Growing up I always figured the Berlin Wall would fall from the weight of its own insanity. I just never figured it would happen when I was in my 20s, in the 1980s. I figured it’d be more of a mid-21st century sort of thing, if our nukes and the Soviets’ didn’t interrupt the natural order of things. I’ve had the same thoughts about the Republican Party since Ronald Reagan made it America’s wall in those same 80s. It was bound to crack up, what with the nation’s whites fast and blessedly approaching minority status. I just never figured it would happen before I was drawing Medicare and smoking pot with my grandchildren.
But there it is. The crack-up is upon us. The locks have popped. The insane asylums have emptied. The loons are casting ballots. And Mitt Romney’s string quartet is arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. I might have to break my vow and smoke pot for the first time a little early for this one. If not crack.
The media reported it as news a couple of days back that Romney called Donald Trump a fraud and a phony. The two words commanded headlines like King Kong and Godzilla grabbing at the Trump Tower, though my preferred analogy is something simpler, like a pot calling the kettle black. Or the Revenant, with Romney trying to pull off a DiCaprio. Cringe City.
The most insightful part of the speech wasn’t something Romney said. It never has been. It was what the heckler said when he yelled out how desperate it is that it’s come to this: that a Republican Party that has so decimated itself with mercenaries of division now calls on the man who insulted 47 percent of the nation to reunite whatever is left of the party he thinks can still represent America. That the man who condemned half the nation as losers is now heckling the controlling plurality of the Republican electorate for voting the wrong way. And he’s the one calling Trump vulgar.
Romney ran twice, lost twice, changed his positions countless times—on abortion, on stem-cell research, on the minimum wage, on Obamacare, which he created as governor before he needed to denounce it as a presidential candidate, and now of course on Donald Trump. He begged for his endorsement when he needed him, calling him a better businessman than he was, until his decision Thursday to reappear, like Christ appeared to his disciples after his crucifixion, and denounce Trump as a political Lucifer to his beloved Republican Party.
We’ve known all along that Trump was a fraud and a phony. It’s part of his persona. I doubt he’d have become that famous if he hadn’t been trading on it for 40 years. He’s just better at it than people like Romney or, for that matter, Marco Rubio, who’s never had a problem lying about his past, or Ted Cruz, who could give Baghdad Bob a run for his tanks. It’s not unusual. When you don’t have much to run on, inventing stories helps as much as inventing fears.
That’s what Trump has done best. The art of his deal has been to hone what his predecessors have been doing since Richard Nixon discovered that appealing to the electorate’s most debased instincts was the best way to win votes. That whole anti-government cult of the last four decades was born of the impulse to divide, to demean government as cover for demeaning the less fortunate, who by Romney’s time became the 47 percent, because lord knows the 1 percent needed more adulation and tax breaks.
You could still chalk it all up to politics. After all, it’s not as if Republican presidents haven’t spent more time in the White House than Democrats since Nixon. But for all the upending of the usual storylines, what I still find disturbing is that, while Trump gets his backing mostly from uneducated white bigots, who are nothing new to American politics (ask Jim Crow), I have recurring conversations here, with people I know, people I respect, or would like to respect, prominent and educated people who don’t have the excuse of being uninformed or on drugs, who tell me honestly that they’re either voting for Trump or, more often, that they’re trying to make up their mind, with Trump very much in the mix, and their alternate choices not much less dishonorable.
In a sense, it’s understandable: among the survivors of a Republican primary season that started with roughly a dozen lunatics, what remains are, with John Kasich’s vague but baffled rule-proving exception, three versions of the same theme. Rubio and Ted Cruz are unquestionably to the right of Trump in most respects–foreign policy, health care, taxes, religious, civil and sexual rights, and they have no human rights to speak of. They couch their policies and demeanor in terms seemingly less crude than Trump. But their proposed policies are more bullying, more offensive, more regressive and reactionary than most of Trump’s: they’re both warmongers who’d re-garrison the country and lust for wars with Bush-like abandon, starting with Iran. They both would revert to treating Israel as a more favored state than, say, West Virginia or South Dakota. Neither has a clue how to improve health care beyond exploding Obamacare. If Trump wants all undocumented immigrants deported, Cruz would rather dehumanize them first while Rubio can’t figure out which flop to flip on the matter. Neither thinks much of women or the poor. Both still think of gay marriage the way old racists thought of miscegenation. Their tax plans are 1980s Reagan re-runs of deficits and more legalized tax-evasions for the rich. Neither thinks science a better gauge of global warming’s causes than whatever crack vials ExxonMobil’s lobbyists slip them.
Kasich in comparison looks like a paragon of reason and pragmatism in comparison. He runs the equivalent of the 25th largest economy in the world, and has done it rather well. He doesn’t think compromise is apostasy. His record as a governor adds up to a few things better than making speeches, filibustering, missing votes or making fun of another candidate’s penis. No wonder he can’t win Republican votes. He’s a heathen among loons. Romney was almost right in one regard. There should be a Republican revolt. But it’s the whole party that’s lost it. Renouncing Peter to whore Paul won’t cut it.
Yet here we are, with Trump as the Republican front-runner. If there is an explanation, I’m not so sure it’s less disturbing than the extent and variety of Trump’s support. People can be fed up with government as usual all they want. That doesn’t explain embracing a candidacy built on debasing immigrants, women, the disabled, embracing a man who openly encourages criminal retribution against protesters, who would close off the country to an entire religion, who boasts of bringing back waterboarding and happily promises much worse, suggests extrajudicial murder and state-sanctioned assassinations (at least George W. Bush had the decency to hide his war crimes), a man who has spoken approvingly of Bashar el Assad, the butcher of Syria, and Vladimir Putin, a man man who could not bring himself to clearly and immediately denounce the KKK until even his digestive system compelled him otherwise.
A day after Trump’s flirtation with white supremacy, Brian France, the NASCAR chairman and CEO, endorsed Trump. That, I can understand. France’s grandfather had endorsed the segregationist George Wallace in 1972. There’s a tradition to uphold, and a fan base to pander to. But I had imagined my “conservative” neighbors to be a bit more thoughtful than the NASCAR set. It appears that the March 15 Florida primary will prove me wrong–whether the winner is Trump or one of his twins.