The Republican Party is imploding. Party insiders are desperate to keep the nomination from Donald Trump. But their frantic machinations are rightly seen by the party faithful as condescending and anti-democratic. Americans are not bred to be sheep, we might hear the faithful say, and who the hell is Mitt Romney to tell us how we should vote? Understandably, they respond to this top-down pressure by tightening their embrace of Trump, and interpret the attacks on him as proof of his outsider bona fides. When centrifugal meets centripetal, the center—such as it is in the GOP—cannot hold.
As with so much in American politics, what matters in all this is what escapes notice. There is a background belief system so deeply ingrained and widely shared that no one detects its presence. Yet this belief system should be made explicit, since without it, these extraordinary events could never take place.
Fundamentally, the fracas reveals an unshakable faith in the myth of electoral responsiveness and the party system in the United States. The GOP faithful have so much confidence in the system they actually believe Trump will make a difference in their lives; and GOP elites have so much confidence in the system they actually believe the faithful will listen when lectured otherwise. Their delusions are not the same, but derive from the same misguided belief: Politics can solve the nation’s problems. If we tinker with the machine, we can make it work.
Consider first the enthusiastic support for Donald Trump. Trump’s message is a toxic mix of identity politics and populist braggadocio, both of which his supporters find wildly refreshing. Republicans tell pollsters they love Trump because he “tells it like it is.” He is plain speaking and unrehearsed. Donald Trump has no need of focus groups. On top of this, there is a vague promise of economic recovery. Factories that closed years or decades ago will reopen and times will be good, especially for the rural and suburban core of the Republican constituency. Put these pieces together and we have a vision of abundant, high paying, low skill jobs, untroubled by Mexicans or Muslims. All we need is the right man at the helm.
Yet there is no chance Trump—or any elected official—could make this happen. The President of the United States can do many things, but she cannot turn back the clock, put coal in the ground, or make a mill profitable when it has to compete with global wage scales and distribution networks. In time, the United States might regrow a manufacturing sector, but the days of high paying, low skill factory jobs are gone forever. Because it is cheaper to outsource low skill manufacturing jobs, a businessman trying to maximize his profits—like Donald Trump—will naturally build his plant overseas. In fact, if that work ever came to the U.S.—that is, if wage scales in this country were so low as to compete with the developing world—it would mean the United States had experienced an economic collapse unprecedented in American history. We should all hope workers in this country are never paid wages on par with those in developing nations.
If the president cannot wave a magic wand to change the reality of the global economy, she is even less able to turn back the tide of American demographics. As I have written elsewhere, the United States is growing steadily more urban, secular, diverse, and socially liberal. Demographers predict it will be majority minority by 2043, and for children under 18, by 2020. A majority of the youngest generation today is already non-white. Some might wish it were otherwise, but these trends are irreversible; the United States will no more return to being overwhelmingly white than women will retreat from the workforce.
And at the risk of stating the obvious, the president plainly cannot build a literal or metaphorical wall across the length of the 1,933 mile border between the United States and Mexico, nor can she impose an immigration plan that admitted only those Muslims prepared to lie about their religion. Any attempt at either approach would bankrupt the country in more ways than one.
People like Mitt Romney understand all this, which is why he denounced Trump as a “con man,” a “phony,” and a “fraud.” Romney understands full well that Trump cannot possibly create the world he promises. But herein lay the puzzle. Just as there is no chance Trump can create the world he promises, there is no chance his deluded flock can be convinced of his policy impotence. Romney’s speech was thus utterly futile. Not only do Trump’s supporters want the world he describes, which is bad enough, they seem to think Trump can blink and make it so. They genuinely believe the American political system is fundamentally responsive to their demands, and that it simply needs a Great Man, chosen through customary channels, to make things right. The structural limitations imposed by economic, technological, constitutional, and demographic realities, which combine to constrain the choices available to any politician or policy-maker, are utterly invisible to them.
The explanation for this misguided faith is not particularly hard to understand. For one thing, all of us have been nursed from a young age to believe that elections matter—and they do, at least at the margins. Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz would certainly appoint different Supreme Court justices. But in popular mythology, the importance of elections is surely exaggerated. We are raised to think that any problem can be solved by different elected leaders, who in turn would change the law, change the courts, and change the future. All will be well, if only we vote the right people into office. This of course deliberately obscures structure.
Relatedly, a belief that elections matter provides the state with an important source of political stability. Most adults can vote, but not many can alter the economic, technological, demographic, or constitutional constraints on American life, to say nothing of the constraints imposed by international actors. Few Americans indeed can do much about China’s decision to devalue the yuan, including the president. Faith in elections thus allows people to nurse an illusion that the world is within their collective control. Woe unto the Western democracy that tells its people that nothing they do makes a whit of difference to the conditions that most shape their fate.
No doubt there are other reasons that help explain why elections hold such a sacred place in the American heart, including the psychological value in believing that better things are never more than a November away. Every Cubs fan knows the value of the improbable vow, “wait till next year.”
Yet if the GOP faithful are lost in a delusion, they at least are not alone; party elites labor under a delusion of their own. It is the mistaken belief that the party system not only works as they intended it—that is, to catapult certain people and viewpoints into political power—but that it remains under their control. They suppose, against all logic, that a long history of coded racial appeals and xenophobic rhetoric, along with the oft-repeated promise that every vote matters, can be swept away like cigarette butts on the sidewalk. They believe, in other words, that symbols—the lifeblood of all political speech—have no independent significance. The depth of this belief explains why people like Mitt Romney are so shocked and surprised by the angry, nativist mob in the Republican streets, hungry for a champion who will not stop at veiled innuendo and will finally take the GOP philosophy to its natural resting place.
The end result is ironic. Blinded by symbols, the GOP faithful cannot see the structures that make it impossible for any politician to deliver what they seek. So they latch onto the Great Man, who is pure symbol, liberated from structure and devoid of substance. Party elites, meanwhile, cannot see the symbols they created. So they warn about a Clinton landslide and party suicide, as though the hollow shell of the Republican Party were the only thing that deserved to be rescued from the imminent implosion. And both groups are blinded by the belief that the solution to their respective travails can be found in the ballot box.
In this essay, I have focused on the delusions that bedevil the GOP, but only because of their present prominence. Under the right circumstances, the same would no doubt be true of the Democrats. For now, however, that is not their fate. For the moment, in the grip of dueling delusions, it is the GOP that hurtles toward oblivion.