somehow compromised by or in league with the Russian government, has almost no real-world consequences, compared to his (bog-standard Republican) international and domestic policy agendas. When Mitch McConnell’s underhanded legislative maneuvering is included in a list of ways in which Trump is normalizing authoritarianism, you give the president far too much credit and the Republican Party far too little.
It is true that Trump has tapped into, and intensified, a virulent strain of authoritarian ethno-nationalism appealing to millions of Americans more directly than other Republican presidential contenders were willing to. But that tendency has undergirded conservative politics for years, and numerous Republicans shamelessly exploited it during Barack Obama’s terms in office. The election of Trump was the cork exploding out of a bottle that the Republican Party spent a generation shaking. Remember that once he is gone and they try to convince you to put them back in power.