Devon Chenelle | Monday, January 25, 2016
One of the most memorable scenes in 2008 film The Dark Knight depicts Batman’s first encounter with the Joker. Upon viewing the gory video announcing the Joker’s entry into Gotham, Bruce Wayne despairs to his butler, Alfred, that the Mob “crossed the line” allying with a madman. Alfred replies with characteristic insight, telling Batman “you hammered them to the point of desperation. And in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
The Republican Party has lost five of the past six presidential popular votes, while surrendering ground on positions from gay marriage to healthcare. Republican support among non-whites remains low with no incipient signs of reversal as minorities are on track to outnumber whites by 2044 . It’s unsurprising that when, in 2009, a far-right protest movement stormed the nation, many establishment conservatives welcomed the Tea Party that was seemingly Republicans’ best chance at reversing Democrats’ successes.
The Tea Party became a launching pad for firebrand conservative politicians and newly ideological celebrities, among them Donald Trump. The Donald transitioned from reality TV to politics by addressing key Tea Party concerns, questioning Obama’s birthplace, vaccines’ efficacy and global warming’s existence. Eventually, seeking to harness Trump’s bombast and popularity, Republicans embraced him. I imagine once the size of his ambitions and political potential became apparent, GOP operatives wished to reverse the decision — though by then it was too late.
With shades of Henry IV’s supplication at Canossa, archetypal establishment Republican Mitt Romney ventured to Las Vegas in February 2012 to obtain Trump’s endorsement — and impart political legitimacy to him. In 2013, Republicans invited Trump to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference and to run for New York’s Senate seat. However, Trump’s ambitions exceeded a supporting role. When, last June, Trump entered the presidential race, most mainstream Republicans assumed he would be an annoyance, pulling the field rightwards before collapsing like so many populist conservatives before him.
Yet Trump was far too popular, rich and clever to be gradually sidelined. Just as the Joker caught Gotham’s old criminals flat-footed, Trump ran roughshod over the Republican primary’s stodgy contenders. Weeks from the Iowa primary, Trump continues to defy the accepted political wisdom and the ardent desire of his own party, as his polled voter numbers persistently hover around 15 percentage points above his nearest primary competitor. Though he is far from securing victory, each day Trump maintains his lead, he inches towards the nomination.
If Trump triumphs, it is not just because of a solitary and recent Republican “deal with the devil.” It will have been a development long in the making, for since Nixon’s 1968 Southern Strategy and Reagan’s alliance with activist evangelicals the GOP has shifted away from moderation and pragmatism and towards conservative populism. The Tea Party is the latest outgrowth of a trend towards dogmatic ferocity, a dogmatism now so pronounced that last October far-right congressmen deposed Speaker Boehner (whom The Atlantic called “probably the second most conservative speaker” in American history) for ideological impurity. This trend has been abetted by the GOP’s reliance on unbendingly conservative media, especially talk radio. Many of these outlets, particularly a cluster of online voices, are now among Trump’s most steadfast allies. Trump is not the primary frontrunner Republicans wanted, nor is he likely the one they needed. He is, however, certainly the one they deserved.
Democrats’ hands are not bloodless in the rise of Trump. The grassroots emphasis of Obama’s campaigns presaged and shared the demotic nature of Trumps’ run. Most significantly, both parties are complicit in the formation of a political system that encourages simultaneous public demagoguery and private begging of wealthy donors, while also driving the media to ignore the nuanced and highlight the attention-grabbing. Trump has exploited this system masterfully; he is an excellent demagogue, his wealth removes him from the necessity of donation begging, and his ratings appeal drives the media to cover each outrageous statement. Trump’s success is as much the result of American politics’ built-up systematic failings as it is the Republicans’ desperate alliance with the man.
Gotham’s criminals’ Faustian bargain unfolded predictably; the Joker eventually exterminated his former employers. Though I doubt Trump will destroy the GOP, his candidacy does bring America to a crossroads. Whether American politics embraces or recoils from Trump’s polarizing populism will determine much about our nation’s future. Nietzche wrote “beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster … for when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” America’s politicians have spent generations with eyes locked on the abyss of populism and partisan hatred. The abyss now gazes back in the form of a politically astute real-estate dealer. Let us hope the shock of reciprocation breaks, rather than amplifies, the stare.
Devon Chenelle is a sophomore in Keough Hall. He is a history major with an Italian minor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.