By Michael E. Berumen
The American Civil War was finalized in a military sense, but it was never entirely settled politically or culturally. Its residual embers have remained a part of our national makeup for over 150 years, and efforts to rekindle and stoke the fire by various means persist, and today that seems particularly evident, perhaps more so than at any other time since the late Sixties with the ascendancy of the American Independent Party and George Wallace on the national scene. There were, of course, several divisive issues in the Sixties, and the Vietnam War and the military draft were not least among them. Race, however, was front-and-center in the national consciousness in the midst of marches for justice, slaying of civil rights workers, the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., unrest and discord in major urban areas, increased economic dislocation in the white working class, and the rise of the Black Power movement among African Americans.
In time, all of this seemed to die down to occasional rumblings, and by the end of the Reagan years in the 1980s, race seemed to be less of a strategic political issue at the forefront of our national consciousness, and more of an ongoing and tactical project. But those who were comfortable in their jobs, and who had their houses and substantial 401(k)s, who found amusement in the mundane inanities of Cheers and Seinfeld, and who were fueled by Starbuck’s on their way to work … along with academics, literati, and media … did not always pay heed to what was going on within the lower economic strata among whites and blacks, especially as the economy converted from its manufacturing basis to financial and service industries; as our once vibrant urban areas deteriorated; while the drug problem became increasingly widespread; as African Americans were jailed and convicted at disproportionate levels; and the fact that just old-fashioned race bigotry never lost ground in large swaths of America, especially among the uneducated, though by no means exclusively so.
Add to all of this several other factors. Many old-time values and mores were being replaced by discomfiting things such as women having increased opportunities and independence outside of the home; a loss of the centrality of maleness; a decline in religion’s significance in people’s lives, and even disparagement by educated elites, denigrations manifest in media and even in popular “yuppified” entertainment; people of different ethnicities or national origins, invariably of darker pigmentation, becoming more prominent in American life and worse, perceived as having unmerited advantages; and an apparent decline in America’s importance and role in the world, a loss of the power that was inherent in simply being an American.
And thus we have the all the fuel necessary to be enlivened by erstwhile dormant embers that, while not ever entirely extinguished, were relatively quiescent and hidden from view in recent decades. The catalyst event for a new conflagration was the rise of Trump and Trumpism, which elsewhere I have argued is Fascism recast to suit American sensibilities, but with all of its essential historical and philosophical features. The thing that enables it, however, is something that has been percolating for a very long time … indeed, since 1865 … and that is a kind of crypto-Confederacy that extends beyond the borders of the eleven original Confederate States of America. While some geographic similarities do remain, it is much more widespread, and as much as anything, it is a state of mind that transcends physical boundaries. And as with the Confederacy of old, its outlook relates to race, culture, and exclusivity. More specifically, it holds that the white race is entitled to suzerainty over all other races; it fosters cultural values that support male power, religious hegemony, and mythologized nationalistic symbols and codes of both honor and fealty; and it manifests the essential features of nativism, fear of the “other” and a desire to be isolated or at least immunized from exogenous influences. These were the very same ideas promoted by the secessionists of 1861. Today, however, rather than secede, the idea is even more aggressive in a sense, and that is to take total control. And while I do not think it will be successful in the long run, it has already proven to be at once highly disruptive and corrosive.
