Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Whither The Base?

As I watch the Republican three ring circus I’m tempted, like many Americans, to turn to news coverage. It’s a coping mechanism I suppose; the last breaths of a politico drowning in front of something he’s never seen before and cannot explain.  And as I watch the mainstream a troubling thought continues gnawing at me. Every talking head keeps yammering about the Republican base.  Which candidate will best appeal to the Republican base?  How big is the Republican base in vote-rich states? How does the Republican base feel about Donald Trump?  How will the base react to the Trump/Cruz slap fight?  These, and myriad base-related questions are discussed by TV experts, guests, and even candidates on an endless, 24-hour loop. But I often find myself wondering if a Republican “base” exists in the way that we’ve always understood it to.  Just so I’m clear; I’m defining “base” as the largest group of voters in a party that pretty much agrees on various fundamental issues even if they may disagree on certain niche issues.  For fun and clarity, here’s my idea of a Democratic “base” voter: they recognize the lunacy of “trickle-down,” they don’t think one is “playing the race card” just because one mentions race, they are incredibly unlikely to believe in a War on Christmas, they care very much about poverty and access to healthcare, and they don’t believe the President is a secret Kenyan/Muslim/Commie-Nazi, etc.  You could probably throw a few more common ground issues in there and *bam* there’s your generic Democratic base voter.  They exist.  I know this first hand.
I’m not so sure about the Republican base. Donald Trump can and will out-racist all but the most hardcore racists.  But some of his economic comments (and his policy, vague as it is) are suspiciously populist. In fact, a group of self-identified “Fiscal-First” Trump voters were asked to examine Sanders and Trump in a purely economic light, and many supported the Bern for economic reasons though they were quick to note that Sanders would never make it out of the Democratic Primary.  
So what happened? There used to be a recognizable Republican base. In fact, they marched in virtual lockstep. Nightmarish proof was the last RNC. A creepily named Reince Priebus presided over a dutiful crowd of fellow travelers. The trains ran on time. The appropriate dog whistles were blown. Aside from a few true libertarians (i.e. not just people embarrassed to admit to being Republicans in polite company) whose presence seemed even stranger bathed in the harsh light of so many very republican Republicans, everyone was basically in agreement with everyone else.  It was the perfect antecedent to the DNC, where, as always, everyone found a way to politely argue about everything.   I even wrote about the weirdly stark contrast at the time.
Now things seem completely turned upside down. I’ve always agreed with retired 4 Star General and Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous quote, “My Party is full of racists,” and, in quite moments I wonder if I’m giving his party a fair shake. But, excluding the very small group of Trump economic voters, who say they’d be just as happy to vote for Bernie Sanders, the common denominator among Trumpsters seems to be their unadulterated racism. That, and they, like Sanders supporters, seem sick of playing what feels like a rigged game as the middle class rockets closer to being renamed the high-end poor. The creeping problem is that Sanders will point out that systemic poverty disproportionately crushes minorities. He’ll do so until his crazy looking hair seems to be rebelling against his head, and his accent begins to make him sound like some sort of gangster alien. Trump, in contrast, never seems to mention that the poor are far more likely to be anything but white. Or, if he does mention the hue of poverty, he chalks it up to an epidemic of losers. Moochers. There’s always a reason for the impoverished to remain trapped in poverty.  They deserve it.  
We could write this off as a fringe candidate getting away with being a lunatic if the craziest things Trump’s said cost him voters. But rather than costing Trump voters his attacks on every minority seem, statistically at least, to earn him followers. The Mexicans=rapists press conference, followed by the still inexplicable “who’s doing the raping” phone call sent his campaign into hyper-drive. Just about every time he’s attacked an ethnic group he’s surged. 
The lulls come when he abandons this garbage and actually tries to address other issues. Again, it’s detrimental to his numbers when he isn’t being outlandishly racist. So what can we conclude when the front runner’s best strategy is to shout the most offensive thing rattling around in his head? Yes, one could point out that Ted Cruz is threatening Trump, but Cruz expresses the same racist ideology. Cruz just does so in a generally nicer, slightly veiled way. It’s politically calculated racism that contrasts well with howling Trump racism. That means we can, as part of our trip down the Republican rabbit-hole, remove the Cruz voters who are just afraid of sending a clown into a general election.  We can also remove the Trump economic voters … though some still seem uncomfortably comfortable with leaving out the racial component of poverty. We can do all of that and we’re still left with a huge group of “Republican” voters. A colossus of Cruz and/or Trump supporters. A base, if you will. So that is what the modern Republican party, writ large, has become.  

Were they always this way? I’d like to think not. The Dixiecrats aren’t that far removed from memory. I’d like to think that pre-Obama/secret Kenyan hatred, modern Republicans were not this racist and xenophobic. I’m desperate to find another reason—any other reason—why the two most anti-minority candidates are collectively crushing the field.  Unfortunately, the staggering weight of just about every metric combined with all the evidence seems entirely stacked against me. There is one hateful issue that the base now agrees upon. It even rallies around it. There simply isn’t any other conclusion to be drawn.      

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