Dr. Yao Lin (林垚)(B.A., biology, Peking University; M.A., philosophy, Peking University; Ph.D., Political Science, Columbia University) is a visting associate professor at the Department of Public Policy at the City University of Hong Kong.
The United States Presidential election in 2016 surprised many with the Republican’s primaries being nothing less than a charade. Dropping one bombshell after another, Donald Trump rocketed himself to prominence. The resulting pandamonium raised an unnerving question for many: how did we end up here?
We were bombarded with answers: income inequality, globalization, ethnic composition, phantoms of terrorism, political polarization…Every now and then these points were brought up and presented as novel epitaphs of modern America. Just as fish are not aware of the water they swim in, most of them ignored the crux of Trump’s phenomenon: the immediate effects and accumulative consequences of factors above are decided by the path trodden by and the structure inherent to America’s democracy.
▍Trump’s Post-Dog-Whistle Politics
To understand the recent advent of their home-grown extremism, we must first look at the ideological composition of the Democrats and Republicans. After the Great Depression, the Democratic party had dominated the “fifth political party system” through the ‘New Deal Coalition’. However, the coalition was a short-lived one as it underwent a schism during the 60’s civil rights movement, as segregation supporters switched allegiance to the Republican Party. With the disintegration of the “Fifth Political Party System”, subsequent realignment process began with the Southern Strategy in Nixon’s 1968 campaign and concluded with Reagan Revolution in the early 80s. The voter base of the two-party has been settled since then. As of now, most agreed that the United States is in its “sixth political party system”.
Though the Realignment started as backlash against the Civil Rights Movement, as racial equality steadily ingrained itself into the public consciousness, segregation, in turn, became an increasingly unpresentable agenda. Yet, amid this progressive climate, a number of Republicans discovered two tricks to mobilize segregationists incognito. Together they paved the way to the success of the Reagan Revolution.
The first trick was the so-called ‘Dog-Whistle Politics’. A dog whistle has frequencies audible to dogs but not human, likewise, dog-whistle politics are coded political discourses that mean one thing to the general population but bear additional implications to a targeted demographic. To preserve their support from the Southern Strategy, the Republicans developed a set of “coded languages”, with which, hidden messages could be delivered to its potential supporters openly without offending neutral voters. Naturally, in a nation as divided as the United States, it is not something new to its public sphere. As early as the nineteenth century, defenders of slavery had rallied under the banner of State Sovereignty against its abolition.
While explicitly racist terms like the N-word sunk into politically incorrectness, softer terms such as “tax reduction”, “welfare reform” and “law and order” surfaced to elicit the imagery of the colored being lazy and live on social welfare, or that they were criminals and thugs causing nothing but damage to the society. Thus, under the premise of ‘protecting public order and private property’, the Republicans attracted the same target audience without openly professing racism.
Ronald Reagan himself was a master of dog-whistling. In his 1980 campaign, he visited the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi and delivered a speech honouring state rights, communal autonomy, the constitution and the restraint of federal power. To put this in context, Mississippi was one of the most ferocious states against the civil rights movement, and bear in mind that 11 years ago, Neshoba county was responsible for the infamous Freedom Summer murders. During which, not only did the local government obstructed the Federal Government from investigating their murder, they also helped the KKK to abduct 3 Civil Rights activists.
Reagan’s 1894 campaign advertisement “Morning in America” was another textbook example. With an idyllic imagery of prosperity and tradition, the advert was delivered with an upbeat and hopeful tone. Only one thing was left out of that utopia: Colored people. From start to finish, there were only urban and rural white people appeared in the advertisement, without a single trace of other ethnicities; as if they have never existed in both the American society and the American Dream. (There was one scene that featured two non-caucasian children raising a flag. -Ed.)
Throughout his campaign, he accused Mexico of exporting rapists, threatened to punish the families of terrorists, teased the female body image, and, only through Republicans’ past reliance on coded languages to mobilize its voters, can we understand how Donald Trump survived and prospered in the primaries amid a blizzard of criticism. Many readily ascribed public tolerance and even support for Trump’s bombastic discourse to the Democrats and their obsession with political correctness. Thus, the emergence of an iconoclast like Trump had become the emancipation from the liberals’ thought police that had burdened the public opinion with self-censorship. Yet this emancipation thesis is putting the cart before the donkey. On the contrary, what Trump broke, was not the taboo of political correctness, but the unwritten rules of Republicans’ dog-whistling.