The vehicle for all of this, curiously, has been the modern Republican Party, the erstwhile party of the great liberator, Abraham Lincoln. But it is not your grandfather’s GOP. Far from it. Indeed, today, it has much more in common with the Southern Democrats of old than it does with the early Republicans, which was the progressive “liberal” party of its time. The transformation was gradual. Of course, the liberal point of view in the 19th century in both America and Britain was in support of free-trade and opposed to protectionism and tariffs … the latter of which were central to the doctrines of conservatives and populists in both countries (interestingly, many contemporary Republicans have turned their backs on those notions). As a consequence, it is not surprising that the Republican Party also became the more commercially-oriented party. On social issues, and particularly on matters of race, it was more open, pragmatic, and progressive compared to the Democrats until much later. The Republican Party was the party of abolitionism, of course, so it is not surprising that many African Americans who were able to vote aligned with Republicans until well into the next century. The Great Depression resulted in some significant changes in the Democratic Party as FDR cobbled together disparate ethnic and economic groups with a shared interest in dealing with economic privation in the New Deal era. But perhaps the most significant shift occurred in the 1960s after the Civil and Voting Rights Acts. This was the beginning of the end of the dominance of the Democrats in the southern states. Racial attitudes had not changed much in the South … and lynchings, church bombings, and Ku Klux Klan rallies with burning crosses were by no means a thing of the past,
In 1964 and 1965, shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination and with unparalleled legislative prowess, President Lyndon Johnson wielded sufficient power to bend the Congress to his Texas-sized will. Probably no president before or since had as much legislative clout as did LBJ during that period. According to Bill Moyers, “When he signed the act he was euphoric, but late that very night I found him in a melancholy mood as he lay in bed reading the bulldog edition of the Washington Post with headlines celebrating the day. I asked him what was troubling him. ‘I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,’ he said.” That was prophetic, for indeed it was true and remains true today. It did not happen overnight, but it did happen in a relatively short period of time.
Enter Richard Nixon in the late 1960s, who effectively used code phrases such as “law and order” and the “silent majority” to arouse white anxieties during a time of considerable social unrest, which brought over an increasing number of working class whites in both southern and northern states, if not in actual party registration, at least in terms of voting practices, including leaders and members of labor unions who had historically been part of the Democratic Party. Many evangelical Christians still remained in the Democratic Party and helped a Southern Baptist from Georgia, Jimmy Carter, get elected in the mid-Seventies; but they soon would become solidly wed to the GOP with Ronald Reagan (a once divorced, non-church going, Hollywood actor!) who effectively used both Nixonian memes and vocabulary and Christian organizations, such as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, in order to appeal to so-called values voters. This was the final straw and solidified the Republican grip on the southern states, a grip that has not changed since. GOP strategists were well aware that changing demographics represented a long-term problem for them with the browning of America; younger, more educated voters, and women who tended to vote more along liberal lines; and along with a concomitant decline in the influence of party bosses and party loyalty more generally. To forestall this trend, the GOP operatives worked diligently to gain control at both local and state levels, thereby building a strong backbench for national politics, whilst Democrats were more focused on national issues, special interests, and identity politics. In so doing, Republicans were successfully able to rejigger voting districts to favor mostly white strongholds, all while simultaneously making voter registration as difficult as possible for people of color. They have not abandoned that project.
There is another aspect to the GOP that must be addressed. I have already mentioned that it is not a co-incidence that commercial interests would become aligned with the Republican Party early in its formation, for free trade, progress, and industrialism … all attributes of modernity … were also part and parcel to the progressive outlook of the time. Indeed, the Democratic Party was far more oriented towards populism, agrarian concerns, and cultural conservatism. Prior to World War II, the GOP had little interest in foreign adventurism or the perennial military squabbles of the Old World. Indeed, in the aftermath of World War I, a decidedly isolationist outlook established a foothold in both parties, but especially in the GOP under the likes of leaders such as Senator Robert Taft, Sr. Only after World War II and during the Cold War did the GOP become the party most identified with a robust defense. The 1950s and 1960s represented the heyday of the defense and aerospace industry as an economic sector, and this was a time when there was a considerable confluence of industrial and military interests, a phenomenon that a concerned President Eisenhower presciently presaged. The commercially-oriented Republicans are a more educated class as a whole, and, as a consequence, generally more socially liberal than those who are primarily motivated by traditional values. The former’s interests are more parochially self-serving, and they wink and nod at their less educated confreres, whose values they do not share, whilst pandering just enough to retain the latter’s support on issues that more directly relate to their commercial interests. I should add, some former cold-warriors and so-called neo-conservative Democrats with strong military interests would eventually join the Republican side, albeit they tend also to be more aligned with the more liberal social views of the educated commercial class of Republicans and the Democratic Party than the values voters.
