Politics, World

The American Broedertwis: Trump vs the Establishment and Nearly Everybody

The American Broedertwis: Trump vs the Establishment and Nearly Everybody

J. BROOKS SPECTOR searches for political precedents for what is happening within the Republican Party as Donald Trump takes command, but not without growing concern.

Most South Africans – and pretty much anybody else around South Africa in the 1970s and ’80s – should be able to recall the Afrikaner fears of a broedertwis. As South Africa’s apartheid regime increasingly came under pressure from within and without, National Party leaders hoped to keep their largely Afrikaner community united in order to avoid any rancorous splintering of the volk. A broedertwis in the face of growing pressures from the anti-apartheid struggle would, in the views of such leaders, have virtually guaranteed the collapse of an Afrikaner nation and the inevitability of it being overwhelmed by the remainder of South Africa’s people.

But, paradoxically, in the very face of that pressure to keep Afrikaners unified politically, racially and socially, the National Party was, instead, repeatedly afflicted by defections by those who believed the most strongly in racial segregation and white supremacy – and that the National Party was slipping over the line towards reaching a fatal political compromise and accommodation. First to leave the tent was the Herstigte Nasionale Party in 1969. Then came the Conservative Party, and, eventually, an even more extremist body, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, or AWB. Each of these parties held to an ever more militant, crabbed, inward-looking Afrikaner nationalism, supporting the ideology of white supremacy in the face of inevitable social, economic and political change.

What now may be taking place among Republicans in America in the wake of the Trump takeover of the GOP (a kind of soft, ostensibly electorally-driven coup on the part of people who have felt left out of the traditional Republican posture) may be demonstrating some of the mechanisms of that progressive splintering of the Afrikaner political universe – only in a rapidly speeding overdrive. But it also owes much to prior events in America’s history and the country’s unique political DNA.

Many, perhaps most, people tend to see the contemporary American political duopoly – Democrats largely in the centre and then on to the left and with Republicans located just to the right of political centre and then on to varieties of the Flat Earth Society – as a true compass of the country’s political life, fixed and immutable. But, in fact, since the founding of the republic over two centuries ago, political parties have repeatedly emerged, merged, switched sides on issues, demonstrated fissiparous tendencies, and even disappeared in response to crises.

For example, the emergence of the Free Soil Party in 1848 as a new political formation came in response to a gathering political storm over the expansion of slavery into new states – in a political universe where Whigs and Democrats had been alternating presidents for decades. The Free Soilers soon drew support from northern members of the Whig Party, and even a few old-line, northern Democrats. But after the Free Soilers’ candidates were defeated in the 1848 and 1852 presidential elections, yet another newer party, the Republicans, absorbed those Free Soilers – and the Republicans’ sharply anti-slavery political position helped kill the Whigs over their temporising on slavery. The Whigs had supported national expansion and governmentally financed infrastructure improvements and, crucially as part of their demise, the postponing of any immediate reckoning with slavery.

But by 1860, with the prolongation of “the peculiar institution” now the nation’s dominant political issue, the Democratic Party split into two warring northern and southern halves, while the Republican Party found its first winning formula in the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, the Whigs, in their last dying gasp, renamed themselves the Constitutional Union Party and tried to make the case for simply ignoring slavery’s continuation – and then promptly disappeared entirely.

Closer to our own time, in the early 1900s, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had brought the new reformist energies of the progressive movement into the leadership of the Republican Party when he became president, following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901. This progressive movement had also become a force within the Democrats, as urban voters increasingly supplanted the rural western and southern populism of its three-time candidate, William Jennings Bryan.

Meanwhile, Roosevelt’s handpicked successor, his vice president, William Howard Taft, became his party’s nominee in 1908 and won the election. But, in Roosevelt’s and other progressives’ eyes, Taft had quickly demonstrated such backsliding from progressive ideals that a second Taft administration gave Roosevelt the impetus to launch a dissident third party when he could not gain the nomination for president at the party’s national convention in 1912. The resulting Bull Moose Party (“I’m fit as a bull moose,” Roosevelt had told the media) so split the Republicans it allowed the Democrats’ Woodrow Wilson, similarly an adherent to progressive ideals (save on racial matters), to win the 1912 election instead.

