It was hard to watch the Inauguration of Donald Trump and not reflect on the health of George H. W. Bush. Ever the gentleman, the elder George Bush wrote a generous, even humorous letter to President-elect Trump, explaining why he and Barbara would be unable to attend the Inauguration. My doctor says if I sit outside in January, the 41st President told the man who would soon be the 45th, it will likely put me six feet under.
Donald Trump's inaugural address was a stark contrast to Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural was an understatement. Lincoln's sweeping words, with malice toward none and charity toward all, gave way to a darker, insistent America First rhetoric with its threatening sense of malice toward many, foreign and domestic. Inauguration invitations featured an official portrait of Trump with a glowering visage, while tickets featured the new President behind the words A Hero Will Rise. For George Bush, a self-effacing, former WWII fighter pilot, a deeply charitable internationalist, to see the mantle of Lincoln--as President and leader of the Republican Party--pass to the self-aggrandizing, mean-spirited Donald Trump must break his heart
For all the abuse heaped upon George H. W. Bush, mostly by Republicans, Bush was a Republican to his core. He represented the Republican Party that stood for something. It was the party of free trade, open markets and growing the pie. It was the party of personal responsibility, limited government and liberty, at home and abroad. Americans unhappy with their plight were advised to take personal responsibility for lives, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get a job. It was also--it is important to add--the party that supported the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts over a Democrat filibuster.
George H. W. Bush, scion of two powerful Republican families, was a loyal soldier and staunch defender of that Republican Party. But that Republican Party, the party that took seriously its lineage back to its founding by Abraham Lincoln, is withering before eyes. When Donald Trump toyed with Mitt Romney, like a cat playing with a mouse, it marked the symbolic triumph of Trumpism over the dying ambers of the political party to which George Bush dedicated his life.
In 1968, Richard Nixon campaign strategist Kevin Phillips wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, which set the Republican Party on the path that would lead a half a century later to the rise of Donald Trump. Beginning with the Nixon's Southern Strategy, the GOP lured the white working class from their historical Democratic roots with an appeal centered around a mix of racial, social and religious issues. Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan confederate Grover Norquist translated Phillips' theoretical work into what became the GOP electoral strategy of appealing to a small number of single-issue voter groups that endured for the ensuing thirty years.
Even as the GOP leadership cultivated its new white working class "base," the party continued to adhere to its long-standing core economic values of free trade and open markets. Nowhere in Norquist's coalition--pro-life, anti-tax, pro-gun, pro-faith--were the economic issues of the white working class taken into account. Their votes were secured by appeals to social issues--and no small amount of racial code--even as decade after decade, from the 1980's onward, their economic circumstances deteriorated.
Kevin Phillips warned the GOP of the simmering rage within its base. In three books published during the decade following the Reagan Revolution, The Politics of Rich and Poor, Boiling Point, and Arrogant Capital, Phillips documented the growing alienation of the middle class and anger at Washington, DC as the GOP agenda benefitted the wealthiest Americans, while undermining the domestic manufacturing sector and economic upward mobility.
In the 2016 election, only Donald Trump seemed to understand the rage that Phillips had warned about two decades earlier. The lessons of Ross Perot's independent candidacy and Pat Buchanan's insurgency in the intervening years--which each challenged the GOP orthodoxy--were disregarded within the GOP, until this election cycle, when Donald Trump ran away with the GOP nomination by campaigning in opposition to nearly every core principle that the GOP had long stood for.
Each week now, we are seeing Trump's policies--that is what a tweet is in this new era--confound his GOP compatriots. He is insisting that the GOP provide health insurance for all Americans, and at a lower cost. He is demanding that the Federal government negotiate drug prices. He is jawboning military contractors to reduce costs. And then, of course, there is Russia.
Many Republican Party leaders--notably Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, and perhaps even Trump insiders Mike Pence and Reince Priebus--continue to hope against hope that if they wait Trump out, things will return to normal. But Trump has come to believe that he is leading a movement, not just a political campaign, and his objective is to throw out the traditions of the party and remake the GOP in his own image. Steve Bannon's role as his political strategist is, among other things, to orchestrate the takeover of the apparatus of the GOP on the ground, state by state.
Last week, Trump supporters ousted the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. Next week, Trump backers are taking the fight to Massachusetts, where the leadership of the Republican State Committee is up for grabs. “They didn’t want anything to do with Trump—they were embarrassed by Trump—they thought he was going to lose,” commented Trump's candidate for chairman of the state committee about Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker and the old school Bay State blue bloods.
As George Bush watched the humiliation of his son at the hands of Donald Trump, he had to know the end was near. For GOP traditionalists, the barbarians are not longer at the gates, they are occupying the White House. Many would argue that the old Republican Party sold its soul long ago--when it took the trade that Kevin Phillips suggested, swapping its moderate New England roots for the new, socially conservative southern and working class Democrats--and that George Bush similarly abandoned his principles when he embraced the coded racial politics of Lee Atwater.
Through it all, George Bush and the elites of the GOP refused to let go--as evidenced by the nomination of Mitt Romney just four years ago. With the swearing in of President Trump, the last battle for the soul of the GOP looms. McConnell and Paul Ryan, as the leaders of Congress, may yet resist Trump's efforts--though truly only Ryan has the breadth of support within the party, if not the stomach for the fight, to challenge the President--but Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have the mainstream party infrastructure firmly in their crosshairs, and their success in Ohio and Massachusetts suggests that the GOP of George Bush will soon be gone for good.
Artwork by Jay Duret. Follow him on Twitter @jayduret or Instagram at @joefaces.