Thus, today, the GOP consists of some strange bedfellows … those whose principal goal is to influence regulatory matters and to keep taxes low in order to maximize both personal and business returns … the people we might have called country club or chamber-of-commerce Republicans in a prior era, and people whose social views tend to be more moderate to liberal; a much smaller subdivision of the former group, namely, the so-called libertarians, who want the foregoing along with minimal government intrusion in all of its forms, including the military and its worldwide footprint; and what is the largest segment, today, the values-oriented Republican, whose motivations are largely cultural, and, to no small degree, more rooted in disaffection and disillusionment. While the first group is not the largest segment, it has historically been the most powerful one in the party, and perhaps not surprisingly because, after all, they have had the money. Moreover, a large part of the aspirational middle-class, the cloth coat Republican of yore, those who wanted to become affluent, and could therefore identify with many of its principles in relation to taxes and business, could not identify with some of the cultural issues typified in the southern states, and found itself increasingly alienated from party politics, thereby becoming unaligned with either party. The power structure also began to change and fragment with so-called political finance reform, where large collections of individuals were permitted to pool their money into powerful groups aligned on issues and candidates, often centered on cultural matters, and also with the advent of the internet and social media, where traditional media … adhering to at least some journalistic, editorial standards … were no longer monopolizing the dissemination of information, and where large audiences could be targeted and accessed at a very low cost.
The Republican Party today is not the Republican Party of Abe Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt; indeed, it could not be further removed. It is not even the party of Eisenhower, Nixon, or Reagan, all of whom would be appalled at the white-trash vulgarianism that has taken hold of it. It is dominated by the crypto-Confederacy, a consequence of civil rights legislation that aliened Southern Democrats, and a consequence of some of the things both Nixon and Reagan fostered. Today, the party is led by a neo-Fascist, Donald Trump, a would-be authoritarian who, like any good Fascist, sees truth as relative, permeable, and flexible, and who sees his and the state’s interests as inseparable, and whose allies on the so-called alternative right have burrowed their way into the halls of power at every level. It would be convenient to ascribe his rise to an electoral accident, FBI Director Comey’s Clinton investigation, and the Russians, but the groundwork laid by a growing crypto-Confederacy made someone like him increasingly likely. One of the positives might be his utter bumptiousness, for a smoother operator could be even more dangerous. But by the same token, someone who is clearly mentally disturbed has the nuclear codes, which is unsettling notwithstanding his ineptitude in carrying out certain things. Several of the cultural qualities of crypto-Confederates (increasingly less crypto as I write, given that the President’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly, is publicly claiming that the Civil War could have been prevented through “compromise” and the treasonous General Robert E. Lee is “honorable”) are not far removed from several aspects of Fascistic doctrines, and it is therefore not surprising that the latter … typified by the likes of its modern theorist and ideological revanchist, Steve Bannon, Trump’s political Rasputin … was easily able to co-opt the former.
Meantime, a cowardly crew of sycophants and sinecurists who once denounced Trump and Trumpism clings to power in the Congress as part of the Republican majority. While whispering disapproval when it suits them, they do nothing to curtail the cancer that is Trumpism lest it interfere with their own popularity in their gerrymandered districts, or so that it does not interfere with or derail their cynical preference of getting some of their pet projects signed into law, notwithstanding this plague that has poisoned our political culture and imperiled the country’s moral authority, indeed, jeopardized the integrity of the rule of law and our most sacred institutions. Spinelessness of this sort has not been seen in the United States Congress since the late 1850s, I am not able to predict what is going to happen to the Republican Party. I can only say what I hope will happen, and that is that the silver lining to this otherwise dark cloud of Trumpism will be the destruction of the Republican Party as we know it. Of course, along with it I hope the edifice upon which Trumpism is built, the crypto-Confederacy, and Trumpism itself, are diminished and then stamped out permanently. Obviously, there are some within the party who are discomfited by Trumpism, and a good many independents who are unaligned but who hew to the center or center-right and who find Trumpism unacceptable. While I am a lifelong, liberal Democrat, I also see the necessity of a loyal opposition party that is at once vibrant and strong. It is my hope that out of the ashes, should our institutions weather this storm, that a new and responsible center-right party will arise, one that is more like the Republican Party we knew, the party of Lincoln, TR, and Eisenhower … a party that believed in the virtues of free markets, but that did not elevate that belief into an inflexible religious doctrine; a party that sought to mitigate the privations of the least among us and promoted opportunity for everyone; a party that believes in justice, the rule of law, and the right of everyone to be treated equally under the law.
Michael Berumen is a retired business executive and published author on diverse topics including economics, mathematics, and philosophy. He resides with his wife in Colorado.