More recently, the notionally Democratic segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ran as a third party candidate under the name of the American Independence Party. His protest candidacy may well have been responsible for Richard Nixon’s narrow victory over Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey in 1968. That race had given an opening for Republicans to begin the capture of white southern voters over racial attitudes and related issues of social conservatism, as they became first Nixon and then Reagan Democrats to the point that such voters have become a mainstay of Republican presidential candidates since the 1980s.

But certainly since its absorption of those former Democrats, the Republican Party has become an increasingly ideologically fractured party. The issues of greatest concern to social conservatives are largely lifestyle and social values questions, for example LGBTI rights and same sex marriage and the so-called assault on Christianity. Meanwhile, so-called Main Street Republicans retain traditional Republican values of limited government regulation and spending, along with support for lower taxes, and, usually, a strong, outward-looking international security view against international threats. Yet a third cohort represents the libertarian wing of the party with its focus on extirpating any government interference in personal behaviour and a deep interest in personal privacy. Finally, a fourth segment of Republicanism in this increasingly uneasy coalition is the remnant strong defence/internationalist wing that is more concerned with defence issues than with fractious domestic battles over social values.

For years, national Republican candidates have increasingly chosen as their defining battles the litany of social conservative issues, even as economic uncertainties in a demographically shifting, increasingly economically globalised world have become increasingly troublesome to growing numbers of voters. In this discontent, as is now abundantly clear, Donald Trump found a niche to pry open support for his candidacy by espousing a slew of decisive actions and solutions – regardless of whether they were realistic or illusory – to those economic and demographic fears that many voters are increasingly obsessed with nowadays.

The problem for more traditional social conservative and Main Street Republicans has been that whatever Trump’s core values and policies are – and they sometimes seem to morph almost daily – they have rather little to do with any of the key strands of contemporary Republican politics. But, bring his place that is largely outside any of those strands of Republicanism, together with his espousal of some starkly misogynistic, anti-immigrant ideas, his “America first” and “to the brink” stance on trade negotiations as foreign policy and – paradoxically – his insistence on both cutting taxes and increasing government social welfare spending, and you have a candidate running virtually cross-grain to the party’s leadership.

Remember, too, in America, a presidential candidate largely sets the agenda for a party in a presidential race because party leadership is sharply less powerful than is the case in parliamentary democracies. There are few mechanisms to enforce party discipline. However, once a candidate moves beyond the primary season and on to the general election, a candidate still needs the party’s fundraising machinery and its ability to bring that to bear on a campaign. Virtually no candidate, even really rich ones, is capable of raising or spending that kind of big money on their own, from their own coffers. Given Trump’s denunciations of the party’s elders, this has set up yet another conflict zone within that increasingly fractured party.

But so sharp are the policy differences between the nativist populist Trump and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, a largely Main Street Republican who has been the focus of a “Stop Trump” movement among traditional Republicans, that Ryan’s disapproval of the Trump candidacy has become almost palpable. In the meantime, social conservative, would-have-been, candidates like Ted Cruz are also in sharp opposition to Trump. And earlier in the year, a collective of 100 veteran internationalist Republican advisers and theorists had expressed their unwillingness to aid his candidacy. A growing roster of what is left of the Republican establishment, including two former Republican presidents – George HW Bush and his son, have declined to endorse Trump and have said they will not attend Trump’s coronation convention in July. Ronald Reagan’s old axiom, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican” has been thoroughly ground into dust.

Or as Michael Gerson, the conscience of values conservatives who worked in the Bush II White House, and who is now a columnist for the Washington Post, offered in his own personal line in the sand the other day over a Trump candidacy, and worth quoting at length, “The great Republican crackup has begun. [Italics added] There is a growing group of Donald Trump partisans, including former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Then there are Republican officials who publicly support Trump and privately hope he will lose in November – a group that could only be counted via lie detector, but I would test Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell first. And there are Trump opponents and sceptics, including the 41st president, the 43rd president, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan. Ryan, in particular, is providing air cover for the unconvinced.

