It now looks like Hillary Clinton is going to join Paul Ryan in attacking the “alt-right” as embodied by Trump, some failed congressional candidates, and a bunch of mostly anonymous Internet jerks. Ryan and Clinton both have their reasons.
Clinton benefits from making the election a constrained choice between herself and Trump’s most outrageously racist supporters. Ryan stands to win the GOP’s internal struggle if Republicans feel like they face a constrained choice between Ryan’s favored policy mix (expanded immigration, entitlement cuts, tax cuts, free trade) and David Duke
But I think that there is another way to think about Trump. He is less the expression of some rising alt-right ideology (which most of Trump’s predominately older voters have never heard of) than a symptom of the weakening of the bonds holding Republican voters together.
Before he became a Clinton stooge, Sidney Blumenthal was a sharp critic of mid-1980s American liberalism. He noted that Democratic politicians were trying to hold together the party by New Deal nostalgia but that “the bonds were loosened and the energy was dissipating — the definition of physical entropy.”
Blumenthal argued that the FDR coalition was held together by “social debts” of people who felt they owed their prosperity and status to FDR. They didn’t feel like they owed those same debts to succeeding politicians, and so the bonds weakened. Liberal suburbanites voted for the unstable Senator Gary Hart over the establishment-favored Walter Mondale. Large numbers of African Americans voted for Jesse Jackson even though he, like Trump, hardly pretended to be ready to do the job of president.
Doesn’t that describe the situation of Trump’s Republican opponents? Jeb Bush talked about how he was a budget-balancing and tax-cutting governor of Florida. Rubio tried to remind people of Reagan’s optimism. Cruz tried to market himself as the vessel of Reaganite purity. They all learned that, for about 40 percent of the party’s voters, the Reagan-era bonds had weakened so much that even an obvious con artist could sunder them. There is reason to doubt that those bonds of nostalgia will get stronger in the years to come.
That doesn’t mean that the future belongs to Trump, or the alt-right, or anyone else in particular. It means that the future is open to political entrepreneurs who recognize that Reagan nostalgia is insufficient.
Blumenthal also had a harsh description of those who thought they could fix the party’s problems by changing the rules to prevent the nomination of insurgent candidates:
By forging these rules, the establishment believed it would bring back to life the world as it ought to have been. . . . Only eccentric interlopers, in their view, had prevented the party from its natural self-expression.
Perhaps the Republican leadership will avoid the mistakes of the 1980s Democrats. Don’t bet on it. Bet on entropy.