The whole point of dog-whistling was to avoid antagonizing relatively neutral voters that prefer political correctness and yet attracting those further at the end of the political spectrum. Then, naturally, the already mobilized voters cared very little about the political correctness and coded or not, his messages were received loud and clear. This lead to a polarizing view of Trump among the voters. Since the inception of his campaign, Trump’s supporting rate hovers on 30% while 60% to 70% held a negative view. Nevertheless, among the Republican voters, supporters outweighed his opposers by a 20% margin. In other words, those susceptible to Dog-Whistle Politics embraced Trump’s bombshells and they cared very little about political correctness to begin with.
By tearing down the delicate facade of their code words and going full frontal with political taboos, Trump was essentially embarrassing the Republicans by one-upping them in their own game. However absurd Trump might have sounded, he was taking a few pages from his fellow Republicans’ books in terms of actual policies.
- He railed against the Latino illegal immigrants with vitriolic racists terms, yet Mitt Romney had once proposed his plan of ‘self-deportation‘ (the disruption of the daily lives of illegal immigrants via law enforcement and tough employment policies, to the point that they may leave voluntarily out of frustration) in his 2012 nomination campaign.
- His misogynism was clear as day, but another Republican candidate, John Kasich, who had been Pro-Life and reluctant to reduce the gender pay gap had further alienated female voters by thanking them for ‘leaving the kitchen and vote for him‘ during his campaign.
- He had mentioned that suspects of terrorism would be treated with means ‘a hell of a lot worse than Waterboarding’. Nevertheless, as early as 2002, the Bush Jr. administration had already renamed a series of torture, including waterboarding, as ‘Enhanced Interrogation Techniques’ in the Torture Memos to circumvent international law.
Tacit understanding within a small organization is the premise of Dog-Whistle Politics: when this understanding is shattered, the whole charade would fall apart. Surprised by the Trump’s “crazy” rhetoric, some Republicans from the establishment were quick to distance themselves from him but, in turn, found themselves caught in a crossfire. In the eyes of Republicans, Trump was merely saying things the party had always been doing and hinting. In the eyes of Democrats though, ‘establishment Republicans’ were only distancing themselves from Trump’s outrageous comments instead of the outrageous values their trademarked code-words represented.
In fact, the ideology Trump represented strayed greatly from the mainstream Republicans: Trump was comparably moderate on some political spectrum, yet far more radical in others. To understand Trump’s similarities with and departures from his contemporary, we must first look into the Reagan Revolution.
▍Taking a page from Reagan Revolution
In addition to Dog Whistle, the second key to Reagan’s success is his incorporation of Movement Conservatism and Christian Right. Emerging at the eve of 1950s, Movement Conservatism began as a loose coalition among market fundamentalists who opposed the New Deal of the FDR administration, hardline anti-communists in diplomatic circles and white supremacist from the South who supported the segregation policy. Laying brickworks a few years ahead, they slowly won over the hearts of grassroots Republicans and their candidate, Barry Goldwater, defeated Nelson Rockefeller, the moderates’ candidate representing interests of the business sector in the 1964 primaries. However, their victory was short-lived, as Goldwater’s presidential campaign was defeated miserably at the subsequent presidential elections, power equilibrium swiftly slid back to moderates.
Learning from Goldwater’s failure, Reagan realized that Movement Conservatism must expand its voter base, and he saw once politically reserved religious right as low-hanging fruits. Ever since the anti-masonic movement in the 1820s, religion has been an integral part of American politics. The Baptist church, for instance, was split into the North and South Convention due to dividing stances on slavery. After the Civil War, armed with a more progressive theology, ‘mainline’ churches from the North emerged with more followers and greater influence. Over the course of the next century, three things eroded their political advantage and potency:
- Industrialisation and urbanisation of Northern states
- Influx of Catholic immigrants
- Secular tendency of progressive and liberal churches
Meanwhile, pronatalist convictions swell the ranks of southern Evangelicals and their revulsion of secularism kept them focus. By 1950s, they numbers eclipsed their northern cousins, rendering the term ‘mainline’ all but nominal. Yet, despite their numbers, inertia since the Civil War shaped the Evangelicals into a politically reserve and apathetic bloc. Coupled with a low turnout rate, Evangelicals were the de facto ‘silent majority’.
