A political historian explains why Trump’s tape could destroy the GOP

The man who killed the Republican party.
The man who killed the Republican party.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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Republican politicians looked the other way when Donald Trump suggested that Mexicans were rapists. They ignored him as he made slurs against African Americans, threatened Muslims, mocked the disabled, and insulted prominent female personalities. These attacks were more extreme than the kind that Republican officials generally partake in. But they were of a piece with the narrative that the GOP has used to win voters for generations.

The release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasts of forcing himself on women, however, has proved to be too much for members of the Republican party to bear—precisely because it runs counter to the central GOP narrative. And the fallout looks as if it may destroy the modern Republican project as we know it.

For a generation, the Republican party has been held together by a simple story that activists laid out in the 1950s. Coming out of World War II, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Republican Party backed government policies that promoted equality of opportunity—projects such as education, infrastructure, government regulation, and social welfare. These policies were both effective and enormously popular. But wealthy men loathed government regulation and the taxes that an active government required. Calling themselves conservatives, they started a movement to undermine the idea that promoting equality of opportunity was the proper role for the American government.

They had a problem: Most Americans liked the government programs. So to push their agenda, movement conservatives rejected fact-based evidence and instead advanced a very simple narrative: hard-working white American men were under siege by minorities, women, organized workers, and “special interests” who wanted government handouts. Government policies that promoted equal opportunity were the very opposite of fair. They redistributed wealth from hard-working white men to lazy minorities.

Central to the portrayal of the conservative American individualist was the idea of his morality. The ideal conservative man worked hard, wanted (and needed) nothing from the government, and loved and protected his wife and children. This paternalistic image offered followers a return to an idealized past, assuring the people who were falling behind in the modern economy that there was a simple cause for their distress. If only the government could be purged from the influence of black people, minorities, lazy workers, and unfeminine women who demanded that the government help them get equal access to schools and jobs, good American men could get back to their traditional role: taking care of their children and their loving, homemaking wives.

Richard Nixon welcomed this narrative into the Republican Party when he won voters by embracing the Southern Strategy and rallying the “Silent Majority” of hardworking white men who were trying to support their families while shiftless protesters mobbed in the streets. Then, in 1980, Ronald Reagan won the White House by continuing to draw upon this idealized image of the conservative male American. He warned voters against the mythical “welfare queen”—a lazy black woman who stole tax dollars to live in luxury—and promised to defend regular, hardworking Americans against such leeches.

This image has fired up poor and working-class Republican voters ever since the Reagan era, even as movement conservatives passed legislation that undermined working American’s security by sucking wealth upward. It was this narrative that enabled extremists to capture the GOP in the 1990s, dismissing traditional Republicans as RINOs—Republicans in Name Only. Ever since, the movement conservative narrative has dominated the Republican Party. Anyone calling for the government to promote racial or gender equality is, according this script, a threat to America.

And so when Trump called Mexicans criminals and rapists, he simply took the movement conservative narrative to its next logical step. If minorities and women who demand equality are a threat to the nation, then all good Americans must work to purge them from the country. When he mocked the disabled, attacked Muslims, and called working women pigs and sluts, he was simply stripping the genteel veneer from the same story that movement conservatives had long advanced.

But Trump’s tape about forcing himself on women undercuts this narrative. It affronts the men who could back his attacks on people of color, minorities, and organized workers—in part because they justified this stance as necessary in order to safeguard their wives and daughters.

The vicious crudeness evident in Trump’s tape strips away such paternalistic excuses and reveals his criminal lust for dominance. It is an attack on the Republican narrative that hit home for men who had otherwise bought the movement conservative line. Many Republican voters could still think of themselves as decent Americans defending traditional values when they supported a man who talked of criminal immigrants or deporting Muslims. But a sexual predator who sees women as his prey is a direct threat to the traditional image of a man whose role is to cherish and protect.

And so the release of the Access Hollywood tape was the turning point for many Republican men because it undercut their image of what their ideology meant all along. Trump wasn’t about respecting and defending the traditional family after all; he was a rich thug who felt entitled to grab whatever he wanted.

This has given an opening for establishment Republicans who recognize that Trump is a loose cannon to toss him overboard as they could not when he was simply taking their own narrative about minorities, working women, and organized workers to the extreme. In fact, House speaker Paul Ryan used this contradiction to try to shore up the movement conservative vision when he tweeted after the tape’s release: “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified.”

Ryan’s tweet, and Trump’s continued free fall, suggests that the movement conservative narrative may finally be dying. The release of the tape may force regular Republican voters to face the reality that the movement conservatives’ demonization of minorities, organized workers, and women who demanded equality was never really about protecting hardworking American families. It was about creating a ruling class whose members could commit crimes against less powerful Americans with impunity. And so the vulgar boasting of a criminal thug may finally force the GOP to confront the ugly fantasy that has dominated its politics for a generation, and shock American politics back to decency.