What common views or traits unite the most visible Trump partisans? A group including Limbaugh and Christie is not defined primarily by ideology. Rather, the Trumpians share a disdain for “country-club” Republicans (though former House speaker John Boehner apparently likes Trump because they were golfing buddies). They tend to be white and middle-aged. They are filled with resentment.

Above all, they detest weakness in themselves and others. The country, in their view, has grown soft and feeble. Their opponents are losers, lacking in energy. Rather than despising bullying – as Ryan, Romney and all the Bushes do – they elevate it. The strong must take power, defy political correctness, humiliate and defeat their opponents, and reverse the nation’s slide toward mediocrity…

Speaker Paul Ryan has backed away from his pledge to support whoever becomes the nominee, saying he’s ‘not ready’ to endorse Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Other GOP heavyweights, including the Bushes, are also not giving endorsements.

This type of leadership can motivate, usually through resentment and anger. What it cannot do is inspire. Inspiring leaders are often those who identify with the weak. They may develop this trait by rising from poverty themselves, like Abraham Lincoln did. Or they may have had their capacity for empathy expanded by suffering, such as Franklin Roosevelt’s struggle with polio. In American history, inspiring leadership has often been informed by religion, which (at its best) universalises our empathy.

This is the main reason that some of us cannot simply lump it and reluctantly lend our support to Trump. The Republican Party is not engaged in a policy argument; it is debating the purpose of politics. For some Trump opponents, the justice of a political system is determined by its treatment of the vulnerable and weak. In the Catholic tradition, this is called “solidarity”. Whatever you call it, this commitment is inconsistent with a type of politics that beats up on the vulnerable and weak – say, undocumented workers, or Muslims – for political gain. Make no mistake. Those who support Trump, no matter how reluctantly, have crossed a moral boundary. They are standing with a leader who encourages prejudice and despises the weak. They are aiding the transformation of a party formed by Lincoln’s blazing vision of equality into a party of white resentment. Those who find this one of the normal, everyday compromises of politics have truly lost their way.”

Thus the question now is if the all-but-certain Trump presidential nomination will actually fracture the GOP on a permanent basis, with his ingathering of voters to an angry populist core and a segment that flees to neutral or newly independent ground (or even coming together as “Republicans for Clinton”). If that were to happen, it might well presage one of those re-aligning elections that would change the majority ideology of the Republican Party even as the remaining core finds new voters from among all those now disaffected by politics as usual, as Gerson fears. (Republicans, after all, went from being the party of big government, infrastructure building, and low tariffs in the latter half of the 19th century to something very different in response to the Great Depression and the New Deal in the 1930s, so it could happen anew.)

As things stand now, Paul Ryan, the highest-ranking Republican in national government as Speaker of the House, and Donald Trump are scheduled to meet on Thursday. Will they come to some kind of wary understanding (Ryan is scheduled to be the chair of the actual nominating convention in Cleveland, come July); or will this meeting be the final breaking point that sends Trump off on his go-it-alone crusade to punish the party elders, all those losers he decries, and the Democrats under Clinton, and thereby bring together a vast gathering of angry, sullen voters into an entirely new political formation?

Pay really close attention to this meeting on Thursday. Will there be a ritual embrace between the two men and some big, albeit forced, smiles, or duelling press statements and increasingly angry words leading to the breaking point? DM

Photo: LEFT: Businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at the Century Center in South Bend, Indiana, USA, 02 May 2016. Indiana voters go to the polls for the winner take all Indiana primary election on 03 May. EPA/TANNEN MAURY. (RIGHT) epa05193005 Republican Speaker of the House from Ohio, Paul Ryan, speaks at the 43rd Annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, USA, 03 March 2016. Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump are expected to address the gathering later in the week. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz