Donald Trump is brilliant revenge: The GOP’s demise looks a lot like this

tags: election 2016, Trump

Heather Cox Richardson is the author of "To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party," amongst several other books, and a professor of history at Boston College.

Why is Donald Trump so popular? He has captured the moment when voters recognize that Republican political rhetoric has nothing in common with reality. Trump brings rhetoric and reality together in a cartoon caricature of a Republican politician that anyone can understand. That gives him a vital role in history. He is the perfect exorcist to drive a stake through the heart of the modern Republican Party. But he is not the first in history to perform this operation. The same crisis hit the party in the 1890s.

When it was over, the nation had a reformed Republican Party, and a new historical era.

Today’s Republican Party is enslaved to Movement Conservatism, and Trump trumpets the rhetoric of that movement in crude sound bites. Since the 1950s, Movement Conservatives have been determined to roll back the business regulations of the New Deal. But those protections are popular. So to undermine them, Movement Conservatives hammer home the idea that legislation protecting workers, people of color, or women is socialism, a con that sucks money out of the pockets of hard-working whites and siphons it into the pockets of grasping workers, shiftless blacks, or slutty women.

Movement Conservatism was a fringe force from the 1950s until the 1980s, when voters elected Movement Conservative Ronald Reagan to the White House. But even then, their control of the Republican Party was not a given. In 1982, Movement Conservatives’ slashing of $35 billion from the budget in the midst of a cash crisis crashed the economy and drove unemployment to its highest rate since the Depression; a 40% increase in defense spending revived the economy but created a skyrocketing national debt. Republican support wavered, and movement leaders clung to power by bringing in new voters. In 1986, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, a former economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, created an army of evangelical voters to boost the numbers behind Movement Conservatism. He promised born-again voters pro-life and pro-Christian activism so long as they lined up behind big business economic policies.

Trump presents a crude version of these Movement Conservative themes. His vile language about minorities and women is simply a different octane of the Movement Conservative gasoline, an emotional explosive used by every one of the other sixteen candidates for the Republican nomination. It is a simple idea: that “takers” want a handout. Similarly, while observers have expressed surprised that the thrice-married, non-churchgoing Trump attracts more support from evangelical voters than, say, the aggressively religious Mike Huckabee, that support reflects a Movement Conservative pattern established a generation ago. ...

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