Sensing the mounting discontent among conservative Christians against Civil Rights Movement and Sex Revolution, Reagan appealed to them under the banner of family values and Christianity. With anti-abortion and anti-gay rights as core tenets, he sounded the horn of a Culture War against the liberals. Echoing his rallying cry, conservative Christian lobby groups (Moral Majority for instance) exerted heavier pressure on the Republican Party. Emphasising a religious and traditionalist tone, they eventually paved way for Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz and the Tea Party.
In the Reagan era, however, the religious right was only one of the many branches of the Republicans, running side by side with the commercial moderates, market fundamentalists, libertarians and hawkists. Of course, there were no clear-cut lines between these factions. It is only natural for their ideas to comingle and co-legitimize with each other. Their rise to prominence is not something out of pure luck or petty brinkmanship, for they were aided by two major structural factors in modern American party politics.
First, partisan media, bordered by voting blocs, propped up after Regan revoked the Fairness Doctrine. With its foundation laid in 1949, it was enforced Federal Communications Commission’s, which required broadcasters to reserve some running time for the discussion of issues related to public interest and they must try its best to present views from different sides. Citing violation of the First Amendment, this was abolished in 1987 and the people were free to consume content conforming to their ideology, free from weighing between opposition perspectives and free from digesting inconvenient opinions. In short, space for public discourse was zoned off as echo chambers.
Especially in the South and the Midwest, with its sparse population and long-winded roads, drivers often had little entertainment other than listening to the radio and audiobooks. With little competition from other medium, radios hosts were the only voice for drivers (in fact, the lack of support from local influential radio hosts had led to Trump’s defeat in Wisconsin earlier this year). As many of these states had been pro-republican to begin with, these single-party oriented programmes sought to sloganeer and conspiracy theories to compete for listenership, tilting their audience further away on the political and intellectual spectrum. In the television industry, 1996 marked a watershed of the accumulative effect of the revokement of Fairness Doctrine: It was the year when Fox News, a channel tailor-made for the political Right, and MSNBC, its left-leaned counterpart, were founded and found themselves in the vicious cycle of demagoguery for viewership.
In the 2008 presidential election, baptized by the Fox News, many Republican voters firmly believed that Obama is a Muslim or that he is born in Kenya (Trump too played a key role in spreading these rumours, and 59% of Trump supporters still believed Obama is a Muslim). The ‘Tea Party movement’, erupted in mid-2010 among grassroots Republicans. Seeing those compromising to the Democrats as traitors, they launched an unyielding crusade on the Capitol Hill. The Movement ravaged through establishment Republicans, created a mess on the Capitol Hill and almost paralyzed federal institutions. The scars Tea Party created was still vivid in 2016, Ted Cruz ‘s seat in the Senate and, thus, presence in national politics was partly contributed to the chaos it created.
Nevertheless, Republicans’ blend of religious conservativism was not contributed solely by partisan media. The second, more crucial structural factor can be found in the details of America’s election system. Certain fallacies in the election system not only exacerbates the polarization of the two parties, they also limited the options for the voters who are excluded from the polarization and ultimately led to the co-occurrence of the ‘Trump Phenomenon’ and the ‘Cruz Phenomenon’.
▍The losers of ‘Sore Loser Laws’
Federal elections and state elections are run in a Single-Member Plurality system, meaning that each district only gets one seat. Duverger’s law states that it facilitates a two-party standoff while proportional representation provides breathing room for smaller parties. Normally, regulations would be put in place to limit hazards inherent to each electoral system: Deposits and entry barriers normally comes with proportional representation to cull the numbers of small political parties and prevent political fragmentation, while plurality voting system would be more lenient to small political parties as a lack of organized external challenge equals to political stagnancy.
