The Republican establishment is fleeing Donald Trump’s bid to be president. Although many GOP elected officials signed on to support Trump’s candidacy as a matter of party loyalty, the reality TV star does have a fair share of party loyalist-true believers: witness his surrogates Jeff Sessions, Chris Christie, and Rudy Giuliani, among others. Then, he has his other flank: populist voters stoked by the likes of alt-right demigod Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart News, as CEO of his campaign, and Roger Ailes, architect of Fox News.
The tension between Trump’s support from the establishment and the alt-right insurgency that fueled his primary victories has always been acute. Now it seems Trump is left with a rump-party of Republican support, and insufficient numbers of alt-right affiliated voters to win the presidency. The candidate was unable to unify his base–indeed, he made only perfunctory efforts to do so–and so it has torn itself apart.
But there is at least one thing that the GOP establishment and the alt-right movement share: the belief that the best way to defeat a political opponent is to delegitimize them in the eyes of the nation. This tactic goes beyond attacking an opponent on the strength of their ideas, their policies, or even their character. It’s an attack on their very right to participate in US political life. It’s an attack, essentially, on their existence. And Donald Trump has indicated he plans to take that strategy and one other to new lows against Hillary Clinton. If he were an elected official, he could be removed from office if he even tried to execute his plan.
The GOP has a history of attempting to delegitimize opponents by preying upon the human instinct to define ourselves in terms of in-groups and out-groups. Whereas this instinct once helped primitive humans defend scarce resources and fend off attacks, it has evolved, in modern society, into racism and xenophobia, the conjoined twins that threaten humanity’s progress at every turn. Delegitimization is a powerful tool that has often been twisted into the service of populist demagogues–but never before as effectively in the US as Republicans used it against Barack Obama.
Soon after the election of Obama, the largely white, male, homogenous Republican leadership settled on a strategy of casting him into the out-group rather than attacking–let alone working with–his policy initiatives as president. Mitch McConnell’s stated goal to make Obama a one-term president was a powerful message to his party that normal politics were out the window. Compromise would be viewed as complicity. The political atmosphere in Washington quickly became toxic.
But even before Obama was elected, coded attacks on his race weren’t enough. He was accused of being a secret Muslim, and, in the attack that gained the most traction, being born in Kenya. By casting Obama as “other,” the party was able to unify its dissent. Republicans had to stand against everything he proposed, even mundane tasks to keep government operating, let alone initiatives that had previously stood on the merits of bipartisan support, like the version of Obamacare in Massachusetts introduced by Republican governor Mitt Romney.
At times, the Obama administration has been able to use the delegitimization strategy against Republicans, to trap them–most notably on the debt ceiling talks that eventually cost House Speaker John Boehner his leadership position. But such traps are not always possible to execute.
So for most of Obama’s two terms, rather than reach any sort of compromise and advance reform on important issues like health care, immigration, trade, and gun safety, Republicans have blocked any movement that could potentially reverse or expose their blatant efforts to delegitimize the 45th president of the United States.
Even worse, this institutional policy of delegitimization gave rise to a populist insurgence that culminated in the birther movement—a movement fomented by the current Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, who only abandoned the position recently, once it crossed over from a stance that he could use to stoke his alt-right base to one that could only embarrass him with the broader electorate.
But Obama’s term is almost over. How will Republicans go after Hillary Clinton? We saw the successor strategy to the birther movement come to light during the second presidential debate last night (Oct. 9). Rather than engage in any serious discussion of policy (which, to be fair, Donald Trump seems congenitally incapable of), he attacked the very notion that Hillary Clinton deserved to be on the political stage. He threatened to send her to jail if he became president. He threatened to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate her—not just for her use of a private email server, but for her “situation,” which can easily be construed as an open-ended mandate to dig until enough spurious charges could be cobbled together as the basis for an indictment, a trial, and a conviction. (In a way, Republicans first saw this play in action as independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation into Whitewater and Vince Foster’s suicide morphed into exposing Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, resulting in his impeachment trial.)
This election cycle, Donald Trump has gone far beyond US political norms–never genteel to begin with–in the prosecution of his campaign. But Trump has engaged in two particular strategies that could easily be called treasonous were he to become president and take up an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.
First, he has threatened to question the legitimacy of the election results, should he lose. Unless he is absolutely blown out (which does look like an increasing possibility), he is almost certain to accuse Democrats of cheating to win the election. Second, he has taken up the institutional Republican mantle of delegitimization and written the playbook for how to refocus its beam of hatred from Obama’s dwindling second term to Hillary’s candidacy.
Imagine if a president Trump, down in the polls in his re-election bid, threatened to question the validity of the results should he lose. Imagine if he ordered his attorney general to start open-ended investigations into his political opponents. That’s what Trump is promising to do. If he loses, he will certainly not abandon his cries to throw Hillary Clinton in jail, even if he has to call them out from the sidelines, while starting a new alt-right media venture with Bannon.
America showed itself to be greater than succumbing to code words and dog whistles in electing Barack Obama twice. We should hope enough voters can see the Trump/Republican/alt-right playbook for what it is on this Election Day: a naked, desperate grab for power by a party that is out of the mainstream on almost every major social and policy issue the country faces today. And we should hope beyond that Republicans will abandon their delegitimization campaign and again become a party willing to engage on issues, and to compromise.