However, the current system of US runs against this conventional wisdom. Since the Ballot Access Laws late 19th Century, a cluster of byzantine regulations, mushroomed under the shadow of the federal government to choke out minor political parties. Among them, the Sore Loser Laws were one of the most detrimental to the nation’s democracy. Restricting candidates from leaving their original party to participate in the elections after losing the intra-party primaries, they were first observed in 1906 and was relatively obscure until the Civil Rights Movement. Before 1967, only 15 States enforced the Laws to prevent candidates from running, now it has spread to 47 states, with most observed during the 70s and 80s, echoing the pace of the political polarization in the United States.
The Laws cut the moderates of both parties from enlisting median voters and by extension magnified the influence of radical voters in the primaries. In turn, this forced some candidates toward fringes of the political spectrum which leads to political segregation. In the Deep Red states of the Republicans, the Deep Blue States of the Democrats, or by gerrymandering manipulation, parties carved out safe districts to maintain their political presence. Without the challenge from other political parties, the magnification of the radical faction in the parties was exacerbated by the Sore Loser Laws.
It is thanks to the Laws that Tea Party became a thing. During the 2012 congressional election in Texas, moderate candidate David Dewhurst scored 13% more votes than Ted Cruz in the first round of the primaries. Yet, at the second round, he is defeated by Ted Cruz with a margin of 150,000 votes, a margin easily remedied in a state with 26 million people. Nevertheless, the Sore Loser Laws in Texas forbade Dewhurst from running, and can only watch Ted Cruz crushing the Democratic candidate with ease on his turf. The same has repeated ad nauseam since the Tea Party’s debut in 2010. Defeating soft Republicans by a small margin with their hardline supporters in deep red states, they gained the Tea Party 5 seats in the Senate and 40 seats in the House in 2010 and added 4 more senators (including Ted Cruz) in 2012.
However, even they can fell victim to the Laws. Regarded as a relatively radical member in the political spectrum of the Republican Party. the form majority leader in the House of Representatives and Tea Party Movement founder Eric Cantor was seen as the future Speaker of the House. In 2014, citing Cantor’s few compromises with Democrats, a lesser-known candidate, Dave Brat, accused him as an ‘imposter’ and successfully pulled a coup d’etat during Cantor’s bid for re-election. He became the first Majority leader to be defeated in the primaries. Barred by the Laws in Virginia, Cantor’s political career was stopped dead in its tracks.
Until now, the Laws left a deeper mark upon the Reds than the Blues. Reactionary idealism, partisan media and Fox News pouring gasoline on the fire, and, the distinct path in history, problem awareness and responses of the Democratic party － All of which contribute to the latter being (relatively) less polarized than the Republicans, which is why, compared to Cruz phenomenon, Sanders from the ‘far left’ was much tamer in temperament and demands. Though the Sore Loser Laws are limited to congressional and local elections and thus theoretically exert little direct influence on presidential elections, their polarization effects accumulate over time. Eventually, in 2017, it gained critical mass and Republicans ended up with a primary dominated by Trump and Cruz.
▍The core of Trump Phenomenon: Nativism
Second: His isolationist and protectionist diplomacy
Both the Republicans and the Democrats had been very proactive in foreign affairs. While the former leans towards the hawks and are more open to military options (especially for neo-conservatives like George Bush), the latter was relatively dovish, preferring international arbitration and multilateral dialogues as solutions. On the other hand, libertarians are often isolationists and marginal figures in the Party. Getting a mere 0.24% of the total votes in the primaries, Rand Paul soon announced his withdrawal and turned to support Trump. Though he promised to bomb the s_ _ _ out of ISIS, Trump spent more time criticising Obama spending too much on international affairs, to the point that her allies(NATO, South Korea and Japan) had been free-riding on the United States for protection. To this end, he suggested arming the latter two with nuclear weapons and let them deal with North Korea, and, not long ago, he even dusted off the isolationist slogan ‘American First’ from the 1930s. Much like Sanders, Trump too is against international free trade. Unlike most from his Party, he believed that free trade had starved too many Americans and fattened a few: high tariffs should be applied to alleviate the trade deficit and unemployment.
Third: his rejection of the Small Government
Even back in Reagan’s days, Trump was against the government’s tax reduction scheme, though his reasoning (“obstruction to innovation”) differed from the Democrats’ (“Broadening income gap”). In the primaries, although Trump, like many of his Republican colleagues, criticized the extensive abuse of welfare scheme by the lazy people (euphemistic to coloured minorities), he shied away from rolling back social securities, and, healthcare insurance for the disabled and elderlies, much like the ‘new democrats’ in early 1990s.
From these three points, one may not see anything special in Trump’s ideology. Except for his isolationism, it can be said that Trump was more of a moderate than most of his colleagues, let alone Ted Cruz. However, one thing unites these seemingly mundane policies and crystalized them into something far more potent and integral: Nativism.
Nativism is not something uncommon in American history: From the anti-catholic movement in the mid-nineteenth century, followed by sinophobia in west-coast, to the ‘second wave of KKK’ in the 1930s, again and again, newcomers in America were treated as scapegoats for the ‘real Americans’. Trump stands alone, however, as the first candidate to obtain a presidential nomination by relying solely on the nativist ideology. Though aided by events mentioned above, the emergence of another wave of nativism is apparent.
Nativism waxes when the nation wanes. Politically, people are tired of the perpetual gridlock on Capitol Hill. Frustrated by the federal government and congressmen, they yearned for an outsider who could really turn things around. Economically, since the financial crisis in 2008, America’s economic revival was a mixed blessing. Just from the numbers, the country finally gets its second spring, its GDP turning from negative growth to 2.4% per year, a 3.4% income growth in 2015 and a drop in the unemployment rate from 10% in 2009 to 5% in 2016. Yet most these recoveries came from the service sector (one that occupied 80.1% of America’s job market in 2014). Yet, this prosperity is not shared by everyone, as the manufacturing sector continued its downward spiral and most of the public felt the recovering economy is only tilting towards the ‘one percent’. Before 1980, the American family median income climbed at the same rate of national economic growth, but since then, their gap had been widening with the former stagnated since the 2000s: In 1971: the middle class and grassroots took up 61% and 14% of the population respectively and in 2015 the proportion became 50% and 21%. All while the top 1% doubled their percentage in national income from 10% to 20%.
For some voters, especially the social-pariah of blue-collar whites, their economic anxiety was intertwined with their identity anxiety. As Latino population ballooned and the whites showed a slow decline in proportion, it was estimated that the white population will amount to less than 50% of the total population in a couple decades, rendering the United States a multiracial nation without a majority race. With low-skilled positions being easily replaceable, blue-collar whites face fierce competition from immigrants (especially Latinos) and turned to blame conveniently those new immigrants who came illegally to “steal their jobs and topple their culture” for the tough job market they faced. Sensing this prevalent anxiety, he pledged, from the start of his campaign, to build a wall against Mexicans and Latinos. For Trump supporters, ‘America First’ had another meaning on top of its isolationist origin: it also means (white) American’s interests first.
Taking nativism into account, the reason behind Trump’s departure from Reaganists are obvious. Those waist-deep in financial difficulties obviously doesn’t want to see a government turning its back from social welfare and politicians bickering on socio-cultural issues without end. They were sceptical on the benefit of free trade and of America’s intervention on global affairs. Seeing them as a waste of American resource, they think the government should instead devote its capital and energy to domestic economic crises. Of course, terrorism and the so-called ‘Islamic State’ needs to be crushed with extreme prejudice, but NATO and Japan must step up their defence spending instead of leaning on the States. If the Muslims cannot stop themselves from terrorism, then we should just ban them from entering our country… The nativist identity of ‘real Americans’ was, once again, affirmed at the expense of erecting Muslims and Latinos as scarecrows.
Here we arrive at the answer to our initial question: Trump is the natural conclusion of decades of American republicanism. Has it not been the dog whistle politics since Reagan’s revolution, the ever-growing income gap created by Reaganomics, the Latinophobia and islamophobia flammed by far-right Republicans, the resource-draining and internationally condemned second Gulf War signed off by George Bush, the evangelicals’ recalcitrance on socio-cultural debates and the confrontationist Tea Party, Trump could never enjoy an audience so wide within his Party and nativism could not have single-handedly dominated the Republican primaries. In other words, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, the Fleurs du mal in contemporary modern American politics, had their seeds sowed at the eve of the Sixth Party System.